Director: Vic Sarin.
Writers: Tim LaHaye, Jerry B. Jenkins,
Alan B. McElroy, Paul Lalonde, Joe Goodman
The Bible ends with this absolutely bizarre book known as "Revelations" or "the Apocalypse," a mind-bending collection of poetic imagery that has powered the phantasies of devout Christians, wannabe Satanists, and heavy-metal lyricists for generations. How did it come to pass that a book that begins so simply-- "in the beginning, God created the Heavens and the Earth"-- ends with a dragon knocking stars out of the sky, a seven-headed ten-horned Beast rising out of the sea, and four Horsemen spreading pestilence? Suggestions abound:
(1) John, its author, took hallucinogenic drugs. While this has been seriously proposed, it's hard to prove and hardly explains the book's lasting popularity.
(2) John, writing during a time when Christians faced significant persecution from the Roman Empire, used a deliberately obscure, symbolic style to avoid Imperial censure. A good case has been made for "the Beast" being a reference to then-Emperor and megalomaniac, Nero. Revelations then becomes an historical text, still encouraging to those facing difficulties. It's a good explanation, accepted by some Christians but rejected by others.
(3) John had a vision from God showing him the future. This particular view has been an important one throughout Christian history, and interest in it has grown in the last two centuries. In particular, John Darby's interpretation of Revelations has become gospel for many fundamentalist Christians. In its various forms, this explanation provides the greatest opportunity for engrossing legends, fictional embellishments, and marketing ventures.
Early Christians expected to see JC again any day, since he'd promised that "there be some standing here which shall not taste of death, till they see the Son of man coming in his kingdom." Later Europeans concocted the Wandering Jew, an immortal Hebrew whose existence was necessitated by the fact that the crowd to whom Jesus spoke was long dead, with no second coming in sight. Groups such as the Millerites and the Jehovah's Witnesses have drawn from the book definitive predictions about the end of the world; the inaccuracy of these predictions has been even more definitive. Hal Lindsay's endless "end-time" books purchased him a comfy semi-retirement. Your more rebellious born-again youths sometimes wear "In Case of Rapture, You Can Have My Shirt" t's. Some guy actually hung out on a scripturally-determined location in Israel on New Year's Eve, 2000, hoping to get a ringside seat for the Battle of Armageddon. And of course, thousands of historical figures have been identified as the Antichrist, the Man of Sin. In the 1500s, a popular rumour gave the particulars of his birth. In 1980, televangelist Pat Robertson claimed the Antichrist was alive and in his late twenties; meanwhile, a less well-known fanatic, Constance Cumbey argued that Robertson himself was the long-awaited Man of Sin! As Ned "the devil" Flanders said, it's always who you least expect.
My favourite Apocalyptic products are the videos put out by TV evangelists that the faithful are supposed to buy and give to "unsaved" loved ones, so that when all the good Christians disappear in the Rapture, those they leave behind will have a "how-to" guide on surviving the Tribulation and getting on The Big Guy's good side while there's still time.
Perhaps the most successful Revelations-based marketing venture are the best-selling "Christian thrillers" written by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins. A small Canadian company, Cloud Ten, has filmed some of these, often using such stars as Gary Busey, Margot Kidder, Mr. T, Howie Mandel, and others whom the limelight has left behind.
Left Behind was Cloud Ten's Great Experiment, an evangelical thriller that was supposed to draw in mainstream audiences. It's not a complete disaster. But it's not very good, either.
Kirk Cameron stars as Buck, a reporter for "GNN" who finds his life changed when children and good Christians suddenly disappear. Ignoring the question of why God needs to take their bodies, Cameron sets out to uncover the TruthTM.
While the film leaves that and many other questions unanswered, it begins with some good pacing. Like a fundamentalist X-Files," it moves from place to place, with subtitled location shots establishing where we are. The most amusing of these has venerable Toronto landmark Casa Loma standing in for Great Britain.
The thriller pacing does not, alas, last. All too often, the film digresses into slow-moving religious tract. The story loses dramatic tension during these scenes, and the conversions of the main characters to Christianity-- helped along by one of those "Post-Rapture" vids-- are not terribly convincing. Only Cameron brings any believability at all to his Big Moment. That gets ruined, however, by the director's decision to pipe in banal Christian Rock to underscore the moment, thus choking out what emotional integrity the scene might have had.
The Rapture scenes themselves, despite a shoestring budget, occasionally have power, with weeping mothers seeking children who have left only diapers behind, abandoned dogs patiently awaiting owners who will never return, and driverless vehicles causing serious commuter problems. In the scene where the non-Christians aboard a plane discover that several people are missing (the pilot, fortunately, was not a born-again Christian. Otherwise those passengers would be toast, and very little time left to repent. Let's hear it for a merciful God), the ensuing panic has some sense of conviction. But these scenes pale beside similar ones in The Quiet Earth and they work too infrequently. They also form only one small part of Left Behind. The film has larger problems.
Take the Antichrist, "Nicolae Carpathia," played rather woodenly by Gordon Currie. I'm not really spoiling anything by revealing here what is concealed until the conclusion: that he is, indeed, Satan's main man. It's obvious five minutes into the film. Besides, he's a UN official, who espouses a pro-peace, pro-disarmament, ecumenical message and wants to feed the poor. What else would such a character be doing in this film, save supreme evil?
In any case, Carpathia's, um, revelation as the Antichrist is a classic example of the film's major problem. Left Behind neither foreshadows nor explains his supernatural powers, revealed suddenly in a key scene. If you know the relevant lore, you're not surprised-- but a film sold to a wide audience has to sell its premises to that audience. I know the people who made this movie really believe the future's going to play out this way. They still need to treat the film as any mainstream director would, say, demonic possession, or space-warping starships, or Malkovich portals. You have to make the phantastic element seem plausible, at least within the film's world. The need for internal believability is even greater when the film wants to convince its audience that the film's world will one day be our real one. Nothing is done to convince us this is real. Unless you bring certain beliefs, in abundance, to Left Behind, many scenes will likely, rapidly become parody.
Carpathia's final plotting proves a bit problematic, too. He dodges a threat to his power by killing two people. Problem is, they only represent larger corporations. It doesn't matter that he has left them both dead and discredited; the legal deal on which they planned to act remains in place. Perhaps a sequel resolves that problem. Perhaps not.
That brings us to the film's final problem: it has no ending. Of course, it's adapted from a series, and this story necessarily has to end inconclusively. The filmmakers, however, have not handled this very well. I felt like I had sat through the two-hour premiere of Tribulation: the Series, but with no hope of tuning in next week to follow the latest adventure of our intrepid Christian band.
In the end, fans of LaHaye and Jenkins will likely overlook the film's flaws. But it's not good enough to entertain seriously the non-faithful, and a little too good to be entirely ridiculous. If you want amusing religious paranoia and end-time conspiracy theory, tune in free to, say, John Hagee or look up Jack Chick's comic tracts. As for this video, it should be (yeah, you saw it coming) left behind.
A variation of this review, by this reviewer, first appeared at Bad Movie Night.