“What is this fucking music?” is the very first thing I wrote in my notebook while watching Left Behind. Two pages later, I wrote again, “No, seriously, what is this fucking music?” Indiscriminately scored to what appears to be the soundtrack from an '80s infomercial, and directed with all the nuance that suggests, the early scenes of Left Behind quickly cement its place in the Bad Movie Hall of Fame. But it’s the later scenes, when the plot becomes thoroughly unhinged, that the movie enters another plane altogether. Adapted from Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins’s best-selling evangelical novels about the end times, Left Behind is biblical in its silliness.
Nicolas Cage plays Rayford Steele, a semi-philandering airplane pilot who has been making eyes at the stewardesses (and one curvy blonde one in particular, played by Nicky Whelan) ever since his wife Irene (Lea Thompson) discovered Jesus and began driveling on about the Rapture a year ago. Even their daughter Chloe (Cassi Thomson) seems to understand that Rayford might want to get away. Arriving in New York to celebrate Dad’s birthday, only to discover that he is flying off to London that very moment, Chloe is strangely reflective, even accepting: “If this were a year ago, before Mom drank the Kool-Aid, you’d be home right now,” she tells him. “This would all be different.” For his part, Rayford is also rather Zen about it all: “Hey, if she’s gonna run off with another man,” he says of his wife, “why not Jesus?”
The problem isn’t simply that Irene has become super-religious, it’s that she’s become the kind of person who sees the hand of providence at work in natural disasters and tsunamis and pestilence — a believer in that particularly noxious variation on Christianity that sees large-scale human calamities as hopeful signs that the end times are near. That idea, of course, is also what Left Behind peddles. Because soon enough, poof go the good ones — the children, and the good Christians — disappearing instantly, leaving just limp piles of clothes behind. And when millions of people suddenly vanish from Earth, complications arise: Driverless cars pile headlong into shopping malls, (thankfully empty) school buses fly off bridges, and Rayford’s plane is suddenly left without a co-pilot. The rest of the movie is mostly about Nicolas Cage trying to land the plane while angry passengers bicker and try to figure out what happened to their loved ones, in particular, their children. Meanwhile, Chloe wanders (and wanders, and wanders) around Queens.
Not having read LaHaye and Jenkins’s books or seen the previous iterations of these films, and more important, not being a believer, I’m clearly not the intended audience for this movie. (Or maybe I am – isn’t this movie supposed to show me the error of my ways?) Early on, Chloe asks of her mother, “How does someone see an earthquake on the news and then try to convince everyone that it’s a good thing?” I’m still waiting for an answer to that question, even though I get the distinct sense that the filmmakers think they’ve answered it. Maybe the message is that it’s good to die and go to Heaven because the Earth is about to get so much worse, what with the antichrist coming and seven years of war and whatnot? That seems to be an idea founded in fear, not hope.
That said, I’m not entirely sure that there isn’t a way that this story might have worked. Conceptually, it’s an interesting idea: Grab us with the crippled-plane suspense plot while plying us at regular intervals with religious propaganda. But that propaganda isn’t particularly subtle; indeed, it’s at times rather laughable. (I wouldn’t have blinked for a second if Kent Brockman from The Simpsons showed up yelling, “It’s in Revelations, people!”) At one point, as he starts to unravel what’s happened, Rayford looks through the belongings of two crew members who vanished, discovering a watch that has “John 3:16” written on it and a datebook that has a “Bible Study” class listed. Mystery solved! I also felt bad for the poor, kindly Muslim passenger (Alec Rayme) who, despite clearly being decent and devout, didn’t get to go to Heaven because, duh, he worships a false god; not only that, but the poor bastard is now stuck on a plane with a bunch of people who think that he had something to do with these unexplained, ominous events.
But really, it’s the shoddy execution that kills Left Behind. All the nutter-butter end times stuff might have been tolerable if the film could string together a few scenes that weren’t laughably written and directed. (I haven’t watched the show The Leftovers, but I gather that it concerns a similar type of Rapture-like event, and does so without heaping dollops of ineptitude.) But from the manufactured, bizarre interactions of the passengers on the plane, to the pointless wanderings of Chloe on the ground, to the utterly zonkers finale, which involves an attempt to land a plane on a stretch of abandoned Queens highway, Left Behind is a complete botch. As for Nicolas Cage, he mostly seems annoyed. At times, this fits the part: As a pilot, he has to keep his cool, even as people keep pestering him for answers. At times, it fits the part in more meta ways: He may be wondering if all those ex-wives and fancy houses were worth a headline role in what will surely go down in movie history as one of the worst – not to mention craziest – movies ever made.