Rapture-on-a-plane flick 'Left Behind' finds Nic Cage in paycheck mode once again
Left Behind Freestyle Releasing
Director: Vic Armstrong
Screenplay: Paul Lalonde and John Patus, based on the novel by Jerry B. Jenkins and Tim LaHaye
Starring: Nicolas Cage, Cassi Thomson, Chad Michael Murray, Nicky Whelan, Martin Klebba, Jordin Sparks, Gary Grubbs and Lea Thompson
Rated PG-13 / 1 hour, 50 minutes
October 3, 2014
(out of four)
When it was first announced that Nicolas Cage would be starring in a big-screen version of Left Behind - the evangelical novels that spawned a series of cheapo Kirk Cameron-starring movies - I assumed the filmmakers were going after the Nic Cage who opened National Treasure: Book of Secrets to a $65 million first weekend in 2007. Or even the Nic Cage who opened the religiously tinged Knowing to a $25 million first-place weekend as recently as five years ago.
Consider my surprise, then, when I realized that all they wound up with was the modern-day Nic Cage, the Millennials' adopted ironic hero. The Nic Cage of Season of the Witch, Trespass, Stolen, The Wicker Man, Seeking Justice, Rage, The Frozen Ground and (I assume) Outcast. The champion of the mailed-in thriller that you accidentally rent at Redbox. While Cage has publicly defended all of those choices (with, I must admit, apparent sincerity), this latest one remains one of his most conspicuous. Now, there are a lot of reasons to be perplexed by Left Behind, but the biggest is why the producers would simply update one cheap B-movie with another. The 2000 original (which spawned two sequels), shot like a 1980s TV crime procedural and acted like an infomercial, was a direct-to-video clunker that played directly - and exclusively - to its base. You can understand why the owners of the property would want to try and go bigger and reach a wider audience.
And yet, amazingly, this incarnation of Left Behind - directed by Vic Armstrong and starring a recognizable cast that includes Chad Michael Murray, Jordin Sparks and Lea Thompson - feels in some ways even cheaper than its predecessor. At least the 2000 version sprung for a few different locations and made an attempt at dramatic lighting. The "big budget" remake looks like hot garbage, virtually every scene glaringly overlit in that grating way that accentuates the video part of "HD video." That it was shot by accomplished cinematographer Jack N. Green - who was Clint Eastwood's regular DP for 15 years and also shot, among others, The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Serenity - makes it all the more depressing to look at. Or, more accurately, to wince at.
It seems the studio cut corners everywhere. Instead of a broader mystery/conspiracy, this movie is limited mostly to a single location (a crowded airplane), with occasional cutaways to scenes in and around a suburban New York neighborhood. There's not a single distinctive detail about the sets or locations. The budget is listed as $16 million and that seems high. I can assume a decent portion of that went to its name cast. Which once again begs the question: Why splurge on actors like this if you're going to surround them with a movie that looks like it belongs on Lifetime or ABC Family? Beyond the presumably built-in audience - one that has made the likes of God's Not Dead an under-the-radar hit - wasn't the opportunity to reach a mainstream audience part of the appeal of casting someone like Nic Cage in the first place?
Narrowing the scope of the story - in which millions of people worldwide suddenly disappear in a Rapture-like event - down to one central group (a bunch of passengers on a plane piloted by Cage's Ray Steele) could theoretically be a nice way to frame the event in microcosmic terms. But the filmmakers never get that far - they just come up with ways for the characters to panic and theorize before eventually coming to terms with it and/or learning a lesson.
Similarly, the format could have made for a terrific piece of contained, claustrophobic suspense - all those narrow confines inside the plane, the heightened emotions, the chaos - but Armstrong never does anything with it. I don't recall a single expressive camera angle, nor any consistent or discernible tone. That's not nothing.
It feels like the streamlined plot is just an excuse to keep costs down while still getting across the basic Christian message, as the remaining passengers realize that the departed were true believers, and were thus taken to heaven while everyone else was left behind. (Hey, that's the name of the movie!)
The lone secondary subplot involves Ray's daughter Chloe (Cassi Thomson) dealing with the confusion and chaos of the Rapture, including realizing that her Bible-thumping mother (played by Lea Thompson) is one of the departed. The scenes with Chloe expand the film's purview, as she goes from home to hospital to church looking for answers, but mostly they exist to set the stage for the ludicrous way she figures into the film's third act.
Left Behind is one of those movies that feels like it was shot in a day or two. It wasn't, of course* - but there's also little to demonstrate much cinematic or intellectual curiosity went into the making of it.
* That being the case, hats off to the continuity department for keeping Chad Michael Murray's bizarrely unevenly shaved beard consistent throughout, from shot to shot and scene to scene.
While watching the film, it was hard not to think of HBO's The Leftovers, which has a superficially similar premise - 2 percent of the world's population vanishes one day without explanation - but dramatically different intentions. While the series, shepherded by LOST's Damon Lindelof, steadfastly refuses to offer an explanation as to what happened or why - and thus can concentrate on the existential, emotional and philosophical crises that crop up when such an answer is unavailable - Left Behind has nothing but an answer. (And that answer is: All the people who truly believed in Jesus went up to heaven, and everyone else is screwed.) Which makes it an ostensibly shallow film, regardless of its attempts to show characters realizing their mismatched priorities, offering or asking for forgiveness, reconnecting with loved ones, etc.
There's an inherent difficulty in making a movie in which the filmmakers have one, and only one, answer in mind. Especially when it's a simple one. It's telling, in Left Behind, that once the characters come to the film's conclusion about what has happened, there's no in-depth discussion or examination whatsoever. It's a resounding "Oh." Throughout film history, religious filmmakers (Tarkovsky, Bresson, even Terrence Malick) have tackled similar spiritual, philosophical or doctrinal ideas, but have done so by penetrating those ideas, challenging themselves, their characters and their audiences. A movie like Left Behind - which is so convinced of its answer that it lets it go virtually unchallenged - offers no real stimulation, spiritually, intellectually or otherwise, because it is unwilling to ask questions. It only wants to spout answers. When I see a movie like this, the only conclusion I can come to is that its makers do not think very highly of their audience.