Religious Wrong

Worldwide pulp phenomenon known as Left Behind struggles free from video -- but why?

Left Behind: The Movie
Kirk Cameron, taken aback.
Kirk Cameron, taken aback.
If you're a fundamentalist Christian of the sort who gets more divine inspiration from TV than anywhere else, you already know about the phenomenon that is Left Behind. A series of pulp thriller novels (eight and counting) following a group of Antichrist-fighting folks who remain on earth following the evaporation into heaven of the faithful Christians of the world, it's been the biggest pop-culture phenomenon to emerge from the evangelical community since Jim and Tammy. Each successive book has climbed the best-seller lists, a spin-off line has been spawned for younger readers, and now we have Left Behind: The Movie, based on book one in the series. We probably would have had it sooner, but while Hollywood usually snaps up the rights to successful books quickly, there is that whole matter of fundamentalist Christians accusing the movie industry of being evil.

Actually, come to think of it, we did get this movie earlier: It came out on video last October, on a tape that ended with star Kirk Cameron (the born-again former child star of TV's Growing Pains) telling viewers that the film would be released in theaters in February, and that it's your obligation as a Christian to tell everyone you know about it. Why they would pay twice the price of a rental to see it in theaters when the tape is still available is a mystery.

The film begins in Israel, natch, as Kirk Cameron's character, Cameron "Buck" Williams (so nicknamed, the book tells us, because he likes to buck the prevailing trends), is out in the desert interviewing the elderly Chaim Rosenzweig (Colin Fox), a Jewish scientist who has developed a top-secret formula for turning arid ground into fertile land. Everyone around the world wants a piece of it, and to that end a massive military attack is suddenly sprung on the Holy Land. From which country, it is never specified (in the book, it's the Russians, who have mysteriously become an evil empire again -- one stupid enough to send its air force straight into the path of the nuclear missiles they've just launched), but before any serious damage is done, the jets begin spontaneously combusting.

But then things really get nuts. While on a transatlantic flight home, being tended to by his "favorite" flight attendant, Hattie (Chelsea Noble, Cameron's real-life wife), Buck notices that the old man sitting across the aisle from him has gone missing. So have a whole bunch of other passengers. And, as he soon finds out, so have millions around the world. Those who have disappeared all seem to be either children or born-again Christians, thus marking the phenomenon as the Rapture -- a belief that the faithful will suddenly rise up to heaven, leaving their clothes behind, shortly before the Apocalypse and Second Coming. This belief is based upon a dubious interpretation of certain Scriptures (such as I Corinthians) that requires believers not only to take some of the Bible literally, as when it talks about the dead being raised up, but also to blatantly ignore Paul's subsequent statements that the spiritual body, and not the physical, is what will be raised. For the record, the Book of Revelation never mentions the Rapture. Nor the word Antichrist.

Not that it matters too much. For the purposes of a movie, the idea of a mass disappearance is a decent starting point, and the early scenes of discovery are handled well, from Buck's gradual realization of the situation on the plane to the traffic pile-ups that occur on the ground. These scenes and the opening air attack are clearly where the film's budget went: The rest of the movie consists of generic interiors, usually containing two characters or so. In the aftermath of the Rapture, Buck stumbles onto a conspiracy of "international bankers" (often used by conspiracy theorists as a code-phrase for Jews, although not explicitly so here) who are planning to seize control of the United Nations (a.k.a. the New World Order) by manipulating a Romanian philanthropist named Nicolae Carpathia (Gordon Currie) into position as the secretary general, where he will take orders from them. Meanwhile, flight attendant Hattie has conveniently signed on to become Carpathia's press secretary (making her probably the first person in history to make that particular job switch -- a result of her being amalgamated with another character from the book for the sake of brevity).

It's probably useless to complain that the film is not a good adaptation of the book it's based on. After all, followers may care more about message than quality. However, one imagines that the series has been a runaway hit because it appeals to more than just the religious faithful. Created by evangelist Tim LaHaye and writer Jerry B. Jenkins, the books may not be great literature, but they're zippy reads, as the authors clearly know to put the story first and allow the ideology to come through on its own. The film adaptation oversimplifies the book's story lines and endlessly preaches, featuring even more direct scriptural citations than the book does. On the other hand, the movie also tones down the authors' right-wing politics a bit -- in addition to the aforementioned evil Russians, they have the Antichrist decrying Ronald Reagan and praising George Bush (Sr.) for his "New World Order" remark (something the man has never lived down in these circles: Witness Pat Robertson's book on the subject, cleverly titled The New World Order, that connects Bush to a satanic conspiracy). The Antichrist also constantly advocates nuclear disarmament (amusingly, it's pronounced "nuculer" in almost every instance onscreen, presumably so as not to confuse more rural crowds).

Left Behind comes into theaters more than a year too late. Not only is the Y2K apocalypse hype over, but The Omega Code in 1999 already did the whole Revelation and Antichrist bit, with better production values and more gleefully lunatic acting from the likes of Michael York and Michael Ironside. Left Behind's best actor is Kirk Cameron, so you know you're in trouble. The most amusing thing about Left Behind: The Movie is that one of the screenwriters is Alan McElroy, who wrote the movie adaptation of Todd McFarlane's pseudo-satanic comic book Spawn, in addition to several issues of the comic itself.

The videotape of Left Behind features previews for no fewer than three other Christian apocalypse movies, starring the likes of Mr. T, Carol Alt, and Howie Mandel. Each movie looks like more fun than this self-important bore. Rest assured, Left Behind isn't a bad movie because it's Christian; it's a bad movie because it just isn't good.

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