I was awake last night and thinking about that movie we reviewed recently, Nicolas Cage’s rebooted version of Left Behind, and I finally figured out what it was about it that annoyed me so badly.
Because, I mean, it’s not that the film was completely incompetent. There were elements of it that seemed like they might have worked adequately if they hadn’t been forced to shoulder a mawkish, poorly-delivered fundagelical sermon. It wasn’t nearly as horrible as the one we did before, God’s Not Dead. But lord, it ain’t good.
I finally realized how this movie missed the boat.
This reboot of Left Behind is actually an imitation of a bog-standard disaster-on-a-plane movie. Pull up a seat and let’s talk about its similarities to another take on the genre: 1980’s Airplane!.
Two Settings, Both in Crisis Mode.
Airplane!: A food-borne illness on a cross-country flight wipes out both the plane’s pilots and quite a few of the passengers, leaving the rest of the passengers doomed unless someone can take the wheel. Meanwhile, the airport’s tower crew scrambles to find someone qualified to help the plane’s new pilot land the plane safely. The premise itself is a time-tested example of the genre; there’s nothing played for laughs about the general idea and audiences will empathize with the general urgency on display here. Because of that believable premise, the reactions of the people in the movie can be a little outlandish.
Left Behind: “God” vanishes all the children and TRUE CHRISTIANS™ from the world, which includes apparently the co-pilot and quite a few of the passengers, leaving the plane doomed unless the competent, fully-trained and qualified on-duty pilot can land it. Meanwhile, the loss of children and TRUE CHRISTIANS™ alike has plunged society into devastating chaos, forcing the pilot’s daughter to navigate her way home and eventually to help her dad land his plane. The premise is a ridiculous and unlikely situation, one that non-Christians do not consider compelling. If the premise is that fantastical, then the rest of the movie needs to be doubly compelling in terms of how the people in it react to that premise.
A Pilot, Alone and Lonely.
Airplane!: Ted Striker flew in an unspecified war as a gifted fighter pilot, but now he’s traumatized because of a mistake he thinks he made that led to many deaths. His brooding has lost him everything including numerous jobs and Elaine, his one true love, who happens to be a stewardess; directly after their breakup, he follows her onto her flight and becomes pivotally embroiled in the events of that fateful evening when the lives of everyone on that flight depend on a man with a serious drinking problem. Because he’s played so straight, with little sense of humor at all, he makes a great foil for the silly things happening around him.
Left Behind: Rayford Steele is a fully-qualified, licensed pilot for a major airline. He might seem like he “has it all”, with a sexy little convertible, a palatial McMansion in an expensive suburb, and a beautiful family, but his wife is becoming increasingly alienated from him due to her excessive religious zealotry (oh the humanity!). He was scheduled to pilot the plane on its fateful journey, so that’s why he’s there. And I don’t think, after seeing him horse around with his crush Hattie, that anyone could accuse this guy of having a well-developed sense of humor. He acts more like those old rich white dudes who make jokes and then look around the table to see who’s laughing (and then get offended if people don’t laugh!); this weird self-indulgence doesn’t fit with his character’s position as an airline pilot, which is a glamorous job only in the eyes of the authors of Left Behind. In reality it isn’t generally very glamorous at all–low-paying grunt work with obscenely long hours.
A Cute Stewardess with a Thing for the Hero.
Airplane!: Elaine was Ted’s lover during and after the war, but she’s finally fed up with his inability to move on from his dark past (this was before we knew much about PTSD). She still loves him and wishes things were different, but she needs a man she can respect and Ted’s just not that man anymore. All in all, it’s a pretty straightforward relationship drama. When the passengers need her to depend on and help Ted, though, she puts her personal drama aside.
Left Behind: Hattie Durham is a hot, sexy, hypersexualized young woman who is apparently totally unaware that her stable-seeming, boring, humorless, staid, middle-aged pilot boyfriend-wannabe is actually totally married with kids. All we know about her is that she is fiendishly crazy about the old band U2 and will happily offer her body in thanks for getting tickets to see them–and doesn’t even wonder why a guy like Rayford would care about an 80s pop band that hasn’t been relevant in 20 years. It’s hard to imagine this sort of drama occurring anywhere but in a fundagelical’s sex-obsessed imagination of what non-believers’ love lives look like. When Rayford Steele accidentally lets slip that he’s married, Hattie drops him like a rock in mid-disaster and acts pissed at him the rest of the movie–because women obviously have priorities when a plane’s about to crash and civilization as we know it has ended. (Slacktivist, in his outstanding series dissecting the books, has beautifully analyzed the sick dynamics at work between Hattie, who is a sort of personification of All Women Who Are Not Believers for fundagelicals to bash and pile misfortune upon, and the uber-manly and later uber-Christlike Rayford.)
A Strangely Helpful Passenger.
Airplane!: One of the passengers, Dr. Rumack, keeps everybody corralled and moving in the right directions mentally. He’s the one who diagnoses the illness that struck down so many people on the flight, and he’s the one who keeps the flight crew’s spirits up. But don’t call him Shirley. Flight-disaster movies always need at least one doctor, and usually he (or she, or they, as in an episode of House) will be strangely helpful.
Left Behind: Buck Williams is a nonfiction author who seems to favor covering natural disasters. He’s just a passenger on the plane when “God” disappears all the children and TRUE CHRISTIANS™. We are told that he’s got a real gift for organizing and calming down hysterical groups of people, though his actions don’t really support that idea. He’s here primarily because Rayford has to fly the plane; otherwise, the dialogue and behaviors of the two men are identical.
A Secondary Stewardess Who Isn’t Quite On Board With All This.
Airplane!: Randy is a hot blonde stewardess who, while capable and competent, is having a lot of trouble dealing with her own imminent demise. I mean, she doesn’t even have a husband!
Left Behind: I have no idea what the other female stewardess’ name is (Kimmy? I don’t know), but she is neither hot nor blonde and she’s there to do a job for Jesus, which she does competently and without fanfare or hoopla. Her limited screen time is mostly spent disapproving at Hattie and Rayford. She’s there mostly so the crew can find her “left behind” Jesus-jewelry.
A Calculatedly-Diverse Bunch of Passengers.
Airplane!: Casting includes people of color, white people, old people, kids, even a Hindu and a pair of robed Hare Krishnas. They’re all pretty interesting and all have facets that mark them as atypical for their appearance–the jive-talking black men are actually quite philosophical and introspective (and when a translator for their speech is needed, the actress who played Beaver Cleaver’s mom shows up to help); a sweet, moralistic little old lady does a line of cocaine to prepare for the crash; the Hare Krishnas are eager to enjoy a flight without fussing about religion; a well-dressed little girl is shockingly precocious (and again, I cut some slack here for the era in it was made). The only group not represented is little people, and given the chaos onscreen I might be wrong about that.
Left Behind: This movie goes Airplane! one better and includes a little person. Naturally, all of the people given screen time are caricatures of what fundagelicals think of those groups. The socialite is a poor little rich girl who does drugs; the rich non-Christian businessman is a rich Texas-looking kabillionaire who is wedded to greed and lust; the sports-player’s babymama is a ghetto queen of sorts; a fat black Christian dude is chortling and jolly as he rips into junk food before the plane’s even taken off. Even the Muslim is of the benevolent kind that Pentecostals back in my day imagined most Muslims were like–fervent, nice, gentle-hearted; his only real crime is not saying the right name during his prayers. There are no surprises here.
Attempts at Humor.
Airplane!: Largely successful humor centering around wordplay, startling facets of otherwise-stock characters, sight gags, and absurd situations. Sometime a payoff to a joke takes the whole movie’s runtime; other times, viewers might not even “get” the joke until a second viewing. Often the humor involves either a totally realistic character responding to a ridiculous situation, or a totally ridiculous character responding to a realistic situation. Their shameless pursuit of the almighty laugh pays off grandly.
Left Behind: Largely unsuccessful, with most of its attempts at humor centering around the passengers’ attributes. It comes off as hostile, nasty, and petty rather than funny. (One glaring example: HA HA HA! ISN’T IT SUCH A GAS TO HURL THAT MEAN OLE LITTLE PERSON OFF A PLANE? HA HA HA!) Part of the problem is the shoddy acting; even Nicolas Cage, who is a damned fine actor when he can be arsed to bother, is phoning it in through a haze of what appear to be industrial-strength painkillers or tranquilizers. But even with awesome actors doing an awesome job, this movie’s jabs at humor would fall flat. It seems clear that the creators of this dreck think they’re being funny at times, but I don’t think evangelicals in general actually know how to be funny at all (and when an evangelical Christian tried to ask that question in a blog post in a large Christian news-and-opinion site, he had to walk it back the very next day to explain himself to his outraged tribe). It’s kind of depressing to think that what I saw in that movie is what fundagelicals think passes for humor, considering how important humor is to the human condition.
A Hysterical Passenger Who Must Be Calmed Down.
Airplane!: Midway through the flight, one of the female passengers totally loses her shit, requiring extraordinary measures on the part of every passenger onboard to get her quieted down. I was going to post a clip of it, but it’s another of those instances of a 1970s/80s joke that doesn’t translate well to the modern age–the “calming down” begins with a well-meaning slap and ends with a long line of passengers bearing increasingly-scary weapons in their hands that they intend to use on her to get her to stop screaming and yelling. The deceptively-simple trope inversion at the heart of the scene could keep humorists busy for weeks analyzing why it works so well.
Left Behind: A pro athlete’s babymama somehow smuggles a gun onto the plane and threatens to shoot everyone if someone doesn’t find and retrieve her daughter. Out of everyone there she’s been about the least logical person to stick in this role, but now the movie needs her to be a violently-deranged lunatic so that’s what happens. The scene occurs solely to give Buck Williams a chance to show how wise and manipulative he is, pretty much; that the creators of the movie decided to make one of the few black characters with speaking roles the violently-deranged lunatic needing talking down by the Mighty White Savior-Hero (and one who has explicitly aligned himself with a rather imperialistic, colonial-minded worldview at that, going by both his book titles and his pre-flight flirt-up with Chloe) is really just another example of how offensive this movie’s creators are without even realizing it.
My Plane Don’t Crash. If She Crashes, You Crashed Her.
Airplane!: The engines start failing–oh noes! A hasty ersatz landing must be arranged! Thankfully, the ground crew eventually locate someone who can talk the new pilot through this unfamiliar procedure. The mechanical problem and the plane’s subsequent need for a landing is presented as a big part of the plot, something that must be overcome or else the plane will crash and everyone will die. But there’s so much more at stake. As a result of resolving the problem, the hero grows and overcomes one of his fatal flaws.
Left Behind: A near-collision in the air damages the plane somewhat–oh noes! A hasty ersatz landing must be arranged! Thankfully, there’s someone on the ground who can help the fully-qualified regularly-scheduled pilot find a landing-spot. As I mentioned in the big review, there’s never a question of dramatic tension; the problem appears to exist solely so that zoned-out Nic Cage can amp up the stakes a little more (sort of like how Josh’s girlfriend in God’s Not Dead existed solely to amp up the stakes of his debate with his professor). And then the other plane swoops past with a little crunching noise as it tips the heroes’ plane, and that’s that. Nobody ever asks about the other plane again or the fate of the people onboard it, or even alerts the ground crew or anybody else to the plane crash they know just happened.
The Co-Pilot Who Counts.
Left Behind: Jesus, duh:
I could go on, but I think I’ve made my case. The main reason Left Behind failed as hard as it did was because its creators didn’t really understand this genre of movies, but used the genre anyway to cloak their sermon in. The movie was nothing but one long line of strawmen that Christians could knock down with talking points delivered one after the next.
But non-Christians don’t tend to realize that this exact reason was exactly why Christians tended to like the movie.
At the end of the day, what fundagelicals want is to be told what they want to hear. That may not be very different from any other audience. People didn’t go to Airplane! wanting a serious drama about the English class system or to get tips for making their kids’ school lunches. They wanted to laugh. Their chosen vessel wasn’t perfect–some of its gags didn’t age particularly well–but because the movie largely succeeds at its chosen mission, it still routinely lands on “Funniest Movies Ever” lists.
Left Behind was a stab at a genre flick done in service to a sermon, while Airplane! was a stab at the same genre done in service to laughs. The genre itself is simply a carrier for the real intention of the respective movies’ creators, like how baked potatoes are properly understood as a carrier for butter, cheese, and sour cream. When you’re using a genre to form a framework for another intention entirely, then the rest of the movie has to work double-time-and-a-half to make a good and interesting experience for audiences. Airplane! did that in spades. Left Behind relied mostly on the strength of its sermon.
And for evangelicals, that’s plenty good enough. They’ll see that a sermon got successfully delivered that largely matched their own understanding of fundagelical doctrines. It persuaded them, after all, by confirming what they already thought, so therefore everyone everywhere should be similarly persuaded. Whatever the movie’s window-dressing is, that’s just a bonus. Because they heard a message they think is perfect, Christians associate the movie itself with perfection.
Left Behind cares more about delivering its sermon and being on-point doctrinally than it does about making a good movie. And that’s exactly why it tended to do so poorly with non-believers and yet so well with believers.
When audiences fail to be swayed by Christian movies’ non-stop examples of Orwellian Newspeak and manipulative imagery, the problem as far as evangelical Christians are concerned is the audiences–or a shadowy liberal syndicate in Hollywood secretly controlling all movie reviewers, which sounds like a cool movie in and of itself, really (oh gosh, suddenly I want this to happen so, so much). But the problem is not their golden calf of a movie. Ever.
Next week, our next review movie is going to be one that uses another genre in an equally misunderstood way to sell an equally fervent and hamfisted sermon to its chosen audience: Fireproof. This is going to be its own special brand of pain, I’m sure, but I’m willing to take one for the team 🙂 See you next time.