Nicolas Cage: “Left Behind” at the Box Office

Right after its opening weekend I enjoyed a screening of Left Behind with seven other people—these being all the patrons in the audience besides me at my local metroplex—one of whom departed in the middle of the movie. I don’t think my experience was an anomaly. Here is some background.

This new film represents the second time the initial book in the Tim LaHaye-Jerry B. Jenkins twelve-novel series has been made into a movie. Its first foray into theaters was in 2000, under the same title, with Kirk Cameron in the starring role. That version of Left Behind grossed over $2 million its first weekend and brought in a total of $4,224,065 at the box office, doing little better than breaking even. This remake starring Nicolas Cage, with a roughly $16 million budget, took in over $6 million its first weekend. As for critical reception, the Cameron version achieved a 16 percent positive rating on Rotten Tomatoes while the Cage version has gotten 2 percent. Not exactly a revelation of glory to come.

Yet I didn’t find it to be an awful film.

First, there was actually realistic argumentation shown between believers and unbelievers. This is refreshing to see in a religious movie, or any movie for that matter. So few screenwriters get such dialogue right. The only unrealistic part is that the godless actually succeed in silencing the godly. Yes, the believers really do shut up. Of course the audience knows that they are going to be proven right in the end, so it doesn’t really matter that they lose all their arguments. How paltry a thing is reason in the face of an inexplicable but all-powerful god.

Second, the film is thankfully short on blatantly propagandistic religiosity. A clear effort was made to produce a sci-fi thriller that might be enjoyed regardless of whether one actually believes the mythology—much as one can be entertained by the Indiana Jones movies without taking the Ark of the Covenant or the Holy Grail seriously.

Third, if Left Behind had been made in the 1950s (and I enjoy movies from that decade) it would have been regarded as an entertaining B picture. But we know too much now. We’ve seen the 1970s airline disaster flicks and a couple of versions of Dawn of the Dead. So this film that attempts to meld the two ideas together (by following one set of characters on a near-doomed airliner and another in a shopping mall gone apoplectically apocalyptic) fights to keep its head above its ancestry. And it attempts this feat with nothing more than the singular, sudden disappearance into thin air of seemingly random people, followed by the aftereffects of their vanishing. This can’t hope to shock and awe anyone living in the twenty-first century, even those sheltered on Amish farms or in renegade Mormon compounds.

But I admit that I’m more jaded than most. Being a godless humanist who tries to keep up with the latest developments in our movement, I was privy to the fun times had by those who partied on the date of the Rapture so publicly and unsuccessfully predicted by Harold Camping back in 2011. An empty suit of clothes lying flat in a chair was a common prop at such events. So it was a struggle to keep from laughing when the exact same thing is repeated multiple times in this movie, accompanied by reactions of surprise and horror from the various characters who remain among the earthly.

But the unintended humor in Left Behind doesn’t stop there. The next round of hilarity comes when the characters struggle mightily to think up some explanation for what has just occurred. Certainly their initial dumbstruck astonishment is credible. But once the shock has passed and the characters have become immersed in the process of trying to figure out the instantaneous mass disappearances, I had to wonder what rocks these people had been living under that the idea of the Rapture would come so slowly to their minds.

This, of course, is a common problem in old horror movies. “Golly, all the blood has been drained from her body. And there are two little holes in the nape of her neck! Whatever could this mean?”

But the misdirected speculations of the characters in this movie, crafted by screenwriters trying to build false suspense by dodging every opportunity to let them arrive at the answer expeditiously, stretch credulity more than the Rapture itself. There’s the passenger on the plane who says it’s all just a bad drug trip; it isn’t really happening. Another claims that space aliens spirited the missing people away, and it’s all because of what’s hidden in Area 51. And lastly, there’s the woman who says it’s all the work of her estranged husband who wanted custody of their child, and so he arranged to have the plane land while she was asleep, snatch the kid, and then pay passengers to lie to her that the other passengers had inexplicably vanished right before their eyes.

Yes, you really can make this stuff up.

I suppose I should talk now about the lead characters, particularly the adulterous airline pilot Rayford Steele, played by Nicolas Cage, whose estranged wife (Lea Thompson) has recently turned fundamentalist. However, despite a lot of believable angst by them and the other lead characters, I found it difficult to really care about these people. Their lives, their issues and struggles, and their difficulties grappling with the End Times seemed more like backdrop than foreground. Therefore I shall return to what really matters in this film, the general scenario.

I found further humorous moments in the utter panic that breaks out in the wake of the Rapture, especially in the mall and on the streets. People go crazy, running this way and that, screaming in terror. Ordinary folks abruptly begin looting the flattened clothing of money and steal the jewelry left behind; then they start robbing stores—whereupon some shopkeepers shoot them. Riots break out. And driverless cars, trucks, and school buses careen wildly for scene after scene—with no explanation offered as to what keeps them moving so fast and so long once the foot of the risen has risen off the gas. (Perhaps the saved are more likely than the rest of us to use cruise control, even on city streets—in which case it may be time to outlaw it among the born again.)

Meanwhile mobile phone service is interrupted, air traffic control towers cease to function, television stations go off the air, and the Internet goes down. Why? I thought we lived in a sinful world. Can the communications industry be so much more godly than the rest? Staff shortages there should only be on the level of an inconvenience after the saints are spirited up—most of whom in this movie turn out to be children and babies.

The final laugh comes during the edge-of-your-seat ending, which is so predictable and so close of a call as to parody disaster films. But I won’t spoil it for you by describing it in detail. I’ll just tell you that the film concludes with an equally predictable cliché. As the characters who have survived the rough plane landing on an uncompleted section of roadway watch the burning skyline of New York City (actually, Baton Rouge, Louisiana), one says that it looks like the end of the world and another says . . . wait for it . . . that it’s just the beginning.

Reasonable folks can only hope it’s the end of these Left Behind movies, or pity the investors if there are more.

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