Thursday, February 16, 2012

Pedantic Christian Theatre: Left Behind Or "Why I Stopped Worrying And Welcomed The Antichrist"

The Good: I'm going to stretch here and say "Basic concept."
The Bad: Acting, Plot, Character (or lack thereof), Subtle Paulist message, Hateful divisiveness indicative of Paulists
The Basics: If Left Behind: The Movie were not filled with so many subtle, hateful and biased messages, it might take the time to actually tell a story.

First off, I want to write that my title went through about 1,000 different permutations before I settled on the ironic and hopefully humorous (yet equally honest) title I chose. Runners up for my title were: "Why Should 'Christians' Care About Those Left Behind?" "Hacks Make It To The Big Screen With Pointless Melodrama!" and "Kirk Cameron Found, Couldn't He Have Been Left Behind?" Now that any number of people checking out this site have added me to their "Block" list, the rest of you can enjoy a pretty thorough critique of Left Behind - The Movie. This is not, it's important to note, an evaluation of the book, so if your reaction to what I write is "That's not how it is in the book," you can stuff it; movies aren't books. Never have been, pretty much never will be (though the Lord Of The Rings trilogy had the right general idea - make it long!). Third - and final precursor to my review - despite popular speculation around here, I have nothing against Christians or Christianity. Like director Kevin Smith in his remarkable film Dogma (reviewed here!), I object to the way Christianity is co-opted by extremists to assert a political agenda and create divisions that are extra-biblical, or as I call it Paulist, interpretations. Paul, in case you are not familiar with the Bible, is where most Christians get their hatred from. Christ, who preached peace, love and tolerance, has his message co-opted by the various letters Paul writes after Christ's death to establish Christianity. It is in Paul's writings that hatred for homosexuality, for example, is cited (whereas Christ is pretty firmly on the record with "love thy neighbor"). Paul, by the way, was so hated in his own time that he was nearly stoned to death. So, because Christ and his priorities have little influence over the political agenda of the Paulists (would that they were actual Christians!), I choose to make that distinction. And so, with that in mind, what is Left Behind: The Movie?

Buck Williams, reporter for the powerful news corporation GNN, is in Israel covering the story of the century - the creation of a grain that can grow in any climate - when the new story of the century arrives. Israel finds itself under attack by the combined military might of its neighbors when all of the attacking air forces suddenly begin to spontaneously combust. Shocked, Buck heads back to New York. On the flight, he encounters Hattie, a friend who has just gotten a job with the U.N. As the plane speeds towards its destination, passengers on the plane disappear, mostly children.

It turns out that the disappearances are not relegated to the plane, nor to children. 142,000,000 people worldwide disappear in the blink of an eye and the conclusion that is drawn is that they've all been taken by god as his chosen. The rest are, as you might have guessed, left behind. Buck finds himself in the right places at the right time to put everything together, witnessing the Antichrist - Nicholas Carpathia, head of the U.N. - consolidate power and claim dominion over the Earth using his forceful power of suggestion that Buck is somehow immune to. In the meantime, pilot Rayford Steele discovers the awesome power of faith and vows to fight the evils of the world.

This is one of those movies that at some point the critique just begins to seem like kicking the wounded when they are already down, so let me begin by saying I respect the ambition of the project. To take nineteen pages of the Bible and use them for the basis of the story is ambitious. To take, essentially, the book of Revelation and other footnotes in the Bible to piece together a story of the apocalypse is ambitious and respectable.

That said, I have no respect for this particular version. Let's start with the most obvious front: the characters. Left Behind ranks up there with the Barnumesque misdirection that Mel Gibson pulled with The Passion of the Christ. Gibson convinced legions (pun intended) of Christians, Paulists, and senior citizen types to sit through a gore flick, even to exalt it. Writers Alan B. McElroy, Paul Lalonde, Joe Goodman, Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins and director Vic Sarin ask the core audience to do one of two things: root for the unsaved or root against those left behind.

In short, the biased viewer is asked to either root for protagonists who find their faith a bit late, because all the "good Christians" are already called up to be with god. Or the viewer is supposed to watch the struggles of Buck (a non-believer), Rayford (an adulterer), his daughter Chloe (who does not honor her father and probably has had premarital sex, though the latter is conjecture), and Bruce (token ethnic minority who is a pastor who never truly believed) and root for their failure, which is not terrible Christian. In short, the entertainment value of Left Behind: the Movie is only credible if one is rooting for the protagonists or rooting against them. If you're for them, you're essentially hoping that a bunch of people not worthy of being saved will fight valiantly for god despite the futility of doing it after the devout have already led the way or you're hoping they fail, which is just mean, haughty and inhumane, if not unchristian (though I think it is that as well).

But how is this to the unbiased viewer? On the character level it seems awfully silly. 142,000,000 people disappear and the only idea that is floated is that god took them and everyone accepts that. Now, as a pretty skeptical person, one would suspect there would be a good number of heathen scientists left on the planet who wouldn't just fall in line with this interpretation of things and delay judgment a bit longer while they looked for a more empirical answer. To the unbiased viewer, this is a serious plot and character flaw of the movie; one character concludes that this is god's work without honestly exploring other possibilities or even other probabilities.

That reminds me, one of my other potential titles was "Paulist Propotainment."

In short, much of the movie feels like it is pushing an agenda more than telling a legitimate story. Some of it is just shoddy in its assembly, too. Buck, witnessing one of his informants killed with a car bomb, rushes to Rayford Steele's house and when Chloe answers the door, he says that he's come there because his friends are dead. In the scene before the car bomb went off, he was hanging out with his interethnic lesbian friends. How's that for subtle propaganda? The only two women that are shown as close are also the only women together after all the saved have departed (hence my deduction that they are an item) and they also happen to be the only interethnic couple in the film. Wow. That's subtle.

Left Behind: the Movie also reveals itself for the American conceits that plague so much of this ridiculous debate. Characters, standing within the nation of Israel, are walking around calling the country "Isreal" (pronouncing it "Iz-Reel"). Watch the BBC, listen to Israelites talk about their nation, watch negotiations happen - when they happen - and listen to the leaders talk. Its Israel (pronounced "Is-rah-el" or "Ys-rah-el"). Every time Kirk Cameron opened his mouth and mispronounced it, I winced. Sadly, when Chaim Rosenzweig mispronounced it I just felt ashamed for actor Colin Fox.

But back to the objective character evaluation and the title of this review. Nicholas Carpathia, head of the U.N. after killing off the two guys who put him there, consolidates power by turning over ten areas of the world to regional presidents to. . . . wait for it . . . grow a new magic grain that will feed the world! Yes, the Antichrist's big plan in Left Behind: The Movie is to feed the starving nations of the world and to build a church in Jerusalem next to a prominent mosque. As an objective viewer, outside the two deaths, this doesn't seem all that bad. I mean, if the antichrist wants to feed all the starving people of the world (something all the missionaries in the world have never succeeded in doing), why not? The antichrist doesn't seem all that bad. I mean, if Christ were to show up, how could he possibly one-up that? Luxury yachts for everyone?

Which leads us back to Buck and his character. Buck Williams is ambitious, unmarried, and seems to have the tragic (in the view of the makers of the film) flaw of lacking faith. He also has the ability to resist the mind-control powers of Carpathia. Carpathia kills two people, lays out his entire plan to take over the world, and then waves his hand and "plants" a cover story in the minds of those assembled. Everyone but Buck and Carpathia who was in the room think one of the two men slew the other and the killer was killed in self defense.

But Buck knows that's not what happened. And this just makes the objective viewer sit up and ask "why?" Buck, not being one of the saved, can resist the supposed antichrist. Is the viewer supposed to believe that god is toying with poor Buck? He's not saved, but god gives him superpowers? That seems pretty unkind. It's like saying "You're good enough to be my tool and die after all my chosen are taken, but not good enough to come up in the first pick."

Which brings me back to the plot. The sudden disappearance of 142,000,000 people around the world would seriously alleviate any number of problems, like world hunger, job shortages, distribution of medicines and access to clean water. So, shouldn't those who are left behind be a little happier for the opportunities left to them? Of course, this is only approximately 1.8% of the world's population being sucked away and if the viewer is supposed to accept that they have gone up to the Paulist, er Christian, god, a lot does not change in key parts of the world, like India, the Middle East, and Antarctica. Still, it seems like some key real estate might open up in the suburbs . . .

So, Left Behind: the Movie has a garbled plot, characters who are defined largely as unenviable by Paulist standards (Chloe and Buck were pretty all right by me and if Chaim didn't succumb so easily to the antichrist, he'd be the greatest scientist the world could hope for, engineering a grain that could grow anywhere), and a message that is either overbearing or muddled beyond recognition. This leaves the acting.

Left Behind: the Movie is plagued by bad acting. Watching Chelsea Noble (flight attendant turned U.N. worker Hattie Durham) act off the chiseled good looks of Brad Johnson (pilot Rayford Steele) aboard the plane makes me wish they were on a soap opera together. The acting is so hammy, awkward and obvious that both ought to have their SAG cards revoked for the dishonor to the profession they perpetrate on screen.

Colin Fox, Gordon Currie, and Janaya Stephens are each adequate as Chaim, Carpathia and Chloe, respectively. They don't light the screen on fire, but they get through their lines. Clarence Gilyard Jr. is fine until the melodramatic moment when he falls on his knees to pray, crying out to god. Then it's just so over-the-top as to be sadly laughable. He delivers the lines like he is reading them for the first time, there is no epiphany, no understanding, no touching grace in his performance. He's certainly not the posterboy for conversion.

Which leaves Kirk Cameron, the lead who on the DVD appears in one of the bonus features to personally beg viewers to see the movie in the theater after watching it on DVD because the producers know it's a niche market the film is targeting. Cameron is silly and unbelievable as Buck Williams, beyond the mispronouncing of Israel. Cameron never once performs in this movie as if there is any gravity associated with his actions, with his place in history at the time of the events unfolding. Brave or not, when planes are exploding above one's head it's utterly unreal to not flinch at all.

My final note is on the propaganda that Left Behind: the Movie perpetrates. Paulist Evangelicals have any number of consistent targets and they are all demonized here in this movie. The evangelical community expresses hatred consistently towards (in no particular order): the "liberal media," the U.N., and parts of the world that are not Christian (or Paulist Christian - I understand in the novels upon which this series is based, the Pope falls in with the antichrist). Left Behind: the Movie targets these groups in very ugly, if subtle ways. CNN is attacked by evangelicals as the voice of the "liberal media." Buck Williams and his unsaved lesbian friends work for GNN (they go so far as to utilize a similar typeface for the station i.d. even). The U.N. here is portrayed as a tool for the antichrist to use to unite the world. The irony here is that the writers and director of Left Behind: the Movie expect the viewer to assume that the U.N. has such power over the day to day life of the world as to have someone like the antichrist controlling it actually matter to the majority of the planet. As an objective viewer, this is laughable considering how much emphasis the Paulists put into controlling individuals through laws at the state, local and school board level. Honestly, do the Paulists truly believe that the antichrist running the U.N. and feeding starving people worldwide would effect the common people more than laws that: deny homosexuals the right to marry, enforce "sodomy laws" to dictate what people can do in the privacy of their own home, and teach creationism in schools that are supposed to be secular? Which leads us to the last group the Paulist evangelicals are not fond of, all those folks with the different skin colors who live in areas of the world where their brand of Paulism is not practiced. The make-up of the U.N. board that Carpathia creates is made up exclusively of "those people." That's offensive (me pointing it out, is not).

For those who might want to leap to the Paulist's defense and say "they don't hate Israel! Israel is a Jewish nation!" Sigh. The problem with knowing stuff is that the truth is often scarier than the imagination of people. There exists a movement known as "Christians For Israel," that's here in reality, not in fiction (they have a website that is remarkably direct). Paulists and their extreme followers in groups like Christians For Israel support Jewish control of Israel and Jerusalem because (wait for it) Biblical prophecy dictates that in order for the apocalypse to come, the Jews must control Jerusalem. Yes, right here, right now in reality there are Paulists that are trying to bring about the apocalypse by insuring Jews retain control over Jerusalem. It's right there in their mission statement.

Doesn't that just make you want to pull the covers up to your nose and not get out of bed?

So, Left Behind: The Movie is ultimately cheap (the production values are terrible!) propotainment designed to entertain Paulists and convince those on the fence that it might be time to repent and fly right (especially if Chloe wasn't having premarital sex and her only real crime is not honoring her father and mother! Man, it's surprising all 142,000,000 people could be saved!). This is not good drama, it's not good filmmaking, and it's not convincing propaganda because it's just too full of plot and character holes presented by actors who make those relegated to after school specials seem like prized thespians.

As for me, my hope is that I'll be called for Left Behind: The Movie - The Special Extended Edition. I'll be the person standing on the streetcorner laughing at the dismayed masses of hateful Paulists walking out of their meeting where they all were given antigay, antiabortion leaflets to distribute, wondering why they were Left Behind. As it were, I'm off to watch my favorite film containing people of faith, The Mission (reviewed here!). Maybe tonight, I'll revisit The Sinner's Guide To The Evangelical Right (reviewed here!); at least that had entertainment value!

For other visions of the end of the world, check out my reviews of:
Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes


For other film reviews, please be sure to check out my Movie Review Index Page by clicking here!

© 2012, 2007 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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