Left Behind delivers what everyone has been asking for these long years: to play in the sandbox with Big Hollywood. While it's not the perfect film, Left Behind satisfies 90% of the key things Christian filmmakers have wanted to accomplish since they began their own niche of faith-based movies.
To begin with, Left Behind provides a collaboration of top talent from every part of the filmmaking process, from script to cast to crew. Writer Paul Lalonde wrote the original Left Behind film trilogy and has learned a lot since his early days of screenwriting. Choosing to focus more on the characters than the plot of the entire original book, Lalonde captures the character development that we all look for (even if subconsciously) in Hollywood films. Then, he invited Vic Armstrong to direct the film. From stunt man to stunt coordinator to director, Armstrong brings almost fifty years of experience from many of the top action films in Hollywood’s history. If it's a Blockbuster action film, he's probably been involved. Add to that a talented list of actors, including A-list actor, Nicholas Cage, American Society of Cinematographer’s winner of the Lifetime Achievement Award, Jack N. Green, and a composer with over thirty years of experience in film, and you've got a recipe for success! With this much experience on set, you’re sure to produce an eye-catching presentation of pretty much any story.
Three things made this film above par for Christian films. First, the characters were extremely believable. Once the Christians are taken, the remaining unbelievers behave in very normal, secular ways. When faced with a cataclysmic event like the rapture, they do not turn to faith first. Instead, they turn to reason, science, and even superstition. From government conspiracy, to alternate universes, to alien abduction, the film explores every supernatural possibility other than the fulfillment of God’s prophecy. In fact, Ray Steele (Nicholas Cage) takes almost half the film to figure out the faith connection between the people who have disappeared. Steele also relies on his emergency training, intuition, and cool-headed focus to get him through the emergency. To me, the absence of faith knowledge and faith practice makes the entire story that much more convincing.
Second, the acting performances saved the day. While the supporting actors gave average to above-average performances, the seasoned actors held the story together. Without their professionalism and talent, the film may have suffered a grim fate. Even the best direction, cinematography and editing can’t rescue complicated scenes performed by unconvincing actors. So with quality actors in place (Nicholas Cage, Chad Michael Murray, Cassi Thomson, and Nicky Whelan), the character stories managed to keep up with the action, which brings me to my third point. The action sequences create a successful epic disaster film. I don’t know how much CGI was involved, but it looks like many of the stunts, crashes and disaster scenes (other than exterior jumbo jet shots) were actually filmed live. Live action lends credibility to any film by carrying with it a sense of reality that even the best CGI can’t capture.
The film is not without its problems, however. Lalonde’s intentional focus on the character development inadvertently splits the film in half, with the first half feeling like a drama and the second half operating like an action film. There were also a few odd story elements, like why Chloe (Cassi Thomson) continued to search for her brother after he literally vaporized right in her arms. Why did she think he would be somewhere else in the mall? Some of the continuity was off, as well. The entire event supposedly took place within a couple of hours, and yet the setting often flipped back and forth between day and night at the most inopportune times. There were admittedly a few major CGI issues like the Photoshopped family picture (though I honestly wondered whether it was intentional – it certainly would have been fitting for the storyline!). Lastly, one or two poor performances broke the threshold of believability at times. Though the veteran actors tried to recover those scenes, some things just can’t be helped. But maybe I’m splitting hairs here. Most Hollywood films suffer from two or more of these issues, and it’s admittedly rare to find a perfect film anywhere.
But the biggest problem for Christians might be the film’s message, which may leave them asking, “What was the point?” Christians often want a conversion scene or the suggestion of a “changed” (aka “saved”) character. While one character in Left Behind does transform, it is subtle and understated. So, Christians then might expect the film to reveal something about God, faith, or a sinful person’s need for salvation. But the film doesn’t offer much of that either. Though some faith-based conversations are included, the story is much more about bringing family together in the midst of tragedy. The only difference between this and other blockbuster disaster films (which also usually focus on family ties) is that the Biblical rapture is the backdrop for the epic tragedy.
This may leave some Christians dissatisfied, but in truth, it allows us to flex our film muscles. Here’s why. We need to realize that films without religious conversations can still prompt people to think about spiritual matters. Simply presenting a Biblical event as an authentic reality can make people think twice about what their fate would be if “the Bible was actually true” (unlike Noah from earlier this year, which only blurred the legitimacy of the Biblical event). Secondly, as filmmakers begin to collaborate with Hollywood studios (and they will), Christian writers and directors will need to rely much more on the audience’s film savvy. The audience’s ability to understand nuance, symbolism, subtext and character growth is a reality that has too long been underestimated by Christian filmmakers. Not everything has to be spelled out.
Films like this also allow us to flex our faith muscles. Christian filmmakers who opt for art instead of discourse must begin relying on the influence of the Holy Spirit to change lives and trade in the idea of creating that perfect “Billy Graham Crusade” film that will save millions of lives. God can change hearts using small story details as easily as he uses clear, accurate, presentations of the Gospel. A variety of well-placed, thought-provoking moments can easily be as effective as sermonettes which are too easily dismissed by unbelievers. Some of history’s most impactful films have used the Socratic method of asking leading questions rather than spoon-feeding answers.
My overall support of this film remains strong, despite its occasional failings. Left Behind plays in the arena that most Christian films this year haven’t even approached. For all of its Hollywood collaboration, its leading stars, and its action sequences, Left Behind makes a unique mark in the Christian film genre that few have ever made. I will definitely be looking forward to more films like it and for more films in the franchise.
Left Behind opens nationwide on October 3. Be sure to go see it in theaters opening weekend and support Christian filmmakers. For more information, visit the Left Behind website at www.leftbehindmovie.com.