The rapture, at first blush, seems like a convenient subject for American evangelicals; they basically get to play out a “Told you so!” fantasy on the big screen, while everyone they were “telling so” quite literally has a come to Jesus moment. On the other hand, this means, by definition, that if a movie about the rapture is going to work, it must work in terms of characters who are not themselves evangelicals. It must empathize with their emotional interiority and plausibly develop them as flesh and blood people because, well, everyone who answered correctly on the theological multiple-choice quiz is gone by the end of the first act.
The filmmakers of Left Behind actually make this issue even more acute by how they choose to structure the story. I have not read the books nor seen the previous film, but apparently the entire plot of this one revolves around events that take up the first few chapters of the first book. Airline pilot Rayford Steele (Nicholas Cage), his daughter Chloe Steele (Cassi Thomson), and intrepid investigative journalist Buck Williams (Chad Michael Murray) spend the entirety of the film dealing with the rapture and its immediate aftermath (it’s to the filmmakers’ immense credit that they manage to go almost the whole movie without referring to these characters by their full names). This gives Left Behind a welcome structural compactness; Rayford and Buck deal with events on a transatlantic flight that’s forced to turn back around to New York City, while Chloe pieces together clues in the city itself. Ultimately, their two plot lines converge at the end.
As a result, talk of God and theology often gets sidelined for more practical considerations: tracking down loved ones, identifying a working landing strip, and keeping an airplane aloft as it runs out of fuel. The dialogue that does deal with the religious is largely squashed into one encounter with a pastor who lost his faith, a climactic confession, and some rather forced conversations in the first fifteen minutes.
At the airport, Buck is accosted by a religious woman, which prompts Chloe to intervene with an outraged speech on why a loving God would allow so much suffering and senseless tragedy in the world. It’s an obvious “thesis” moment, though the movie has the self-awareness to poke fun at itself; Buck observes Chloe’s clearly been prepping that diatribe, and she admits it was intended for her mother. Irene Steele (Lea Thompson) apparently converted to evangelicalism about a year ago, and her warnings about the impending rapture have driven a wedge between her and her family.
Left Behind is actually sympathetic to Rayford and Chloe, and seems willing to admit the transformation must be a shock and bewilderment. For her brief time onscreen, Irene comes off as something of an ostracized Casandra figure; she’s obviously proven right, but the movie doesn’t wallow in righteous vindication. In a similar fashion, the sins of everyone left behind, while noted, are not dwelt upon. Nor does the film make serious efforts to highlight the goodness of the people who do get raptured. There’s some gentle moral ribbing, but that’s the extent of it.
Indeed, the biggest moral transgression in the movie is Rayford’s adultery (or impending adultery – it’s never entirely clear). The filmmakers show the good sense of focusing on how it affects Chloe and how Rayford in turn tries to grapple with the damage he’s caused. In fact, the woman he’s having (or may be having) the affair with – a stewardess named Hattie Durham (Nicky Whelan) – becomes something of a brother in arms for Rayford towards the end, as their sexual history gets set aside in their effort to bring the plane to safety. In other words, Rayford’s infidelity is treated as a visceral and complex rend in the social fabric around him, rather than as a violation of some abstract code.
At least, that’s the theory. The execution of most of this is godawful. The dialogue is didactic and pedestrian. (Though serious kudos to Cage for his delivery of the line “If your mother was going to leave me for another man, it might as well have been Jesus.”) The direction, editing, camera placement and special effects all feel like something out of a Syfy Channel movie of the week, and the music literally sounds like something bought off a stock website, plus the obligatory Christian genre soft rock. The plot also has some holes; a midair collision that’s central to the plot mechanics should never have happened and is obviously avoidable.
So what goodwill Left Behind can generate comes from what its actors can bring to the table – Cage is Cage; Murray, Thompson and Thomson are serviceable; Whelan is risible – and its generally affable tone. Which is itself weird, because the underlying theology here really is insane. Those “left behind” by the rapture face years of suffering and possible eternal damnation, all because they failed to assert the right intellectual creed. Chloe’s first protests over the Problem of Evil are never adequately addressed, for the simple fact that as long as you maintain that God is omnipotent and that every horrible thing that happens is part of a divine plan, her protests are unanswerable. So Left Behind just drowns the matters out with the revelation that, wouldn’t you know it, those wacky evangelicals were right after all.
By the time you’ve gotten to know Hassid (Alec Rhayme) – a Muslim on the plane who is the nicest guy in the world, who is used to deliberately break down terrorist stereotypes, and who nonetheless gets left behind just for choosing the wrong God – you have to throw up your hands. I mean, Good Lord: the dogs get left behind. The dogs! Sitting forlornly by their caretakers’ empty clothes. Watching the movie, then, is rather like discussing theology and the rapture with an actual evangelical (I grew up in Texas, so I had this conversation multiple times). The argument being put forward is bizarre and monstrous, but they are so bloody affable about it.
The film is also weirdly nostalgic for cultural fights and narratives from ten years ago. The way Rayford pieces together what’s going on is that his copilot who gets raptured has “John 3:16” inscribed on his watch and “Bible study” listed in his calendar. And that’s it. These are not markers of religious faith of any substance, they are cultural tribal identifiers – and identifiers specific to the American context. Left Behind is barely even about “religion” in any meaningful capacity, but more about evangelicals’ hangover as a self-perceived embattled cultural minority. As such, I’m not sure if the film’s good nature is self-marketing, evidence of humility, or simple exhaustion.