Two different crowds will likely offer themselves up to Left Behind: the intended evangelical Christian audience, and neo-ironic Nicolas Cage followers praying there’s a method to the star’s inexplicable decision to appear in Vic Armstrong’s film. At a minimum, the latter group will be let down, as Cage doesn’t make it within a plumb mile of his Cassavetes-meets-giallo standard for overacting. But even the world’s most casual viewers will find themselves baffled at best and revolted at second-best, because Left Behind is one of those films so deeply, fundamentally terrible that it feels unwittingly high-concept. For example: If you’ve ever seen so much as a photo from either place, it’s not hard to grasp what’s hilarious about a movie filmed in Baton Rouge, Louisiana that takes place in Queens. But to actually sit down and watch that movie—all 110 minutes of it—is to grant it a respect, even if only by the patronage of one’s eyeballs, that acknowledges the final product as a more or less successfully completed piece of cinema. Long after you’ve lost the will to laugh at Left Behind, the film chugs on, hardly bothering to pretend it cares what you think anyway.
Religious zealotry and quick-buck perfidy have always gone hand in hand in America, but what’s most surprising about this supposedly bigger-budget reboot, adapted from the first of 16 Left Behind novels by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins, is that it looks barely more expensive than the 2000 version starring Kirk Cameron. Cage plays a sallow-faced airline pilot named Ray Steele, ambushed by his spunky daughter, Chloe (Cassi Thompson), just as he’s about to fly to London—for work, but also intending to have an extramarital affair with one of his flight attendants. (Ray’s idea of a hot date, and thus one of the film’s surprisingly few explicitly given examples of sin, is a U2 concert.) He’s drifted, slowly but surely, from his wife, Irene (Lea Thompson), as she’s intensified her devotion to her Christian faith; in a bit of ass-covering faux-magnanimity, he chuckles to Chloe: “If she’s gonna run off with another man, why not Jesus?” Yet Chloe finds herself stymied, too, by her mom’s obsession with God’s wrath, wishing she could refocus on family necessities instead. But just as things become emotionally unmanageable for Chloe, the unthinkable happens: the Rapture begins, and all the world’s truest believers go to Heaven in the blink of an eye.
What’s interesting here is that the victims include the entirety of humanity’s children and also random side characters like the gentle old man on Ray’s flight, whose widow can only stare at his muddled pile of clothes. The remaining passengers include a comic-relief dwarf, an Asian UFO-conspiracy theorist, a coked-up heiress, and a vaguely accented Easterner—who is, to the film’s credit, only accused of being a terrorist once (though he uses the word himself, after somebody implies he’s Muslim). While Ray struggles to turn his plane around (“I can’t let these people go down without a chance to correct their mistakes!”), the world below him falls to pieces, and Armstrong’s depiction of doomsday—the film’s only theoretical non-Christian selling point—is so rubbery and incompetent, it feels like it was directed by a cryogenically frozen George Pal. (The evaporation of billions of human bodies happens in a single cut, recalling Méliès in its no-questions-asked assertiveness and undoubtedly saving the filmmakers a barrelful of cash.) It’s a shame, because a proper apocalypse film, even (or maybe especially) from a fire-and-brimstone point of view, could be gripping in the right hands; throw in a Cage performance and it might be a cult classic.