Double spoiler alert: Many plot details from Left Behind are discussed below. Do not read if you are wary of learning what happens in this film or in the Bible.
Films based on books are always difficult to pull off. Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby was odd. The film version of Holes didn’t really measure up to the perfect game Sachar pitched for 240 paperback pages. And don’t even get me started on Charlie St. Cloud. But it gets even trickier when it’s a movie (Left Behind) based on another movie (2000’s Kirk Cameron–starring Left Behind) based on a book (Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins’s Left Behind) based on an interpretation of something from another book (the Bible) based on the foundation of an entire religion (Christianity).
It’s just a lot of pressure. When it’s that entrenched, there are a lot of people to please — and a considerable number to repel.
The thing about this Left Behind, however, is that it had a chance. A chance to be above-decent. But it fell victim to exactly what allowed it to exist: its origin story.
Before describing Left Behind’s big blunder and how it should have been fixed, it’s time to acknowledge a terribly buried lede: Nicolas Cage is the star of this film. And he spends a great deal of the film flying a plane, one carrying One Tree Hill’s Chad Michael Murray, who is a famous investigative journalist and has a big crush on Nic Cage’s daughter. Also on the plane, Jordin Sparks. And occasionally she has a gun.
So the star power is there. It’s literally a “so Nic Cage, Jordin Sparks, and the guy from One Tree Hill walk onto a plane” joke, except it’s real life — as in, it’s a movie and it’s all fake but they faked it IRL. And, while the film has flaws in its script and acting, none of the actors do anything to make this film any worse. In fact, Cage and CMM do things to make it quite watchable. Especially after that thing happens.
The thing when the people on the plane and also all over the world vanish. At the same time.
That’s the thing that the film messed up. They messed up the Rapture. The most important aspect of this film, they messed up. And it could have been fixed, so easily.
The obvious fix: don’t name it Left Behind. I had no idea this film was happening until a week ago, but when I learned of the name, I knew what was going down. I remember when they used to sell the Left Behind series in three-book packages at Sam’s Club. I know it’s about the Rapture. I am aware of what happens in the Rapture. And because of this, I know that in this film, before seeing it, a bunch of people are suddenly not going to be where they once were. And I know that the reason will have everything to do with God.
But what if the viewer didn’t know that. What if it was called, say, Wait, Where They Go?
What if, as it happens in this film, a semi-random smattering of the population vanishes into thin air? And you, the viewer, don’t know why. And you also don’t know, initially, if it’s just on the plane or if it’s everywhere. And then you, like everyone else, begin the process of figuring out what in Jesus’s name just happened. On the plane, as obviously freaked-out passengers try to make sense of The Event — humans disappearing with only their clothes and belongings remaining — many theories are raised. Were they abducted? Did the plane pass through a wormhole? Aliens? Are the people still there but just invisible? Are they all having a perfectly synced bad acid trip? Or are those left on the plane actually actors hired by Jordin Sparks’s husband (who is the quarterback for the Jets), and did they drug Jordin Sparks, land the plane, let the husband take their daughter, and then take off again, all before Jordin woke up? (This scenario is your one hint about why Jordin angrily ended up with a gun.)
What if those were the thoughts the viewer was also having alongside the passengers? Everyone involved, figuring out the great mystery. Eventually — of course — we’d figure out that the real answer was the Rapture. But the key is eventually, not immediately.
In Left Behind, we spend half the movie waiting for everyone to figure out what we already know. And it’s boring. And frustrating. It’s like watching someone try to solve a jigsaw puzzle but refuse to initially separate the edge pieces and middle pieces. And then you’re like, have you ever solved a puzzle before? But then you don’t want to force yourself on the situation. But it’s steadily driving you crazy. And then you realize the person isn’t even pretending to use the picture on the jigsaw puzzle box as a guide. So you just take a nap.
Sure, the argument of “Well, we knew that the Titanic was going to hit that iceberg eventually” has some merit. But the point of Titanic wasn’t to convince you that icebergs can sink ships. Also, why are you bringing up Titanic? It’s not like a film surrounding a disaster in which some people live and some people die and it’s largely out of anyone’s control has anything to do with Left Behind.
Digressions aside, Left Behind is hurt by its inability to hide the big reveal. If the powers that be pitched this film as an emotional, contained disaster movie, like Flight or Speed seen through the hidden camera of God, it’s a completely different film. And a better one.
But it’s not a bad film. I watched the entire thing. And if there’s one thing that’s handled well, it’s the drama of Where on earth is Nic Cage going to land this plane full of sinners? Or are they going to die? You have a feeling they will succeed, either by way of a Sullenberger or the sudden appearance of a magical landing strip (a reverse land rapture, if you will). But there are moments when I thought they might keep it way too real and kill everyone who got left behind. They didn’t, which is comforting, but the film also doesn’t leave you on a happy note, which I respect. Because then you’re left with the question of whether getting left behind is a good or bad thing. Yes, the world is going down the drain, but it’s kind of cool you get to keep living? Which can be a good thing? Right? Wrong?
There will be plenty more time to think about this, because there are 15 more of these books, and a few of the stars have already signed on for two more films. The future is best articulated by Nic Cage’s character’s daughter. When her new beau (CMM) says, “It looks like the end of the world,” she ominously replies, “Not yet. I’m afraid this is just the beginning.”