The Great Left Behind-a-Palooza

The Great Left Behind-a-Palooza June 13, 2015

Y’all remember I converted to Pentecostalism in the wake of a huge Rapture scare–the “88 Reasons” scare, specifically. Our church had a private religious school onsite, whose classrooms were repurposed for Sunday School every weekend. One day I was in Sunday School and noticed a book in the schoolroom’s little bookcase (I suspect I’ve always had the habit of scanning bookcases when visiting places). It was a Young Adult novel about the Rapture–an odd choice of reading material considering that classroom seemed to be for very small children, but it looked like the kind of science-fiction thing I might like. The Sunday School teacher said I could borrow it if I left a note for the regular teacher there and made sure to return it next weekend, so that’s what happened.

I don’t think it was part of the actual long-running Left Behind series. It might have been A Thief in the Night, but the point is that it wasn’t particularly different or noteworthy compared to its many brethren. These things are like pornos; originality is actually a distraction and plots are secondary to the money shots.

As far as its eschatology went, it was a little iffy from a United Pentecostal point of view, but in my memory of it the book still it hit all the high notes: a political system whose greed and ruthlessness had only been held in check by the Christian god and his truest followers, a United Nations that was way more powerful than the United Nations ever could be, the hero’s utter mystification about just what had happened that lasted way longer than one would guess, and that thing about male Jewish virgins that most of these Christian Rapture-porn novels obsess about (easily the weirdest and most-obviously-mystical element in an already mystical idea), and so forth.

The book I read was a fictionalization of how society was going to fall apart and everything was going to go to hell in a handbasket, a subject those sorts of Christians love well. My then-boyfriend and later then-husband Biff himself was downright entranced by the topic and had a whole box full of diagrams, papers, tracts, newspaper clippings, and books he’d accumulated (this was in the late 80s and early 90s, before the internet was really big, so if a conspiracy theorist needed to keep track of stuff, s/he’d have to deal with a whole lot of paper), and he was far from alone in having such a curated collection of bullshit. I probably heard some new theory/guess about the Rapture and Tribulation once a week in my community. I was too young to really understand the conspiracy-theorist mindset, which I’d not encountered at all in Catholicism, so all of this convoluted illogic and tortured reasoning was too much for me to follow–or resist.

The idea of the Rapture was terrifying to me; it played on all of my worst fears of the unknown. Though I didn’t go down the conspiracy-theory rabbit hole alongside Biff, Christian leaders’ fearmongering campaign about being “Left Behind” fell on fertile soil in my mind. Back then nobody really had access to all the debunks of the Rapture that we do today. Certainly nobody in my environment was offering any reasons not to believe in this tosh–as indeed popular apologist William Lane Craig does here, in response to the Nicolas Cage version of the movie Left Behind (and yes, it’s kind of mystifying that a site like Christian Post talks about WLC like they’ve never heard of him before in their lives). As Mr. Craig puts it,

“It is astonishing, if I’m correct about this, American evangelism is very widely misled, that it has departed from the historic Christian position about the second coming of Christ. That’s really rather sobering, because if we’re wrong about this, what other things might we have misinterpreted?”

What, indeed.

Left Behind is one of the most popular Christian fiction series ever devised. Wikipedia says it boasts 16 novels, four movies (one being the one we’re watching today), and a video game franchise. A movie version of the first book came out in 2000 starring Kirk Cameron (looking his very most earnest on the DVD cover), but I never saw it. I’m told reviewers who’ve seen both this older one and Nicolas Cage’s more recent version prefer the older one. Allow to simmer in your mind for a moment a universe where a Kirk Cameron effort is considered far superior to a Nicolas Cage one. That’s a universe where nothing at all makes sense anymore.

Let’s plunge in.

Left Behind

The hooch: Extremely cheap brandy I found in the back of my grandparents’ 1930s-era liquor cabinet, which will be drunk from a shotglass screen-printed with yellow canary cartoon birds chirping “Tweet Tweet!”. I have no idea where the brandy came from; I probably got it years ago to use for making rum balls.

The screen: My 21″ Mac monitor because the TV broke ages ago and I never got around to fixing it or getting a new one.

To my astonishment, a quick search on Netflix revealed not only the new version of the movie but also the original Kirk Cameron version–and the two Kirk Cameron sequels. I feel like a five-year-old on Christmas morning suddenly. I’d say we’re set.

Oh my god this is awful brandy. I want you people to know how much I love you.

Airport scene. Bookstore. An earnest, extremely cheerful lady buys a book called Acts of God in the airport bookstore. There are lots of books that really are called that for sale on Amazon’s site, but I doubt any of them were written by the author “Cameron (Buck) Williams.” Dear god in heaven, this is going to be that kind of movie. I’m trying to remember if I’ve ever seen a book author labeled with a nickname in parentheses like that and I can’t, but then, we’re dealing with a wish-fulfillment compensation fantasy and not a realistic situation.

Lea Thompson is still beautiful as she explains to her daughter, who’s just arrived in town, that her daddy won’t be at his own birthday celebrations. The daughter realizes she can catch him right there in the airport and rushes off while the mother stares wistfully at a family photo. The photo is worth mentioning because it is such a great indication of the half-assed nature of this movie: they clearly didn’t think it was worth the bother to get a group photo of the actors in this honker and just dropped Nicolas Cage in by Photoshop. There is a downright surreal vibe to that photo.

Screengrab from Left Behind. I will be hugely disappointed if the people in it don't start vanishing limb by limb as the movie progresses.
Screengrab from Left Behind. I will be hugely disappointed if the people in this photograph don’t start vanishing limb by limb as the movie progresses.

And to our astonishment, BUCK WILLIAMS is in the airport signing autographs for his adoring public. The earnest, cheerful lady from the bookstore starts lecturing him about the Bible’s predictions of disasters and Lea Thompson’s daughter starts ripping her to bits because that’s what all non-Christians do. I’d heard about this argument, but I had thought the daughter (whose name is Chloe, I think) was just picking on her target, but no, actually Cheerful Lady deserves this bit of roaming Straw Atheism and had that ripping-into coming to her. The daughter moves on but BUCK WILLIAMS is staring at her like she just spouted the formula for cold fusion. I am putting that name in all caps because I get the feeling that’s how the authors of Left Behind think of it. When you say it or think of it, think of how an old-style radio announcer would say it and you’ve got the movie’s general treatment of him.

Now we cut to a hussy in a car putting on her lipgloss. She wears fancy sunglasses and a scarf around her neck and has short hair, so we know she’s bad news. As she’s pulling up, Nicolas Cage does as well–and removes his wedding ring because the short-haired woman doesn’t realize he’s married or something despite having obviously worked around him for a while.

BUCK WILLIAMS finds Chloe sitting alone and introduces himself: “Cameron Williams… BUCK to my friends.” She responds wittily that she is “Chloe Steele… CHLOE to my friends.” He thanks her for “rescuing” him. I actually like Chloe so far even if she plays the pronoun game with him to say she’s waiting for someone else.

When Chloe sees her dad for the first time, the short-haired hussy is wearing his hat and giggling her ass off. Chloe is understandably perturbed, but her dad rushes up to hug her hello. When he sees BUCK WILLIAMS, he is blown away and we get our second absolutely surreal moment in the movie when one of the most arguably famous and recognizable actors of our age has to tell a damned-near unknown actor, “You’re Cameron Williams! Holy cow!” and act totally star-struck and impressed, or at least as much as he can manage while looking like he is on horse tranquilizers.

A moment to talk about Nic Cage’s performance. He is more understated here than I have ever seen him.  As Chloe describes how her mother’s religious zealotry (which she describes as “[drinking] the Kool-Aid” and which he rationalizes by saying that “if she’s going to run off with another man, why not Jesus?”) has divided the family and caused divisions in all their relationships, he responds as if talking about his young son’s English-class performance.

Nicolas Cage gives Chloe a tepid hug and rushes off to the plane for his flight to London at 3:35, and right afterward BUCK WILLIAMS declares himself an “investigative journalist, remember?” by way of talking further to her, because there is nothing young women like more than creepy guys hitting on them with threats of using them for future news articles they’re writing.  One gets the weird feeling that the authors of this dreck actually think that’s how human beings interact.

Now we’re on the plane. The blonde flight attendant has a tight-fitting (poorly-fitting, even) blouse that shows off cleavage and a distinctly sexy-looking neckerchief, and she laughs uproariously at Nicolas Cage’s bad jokes because she is hitting on him; the other flight attendant–dressed sensibly–does not laugh and does not approve. Nicolas Cage’s co-pilot looks exactly like Ted from Dilbert. This brandy is starting to taste unexpectedly good. Maybe it’s like Gatorade: if you need it, it’s delicious.

Chloe and BUCK WILLIAMS continue to flirt by talking about people killed in mudslides in a tsunami because that’s how real people totally flirt all the time. Chloe asks if he ever tried to find a meaning for those deaths, which makes me wonder exactly how much of a non-Christian she is; I don’t tend to wonder about that stuff at all because I know that there really isn’t a meaning for senseless stuff and I don’t have to bash my brains out about it. I’ve never heard non-believers wonder about that stuff. But Christians wonder about it, and this movie and book were made by Christians, so obviously it must have even non-Christians wondering about it. They might not even be capable of understanding a world where people don’t contort themselves to find cosmic significance in natural disasters.

Meanwhile, the blonde flight attendant talks to her sensibly-dressed friend about how she’s going to do the deed with Nicolas Cage in London. A guy drives up to Chloe and gives her U2 tickets to their London concert, and she realizes that her dad actually cut on his family to go to the concert. She gives the tickets to BUCK WILLIAMS and asks him to give them to her dad. That makes no sense at all–why didn’t the guy give them to Nicolas Cage himself? Why did he wait till the last boarding call to drive up? Did Nicolas Cage really plan his London vacation around U2’s concert when he didn’t even have tickets? Who the hell thinks U2 is a band anybody cares about anymore? He might as well be this interested in Mannheim Steamroller tickets. This whole subplot makes no sense at all.

We meet our carefully-diverse selection of first-class passengers: a hostile midget, a cheerful obese black man who eats candy and talks with his mouth full, a Muslim in a white hat, and lots of children. An old lady recognizes BUCK WILLIAMS but thinks he’s Frank Sinatra because she is clearly senile while a high-strung blonde socialite type lady sits down and a mean white rich dude talks loudly on his cell phone, and later an Asian engineer type who shares big secrets about the “hyperjet” and fucks with the mean white rich dude by saying he thinks this “hyperjet” was reverse-engineered from Area 51 secrets. The movie treats the plane’s takeoff like it is the fucking Mars landing.

Chloe drives dad’s car home (finding his wedding ring, of course, and having a Sad Moment) and her kid brother demands a present–and finds one in her bag, declaring not at all artificially and contrivedly, “The brand new baseball glove that I’ve been asking for! No way!” because that is how ten-year-old boys talk all the time. That’s how this movie works–it has no idea how to handle exposition. She talks to her mom about how hot BUCK WILLIAMS was, and almost accuses her mother of being crazy. I feel so sorry for Lea Thompson. She’s doing as good a job as she can but this is horrible material. She preaches at her daughter very earnestly and shows her the Crazy Eyes, but all it does is show us that she’s such a tiresome religious zealot that she can’t even let her daughter come home and get settled without haranguing her about religious bullshit.

After a heated argument with her mother, Chloe takes her brother out shopping while Lea Thompson watches them leave. I wonder if it’ll be the last time we ever see the mom. This movie likes to hit people over the head with stuff. At the mall they see breakdancers who I am 100% positive are here as part of a favor payback with the director. Chloe loses her brother and finds him again watching a toy-drone demonstration. We know the Rapture is going to involve kids disappearing–that’s a damned-near-universal trope in the literature–so it’s just a little foreshadowing. Later when the kid tells Chloe that her mother never removes a particular necklace, we know we’ll be seeing it again soon.

Nicolas Cage shows the blonde flight attendant (whose name is Hattie Durham, I think, and wow, that is shockingly awful) the U2 tickets and she purrs at him that she’ll find a way to “pay you back” because hot blonde flight attendants are whores who prostitute themselves for tickets to bands who stopped being relevant before they were even born.

AND THEN IT HAPPENS.

Chloe is hugging her brother in a touching moment in the food court at the 1/3 mark of the movie. A “bwooosh” sound effect happens and suddenly she’s hugging his empty clothes–because the boy has vanished. OMG OMG OMG OMG OMG OMG.

Parents everywhere are noticing their kids are gone, and that includes in the mall and on the plane. Parents go berserk looking for their children. Clothing in kids’ sizes float down and fall everywhere.

On the plane, disaster happens. The fat obese black guy is gone. The little black girl is gone. Ted the Co-Pilot is gone. Chaos results. Maybe someone should tell these dipsticks that planes don’t get flown by hand, so the plane wouldn’t actually bank like that. Nicolas Cage gets things under control while the rest of the plane seems like that scene in Airplane!where everybody goes nuts. Too bad Jesus wasn’t their co-pilot. BUCK WILLIAMS films everything. Parents seem curiously incurious about searching the rest of the plane and want to talk to the captain as if that’s going to fix everything. Nicolas Cage decompresses the plane to get everyone else to sit down, which seems pretty clever really.

A driverless car plunges through the mall wall and almost hits the stunned Chloe, who is still looking at her brother’s empty clothes. Looters in the mall start tearing the place apart. Emergency vehicles are still in action though, because only godless heathens are EMTs. Maybe emergency-service providers need to start asking questions like “are you a Christian?” on applications. I bet there’s a serious market for atheist EMTs in Christian-heavy societies. It’s like child-free teachers–you know they’re not going to be distracted at key moments. (No, I don’t really think that.)

Damage control begins.

Apparently all air-traffic controllers are fundagelical Christians, because Nicolas Cage can’t raise anybody by radio. Too bad none of those EMTs chose to go into air-traffic control. Also apparently cell phone satellites and towers are also fundagelical Christians because his cell phone refuses to get signal. I should mention that at 20,000 feet, it’d be tough to get signal anyway, but the movie treats universal everywhere coverage as a thing (sort of like how 2012 did). Tranquilized Nicolas Cage tells the passengers to shut up and sit down in one of the few really good moments he’s had so far. The airplane scenes look like they’re being done at a high school on a carefully-draped auditorium stage.

Chloe is still looking for her brother, which is weird given that she was hugging him when he vanished, and a small private plane hits her dad’s car in the parking lot. Yes, out of every single car it could have hit, it hits her dad’s car. Why do Christians always think this is what society will look like if they vanish from it? Are they really that damned insecure?

Yeah, I reckon so.

Hattie has a freakout over the discovery that her sensibly-dressed flight-attendant colleague has vanished, leaving behind her sensible uniform. Nicolas Cage comforts her in private, and I mean he actually tries to comfort her. The movie carefully presents them in Eiffel Tower hug formation, not full-body pressing because that’d just be licentious. By the way, I just made bread and it came out really well and this brandy is actually pretty good. Airplane! was much better at comforting freaked out flight attendants.

The movie seems like it’s shaping up to be a “dangerous journey” in two parts. Chloe has to get, um, somewhere (home?) and her dad has to land a plane without help from the tower while BUCK WILLIAMS takes video of freaked out parents because BUCK WILLIAMS is an investigative journalist and he doesn’t afraid of release forms anything. Oh god, I can’t be just barely 1/3 through this. A young mother crying her eyes out talks about how her baby just vanished from her arms and she has no idea what happened. Nobody on the plane seems to have any idea what’s going on.

Chloe, going home on foot, gets robbed. She sees an empty schoolbus plunge over an embankment, because not only were there tons of underaged kids on board but the driver must have been a fundie. On the plane, the rich white socialite does street drugs in the bathroom amid minor-tones of solemn piano music. The movie cuts back and forth constantly, not letting audiences get invested in either story. Chloe records a voicemail message to her brother asking him to call her, because she apparently forgot she was holding the kid when he vanished. The movie needs her to do something else so that’s what’s happening.

Nicolas Cage is about to hit another plane and avoids it. There is never a point at which we think the planes might collide. I’m writing this before the planes even come close and even I know that. I guess the screenwriters forgot that planes aren’t piloted by hand for this fiction; the other plane is being auto-piloted because both its pilots were fundies. Mr. Captain just reminded me that in this case, you dive, not climb. The planes brush against each other and now Nicolas Cage tells the nonexistent tower that “repeat, this is an emergency.”

Chloe sees a guy get shot out of a door marked as belonging to an attorney’s office. The long-haired attorney almost shoots Chloe too. I guess looters always look for attorneys’ offices. On the plane, the Asian engineer speculates that the “weapon” that vanished half the passengers is of alien origin. On the ground, EMTs–all godless heathens clearly–help people into ambulances while news crews–who of course are godless heathens–cover the chaos on the ground.

Chloe heads for a hospital because where else would her brother be? Remember, the brother she was holding when he vanished? Obviously he ended up here. Thank goodness for godless heathen doctors, huh? She has possibly the worst crawling-through-a-broken-glass-window stance I’ve ever seen, but I haven’t crawled through many windows so what do I know. But inside, all these godless heathen cops and doctors are busy with patients. The newborn ward is totally empty; the baby doctors and nurses are all vanished. (Um, why does she think a 10-year-old boy will be there?) Nobody minds if she wanders around; none of the godless heathen doctors stop her from heading into a protected ward. A curiously-knowledgable patient tells her all the babies are gone as well as children and nobody knows what’s happening, because someone needs to tell the audience.

Mr. Captain wants to say at this point that the way Nicolas Cage is dealing with the fuel leak that inevitably occurs is all wrong as well. He had a pilot’s license once so I’m inclined to listen to him. He had a lot to say but I can’t remember it all so I’m leaving that here. The leak stops flaming but Nicolas Cage still talks like he is tranquilized.

Chloe gets home at last–it’s daytime for her, though it’s nighttime for her dad–and sees people missing everywhere in her old neighborhood. She throws her mother’s old Bible through the window. Meanwhile, Nicolas Cage paws through the sensible flight attendant’s stuff and discovers that her watch has a Bible verse printed on it.

Everyone in this movie is insanely stupid or stupidly insane. The flight crew in the air paws through other vanished passengers’ stuff and finds Christian detritus everywhere. Nicolas Cage confuses Hattie, who says “You’ve never spoken about God before,” and he tells her that he’s getting the ideas from his wife. In the passenger area, an NFL football player’s babymama and angry black lady has gotten a handgun on the plane and is threatening to shoot people if they don’t tell her where her daughter has gone off to. I don’t know how she got the gun on board. Maybe athletes’ babymamas have better connections than Mafia dons. It doesn’t matter. BUCK WILLIAMS defuses her. (I’m crazy about the drug-addled white socialite, who wears dark glasses for most of the movie and is SO OVER THIS SHIT; wherever the fucks might be, she has not even one to give.)

Next Chloe visits her mom’s church and finds her pastor there in an empty building, who tells her “[God] did, Chloe, just like he promised: in the blink of an eye.” On the plane, the rich white socialite tells the gun-toting footballer’s babymama about the Rapture using every word available except “Rapture.” They get the gun away from the crazy lady using the time-tested “I’ve totally been there too” emotional over-sharing.

Hattie gets mad at Nicolas Cage for lying to her about his wife. I can totally see why she ends up with the Anti-Christ. On the ground, the pastor tells Chloe he never really believed. She explodes at him about how “good” it was that these people got taken away, and he tries to tell her that it was for their own good. I’m going to take a shot right now because I am motherfucking on Team Chloe here as she lectures the pastor about how relatively moral and good it is that all this is happening. Mr. Captain is listening while he plays some new game he just got called Salt and telling me that “radios don’t work that way,” and again I will have to take his word for it but I’m not surprised that the Left Behind authors might have gotten critical details about radio operation incorrect. He’s also pointing out that one must raise a plane’s nose to land on land too and that there are more ways to do it than this movie thinks there are.

Chloe is about to kill herself by jumping off a bridge, because that’s what people do in natural disasters. But at the last second BUCK WILLIAMS calls her to tell her he’s got her dad on the phone so everything is okay. She climbs down off the bridge and finds a pickup truck whose owner was a fundie and drives off. Her dad needs a runway, so she uses the truck to clear one for him. I am informed that this was not a bad idea. TEAM CHLOE wins again. Her dad needs a flare, something huge and bright, and though this is a construction zone there aren’t any flares or anything like that around.

Chloe’s response is to pour gasoline everywhere and start a fire because Hollywood gasoline is hugely flammable. The resulting explosion is immediately visible to the plane’s pilot and not mistaken for chaos- and rioting-caused explosions presumably happening all over town. The plane almost hits the flammable-fuel tanker at the end of the runway and all is now well. Sort of. The rich old white dude helps Hattie fling people off the plane onto the slide. The Muslim tosses the hostile midget out and it’s clearly meant to be hilarious. I’m surprised they didn’t put in some fart jokes here.

Chloe hugs BUCK WILLIAMS first and only her dad as an afterthought. Her dad tries to make nice with Hattie before even finding his daughter. Hattie is still pissed and is having none of it.

The three principals look out over the fire-and-chaos-riddled city and BUCK WILLIAMS says it looks like the end of the world. Chloe says all thoughtfully, no, it’s “just the beginning.” Sequel fodder ahoy!

The Christian god is like a cat, you see, in that he likes to torture his prey for a while before striking.

Impressions:

This wasn’t nearly as bad as I’d thought it’d be. I mean I knew it’d be bad, and it really is. I’ve seen student films that are more cohesive, better paced, and more thoughtfully edited. But there are enough bright spots to qualify it as a low-end disaster movie. I really expected to hate this movie and I especially expected to hate the daughter. Yes, she does some harebrained stuff, but she’s the sole voice of reason in the whole movie.

Seeing the two main male characters was uncomfortable because they were very clearly what the authors wish they were. I’m just surprised to see Nicolas Cage’s character was called Rayford Steele and not DICK THROBBINGWOOD or something like that.

If you had to play a drinking game with this movie, you’d take a shot whenever Chloe rocks and whenever someone talks about the Rapture using any word besides “Rapture” (sort of like how zombie movies tend to avoid the Z-word). We’ll be talking about it further soon, but this review ought to put you in the right frame of mind for when we discuss more in-depth topics.

Was it worth seeing? It sure wasn’t as bad as Absolute Zero, no. It won’t expand your mind or make you convert or anything, but it wasn’t that bad. It doesn’t add anything to the conversation, is all, which makes it just as irrelevant as the band forming the subplot that underpins the whole movie.

Rating:

Nic Cage’s drug dealer: 10/10
Team Chloe: 8/10
Awesome Drug-Addled Socialite: 8/10
BUCK WILLIAMS: 0/10
DICK THROBBINGWOOD: 0/10
“Investigative Journalist”: 0/10
Enchantment Under the Sea: 0/10
I will fight anyfuckingbody who says this ain’t the best goddamn brandy anywhere anytime: 10/10

Total: 36/70

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