After millions of people around the globe disappear in the Biblically prophesied rapture, Ray must fight to protect the passengers that remain on his flight. Trapped at 30,000 feet, he must find a way to safely land the damaged plane and comprehend the chaos that awaits as the most devastating event in history unfolds. (from Rogers & Cowan)
In 2000, the largely popular rapture-based Christian fiction novels Left Behind made their feature film debut in a straight-to-video production that starred Growing Pains star Kirk Cameron as the lead. In 2001, the film was released to theaters with slightly better production edits, and the series' first sequel followed in 2003. For 2014, some of the folks behind the production of the original decided to reinvent the series for a new audience and in a new time with a bigger budget, landing Academy Award winner Nicolas Cage as the lead actor this time around. The end result is probably a better product than the original films, but many of the same problems that were there before return once again.
There is a distinct cheese factor with a lot of Christian films. Whether it's poor acting, poor writing, a forced delivery of the message, or all three, it's hard to find a really well-made Christian film, despite the good intentions driving it. While there are some not-officially-Christian-made movies that can have some truly strong spiritual themes that make them far better productions as a whole, it's usually the officially branded "Christian films" that struggle massively at effectively and naturally merging the faith message with quality production values. The first Left Behind movies released almost 15 years ago when, admittedly, this reviewer's film tastes were different and I wasn't quite as picky as a viewer. Just glancing at my reviews of those back then surprises me a little about how easy I was on them, but sometimes Christian-made movies can still pluck the heartstrings just enough to move the viewer while still failing to deliver an otherwise "good" movie (especially if a viewer is prone to planting themselves into the situation in question). Good players aren't all that a movie needs to succeed, as evidenced by any number of productions that can boast a name actor or two. For 2014's Left Behind, they've successfully landed Nicolas Cage to play Rayford Steele. Cage is a truly capable actor, who has just as many really poor films under his belt as he does solid ones. He's also no stranger to movies that touch on spiritual topics. As he notes in the Blu-Ray extras interview, he did City of Angels in 1998, but I'd certainly cite his 2009 film Knowing first and foremost as being a spiritually charged and sci-fi look at the end of the world. Its production values were topnotch and good, solid acting made it an impactful film, even if it got pretty wacky at times (but hey, it was meant to have that sci-fi angle with a touch of horror).
Other notables in 2014's Left Behind are Back to the Future's Lea Thompson, who plays Rayford's wife Irene in the film. Irene is a fairly new born again believer who is accused by her jaded family members as having rammed the gospel down their throats. However, Thompson plays her with a genuineness that's usually missing from Christians on film. Unfortunately, her part is brief and short-lived; I would have loved to see more from her here. As for the rest of the central cast, little-known actress Cassi Thomson plays Rayford's daughter Chloe and gets a great deal of screentime, but there's really only so much she can do with the script at hand; Chad Michael Murray looks a little lost playing Cameron "Buck" Williams, as if he's doing his very best at trying to play Colin Farrell than anyone else; singer Jordin Sparks overdoes it (but has terrible dialog anyway) as a hysterical mother dealing with a missing child; and Martin Klebba, from the Pirates of the Caribbean series, is inexplicably belligerent towards everyone due to his diminutive stature. It's kind of a running gag that's never funny. I liked Klebba in the Pirates films, but he seems so out of place here, and his dialog so awful, that it just makes his scenes tough to watch. To make things worse, Sparks is sometimes in the same scenes, and when she hysterically pulls a gun (how she got it on the plane is unexplained as well) on people accusing them of being in on a conspiracy plot by her husband to kidnap her now-missing child, the film feels like it's risen to a whole new level of crazy.
Vic Armstrong is in the director's chair here, and while the cast and crew had nothing but glowing things to say about the Hollywood veteran in the Blu-Ray extras, it's more than apparent that he's a novice as a head director. If you look up his impressive filmography, he's been a stunt double or stunt coordinator and second unit director for many, many notable movies--from Raiders of the Lost Ark to most of the Pierce Brosnan James Bond films to Mission: Impossible III and many, many more (He was also often Harrison Ford's stunt double for many films!). But producer Paul Lalonde is responsible once again for the screenplay and, coupled with Armstrong's flimsy direction, it makes for a shoddy overall production. The very first attempt to bring up the topic of God happens while Buck is in an airport just before meeting Chloe, and already it feels hamfisted and forced (i.e. not natural). It opens up the film's topic of spirituality, however, and we soon learn that Rayford has all but left his wife Irene because of her extreme Christian beliefs and is taking a flight that will lead to an affair with flight attendant Hattie (a pretty but otherwise flatly drawn "love" interest for Rayford, played by Nicky Whelan). Cage makes the tension believable, but, again, there's only so much that he can do with the script at hand. What the filmmakers have strived for this time around is to make the film be about the rapture itself, setting half of the film exclusively aboard an airplane, while we watch Chloe navigate the chaos on the ground. Conceptually, it's not a bad idea; the film Non-Stop was set entirely on an airplane while a mystery unfolds involving someone intending to kill passengers mysteriously unless money gets wired to a specific bank account, while pinning it on a troubled U.S. Marshal. A season 3 episode of Person Of Interest was set almost exclusively on an airplane where Jim Caviezel's character had to find out who might be a threat to national security on a large plane full of passengers. Both stories created tension in the claustrophobic space trapped in the sky, and Left Behind almost has that at its fingertips here, but just doesn't have the skillful direction or writing to make it happen. In the capable hands of the right writer or director, this could be a truly terrifying and tense film concept.
To make matters worse, the film alienates the very people who would primarily support it. There's no mention of Jesus by name in the film; all mentions of God are kept to just "God," and the film rides the fear factor of missing loved ones (by the millions) and the realization by some that their God-fearing loved ones had it right. This revelation was saved till later in the film, however, which would have made for a more chilling effect if most viewers didn't already know what the film was about, and if its topic of spiritual matters had been a little more delicate from the get-go. Still, things get intense enough that it's tough not to ponder what living through something like this might be like. At the very least, the concept should wake up some believers who have gotten a little too complacent about their own faith or the unbelievers who surround them. And that's something important viewers can take away from this.
One final blight against the film to note is how atrocious the film's score is (I could also go on about how abysmal the promo art for this film has been too, but I think the blu-ray cover speaks for itself). I've said time and again that a good score can make or break a film. And if the movie is already suffering from some production values (don't get me started on the weak special effects), then a terrible film score can do even more damage. When we first meet Cage's Rayford in his car as he slips off his wedding ring and gets out, a blaring jazzy saxophone dominates the soundscape, making it sound like something from a late 80s/early 90s TV show, not a big-budget 2014 movie trying so hard to be taken seriously.
Despite some of the passengers being far too cheesy or unrealistic, the plane scenes are probably the better of the film once it gets moving. A few shots of pandemonium work, while others are just silly, and a couple "action" moments feel so low budget that it actually brings the scope of the film down considerably. One scene has Chloe dodging a car as it rips through the window in the mall. Then, as she runs through a parking lot, a small plane crashes into a parked car in front of her and bursts into flames. Later, a person is shot with a shotgun and it throws their body through a store window right in front of her. Then she finds herself on a bridge where an empty school short bus flops off a bridge onto the embankment below. All of them feel exceptionally small in scale. To contrast, the pandemonium scenes set in Philadelphia for World War Z are big and tense. Even some craziness at a convenience store set in New Jersey in that film felt more real and tense than here. In Left Behind, it's much more like little mishaps and scary happenstances follow Chloe around instead of it being something that surrounds and encompasses her.
The content of the film is light, although Chloe does say the "S" word at least once, and Hattie says "Oh God!" in a panicked state a few times after the rapture takes place. There's implications that Rayford's sleeping with Hattie, but then we find out that they hadn't officially done anything yet, but were planning to before everything goes down. There's the aforementioned violence and just a tiny bit of blood in the background of a couple scenes, but it's mostly tame.
Left Behind (2014), in some ways, despite all it has going against it, remains an improvement upon the films before it. But still, there's so much to pick apart and get frustrated about, that it really seems ridiculous how much of a mess it is. Cage and Thompson were not surprisingly the best thing about this film, but I suppose that isn't saying a whole lot. Maybe some day, a really great movie will be made about the rapture that's appropriately gripping and will scare viewers straight, but until then, 2014's adaptation of the Left Behind book still isn't it. And if you're looking for a good spiritual film with Cage at the center, look into Knowing instead.- John DiBiase (reviewed: 1/4/15)
Behind the Scenes Featurette (19:01) - The cast and crew and the book series' authors talk about the story and the film and the history of the Left Behind story. They also talk about the stunts in the film, as well as the cast. Nicolas Cage talks briefly about signing on, mostly because of the family aspect of the story, and his interest in spiritual subject matter in films.
Behind the Scenes Slideshow (3:14) - This is a video slideshow of photos from the movie set, with a gospel cover of Larry Norman's "I Wish We'd All Been Ready" as its soundtrack.
Interviews (31:24) - There are over thirty minutes of cast and crew interviews, each available to be watched separately or all together at once. Almost all of the interviews from the above behind the scenes featurette are included in these separate interviews here, with additional footage as well. Nicolas Cage is the first one, and he talks about the character, why he picked the film, and reveals that his brother Mark--who's a pastor--pushed him to do the film. Chad Michael Murray's video is super short and he talks about how he looked into the books as preparation for the role of Buck. Cassi Thomson talks about the character of Chloe and how she could relate to her as a character. She also said she was excited to do the film because it's an "action movie." She also talks about working with Nic and Vic. Nicky Whelan talks about Hattie and her transformation throughout the story, and what it was like working with both Nic and Vic as well. Jordin Sparks talks about her character Shasta, growing up on the books, and trying to prepare herself for a role as a single mother when she has no kids yet of her own. Alec Rayme shares about his faith and having worked with Nic Cage before, and how working on the film actually tested his faith. Paul Lalonde (producer/writer) talks about the story and compares the two movies (this one and the original). He reveals how they deliberately went for a mainstream feel and approach for the message. He also shares how they didn't want to cover the whole book and just wanted to focus on the rapture. Finally, director Vic Armstrong briefly talks about having been a fan of the story.
Authors Reflections - These two are only available to watch separately and are both surprisingly brief:
Tim Lahaye (2:18) - The first video, from nonfiction writer Tim Lahaye, has him talking about where he first got the idea for the first Left Behind book. (And most of this footage is in the above behind the scenes featurette.)
Jerry B. Jenkins (2:15), the book's co-author, talks about writing and finding the voice of the characters.
Aside from theatrical trailers, that about rounds out the bonus features for Left Behind.- John DiBiase, (reviewed: 1/3/15)
Disclaimer: All reviews are based solely on the opinions of the reviewer. Most reviews are rated on how the reviewer enjoyed the film overall, not exclusively on content. However, if the content really affects the reviewer's opinion and experience of the film, it will definitely affect the reviewer's overall rating.
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