Wow. I didn't think it was possible, but somebody made a boring movie about the End Times. Not only that, but a boring adaptation of Left Behind, possibly the single nuttiest pop-cultural phenomenon ever coughed up by the American religious tradition. This movie landed Nicholas Cage, wild-eyed wacko genius, and he spent most of it flying a plane. There wasn't even a single mention of the Antichrist.
Left Behind is a lot of things (most of them terrible and appalling) but a snooze shouldn't be one of them, and I want my goddamn money back.
Confession: I was very, very excited for this second, bigger-budget adaptation of Left Behind. You must understand my deep personal history with this franchise. I was raised deep in the Bible Belt by a committed non-churchgoer; in the second or third grade, a friend turned to me in the lunch line and announced that she was worried about my soul. As a tween, I spent a fair bit of time worrying I might burn in the lake of fire for all eternity.
This existential angst was only exacerbated by the explosive popularity of the Left Behind books, which were everywhere at the time. I even got through one of them, probably at the urging of my grandmother. There was at least one Suburban at my high school with a bumper sticker declaring that, "In case of Rapture, this car will be unmanned." To this day, I have occasional surreal dreams about being left behind. (Mostly I just walk around finding out who got Raptured, feeling really fucking chagrined.) How could I not face my childhood terror in a movie theater, armed with a bucket of popcorn and some cookie dough bites?
This movie should have been Nicholas Cage's finest hour. Because the series is goddamned insane, like if you shot The Wicker Man full of meth and hung a "The End Is Near" sandwich board on his back and shoved him into the middle of an Atlanta mall. At the beginning of the first book, God Himself personally foils an attack on Israel. The protagonists band together into a "Tribulation Force" to fight the charismatic Romanian who is, duh, the Antichrist. Oh, and convert a bunch of sinners before the clock runs out and Jesus returns to start smashing heads at Armageddon. How could Cage NOT nail this? Come on:
So I put down my copy of Hollywood Babylon, put on some pants and headed into Times Square to catch a Saturday night showing.
The movie opens in an airport that purports to be JFK (it looks more like Tallahassee Regional, but OK), and we meet our four main characters: Rayford Steele, a pilot played by Cage; "Buck" Williams, a TV news personality portrayed by One Tree Hill's Chad Michael Murray; Chloe Steele, Rayford's pouting daughter; and Hattie, a flight attendant introduced as she's applying hot-pink lip gloss and sliding on Jackie O sunglasses so we know her ass ain't getting Raptured.
"Buck" (no, that's really his name) is apparently so well-known that wherever he goes, people want his autograph. He is also the kind of investigatory creep who'll hit on a college student in an airport coffee shop, because he's so impressed with her willingness to interrupt the nice Christian lady just trying to explain to Buck that, hey, maybe all these natural disasters are happening because then End Times are upon us. The movie is not bothered by this blatant sketchiness; rather, we're supposed to cluck cluck at these two non-believers and their skeptical conversation about God and tragedy. DON'T YOU GUYS KNOW THE RAPTURE IS COMING? Soon you will see the error of your ways but it will be too late, sinners!
We're 15 minutes into the movie and I'm already amusing myself with the thought of an irate John Calvin bursting through the screen like the Kool-Aid Man.
Anyway, Chloe is in the airport because she's flown home to surprise her dad for his birthday. Unfortunately, her dad has removed his wedding ring and is jetting off to London in an attempt to bang Hattie, who is a Hottie. Chloe sees them flirting and wants her dad to know that she totally understands that mom has driven him away with her newfound evangelical Christianity. But she's really, really upset that he's not going to be home for the surprise birthday celebration that he did not know about, because it's a surprise. Maybe we're supposed to hate the idea of being stuck with these dickheads so thoroughly that we convert on the spot. The only character who isn't completely insufferable is Rayford's wife, Irene Steele. I'd take her sermonizing and Pinterest-y prayer nooks over these jerks any day of the week. Of course, she's immediately Raptured.
By the way: So much of this exposition occurs in a Green Mountain Coffee that I began to wonder whether they'd gotten a sponsorship deal. Will the sequel take place in a Hobby Lobby parking lot?
Hattie, Buck and Nic Cage pile into the airplane and head for London. The plane is full of children. FORESHADOWING. Chloe goes home (to... Garden City, Long Island? This is where you're setting your movie about the Rapture?), has a fight with her mom because ugh jeez she doesn't want to hear about the Bible and then flounces off to the mall with her younger brother. The mall is also full of children. DOUBLE THE FORESHADOWING.
You can probably guess what happens next: The Rapture. Duh. All the kids vanish, leaving little piles of clothing; all the adult Christians go poof, too. It takes approximately three minutes for civilization to collapse completely. Apparently the enormous evangelical population of, again, GARDEN CITY, LONG ISLAND was all that kept the local mall from descending into riots, chaos, mass hysteria. Chloe frantically searches for her little brother—on foot, because a twin-engine plane crashes into her car and her car only. A couple of dudes steal her backpack because, again, the Rapture.
What follows is approximately 45 minutes of Nicholas Cage turning his airplane around, trouble-shooting airplane problems and attempting to calm panicky airplane passengers while playing phone tag with Chloe as she roams Long Island looking for answers. Seriously, all he does is fly that fucking plane. No one has ever been as bored and tired as Nicholas Cage in this movie (except for me, watching the movie). I amused myself by imagining that all Cage's scenes were actually the actor in his trailer, attempting to keep his younger, less famous coworkers on track in the middle of making a transparently terrible movie.
Eventually Rayford notices his disappeared copilot wore a watch emblazoned with "John 3:16," and the missing flight attendant had Bible study penciled into her datebook. Rayford immediately concludes that yep, his wife was right and it's the Rapture. This banagrams scene contains just one juicy line—"Either I'm crazy, or the whole world's gone insane"—and even that is delivered with a world-weariness that is far too John Cusack in 2012, not enough Nic Cage in Con Air.
Some other stuff happens, like Jordin Sparks pulling a gun on her fellow first-class passengers because she's convinced one of them actually stole her child. (Buck talks her down.) There's a hunky Muslim, just so everybody's clear that you cannot get out of the Great Tribulation by cutting your own deal with Allah. A heroin-addicted heiress informs everybody that the Lord has called his faithful home, while a more science-minded passenger concludes that it's aliens, duh. Jesus winced.
Finally, Buck gets Chloe on the phone and it's time to land this bird. All the runways at JFK are closed, so the movie concludes with Rayford crash-landing the plane onto a construction site with Chloe's help. There are some mediocre explosions. Everyone's alive. They've mentioned jack shit about the Antichrist. We don't even get any details about which celebrities got Raptured. What the fuck? You're not even going to tell me whether Beyonce got lifted up to heaven? George W. Bush? At least tell me whether God finally took Pat Robertson off our hands.
There wasn't even a single signature Nicholas Cage freakout. I came for Christian camp and it was not delivered. I was hoping for Sharknado: Jesus Edition. Unfortunately, Left Behind is stranded somewhere between Touched by an Angel and The 700 Club. Who was this movie even for? I'm not sure they ever even mentioned Jesus! An apparent Christian sitting nearby said it reminded her of the movie Airport 1975, which is mostly remarkable for Charlton Heston's terrible yellow turtleneck. Guess the filmmakers figured if they toned it down they might make a little more money, but joke's on them—the result is bound to appeal to nobody. At least the low-budget Kirk Cameron adaptation had the courage of its wacky convictions.
I just said something nice about Kirk fucking Cameron. That's how bad Left Behind was.
Sure hope the Duck Dynasty guys feel they got their money's worth!
Top image by Tara Jacoby; inline images via Freestyle Releasing