Part of me really wants to read the Left Behind book series. Just load up the description of any one of the 16(!!) books and you’ll understand why. They are absolutely, off-the-wall bonkers crazy. From what I can tell, the later books devolve into low-rent Christian Metal Gear, and they sound kind of amazing. Just for example, the anti-christ is a genetically-engineered UN Secretary General descended from Roman emperors named Nicolae Carpathia. And his right-hand man is a Catholic (these books are firmly evangelical) who can call down fire from the sky with power given to him by Lucifer.
The only problem is that the Left Behind books are terribly written and there are better ways to consume batshit crazy stories, so I never got around to reading them. However, I was always curious. And when I found out that the first book was being adapted into a film starring Nicolas Cage? Well, you could say I was a little excited about that. I knew there was already a series of movies, but this was before I was writing long blog posts about bad movies, so I never sought them out. But for Nic Cage I was willing to make an exception.
Left Behind came and went in theaters with such little fanfare that I barely noticed it. Then it slipped onto DVD and finally emerged on Netflix, where it reminded me of its existence. And just in time, since I was wrapping up my Atlas Shrugged recaps.
Unfortunately, Left Behind strips the book of almost all its high level insanity. There’s no anti-christ, no global war, nothing. The movie doesn’t even cover all of the book, just the first day after the rapture and a single airline flight. When I was done, I realized I really should have watched the first adaptation, which does touch on the crazy.
But I was too late. I already made all the gifs and everything. So without any further statements of regret, here’s 2014’s Left Behind.
The film opens with Chloe Steele returning to New York to visit her father, Rayford, for his birthday. Yes, his name is Rayford Steele. And yes, he is the character portrayed by Nicolas Cage. Unfortunately, Rayford Steele is an Important Airline Pilot and he has been called to work to fly a plane to London on his birthday. Everyone is really sad about this.
Well, everyone is sad about this except Rayford Steele. You see, things aren’t going so well at home for ol’ Rayford and his wife, Irene. Irene recently Found God after witnessing an earthquake on television and has been absolutely insufferable about her newfound Christianity. It’s so bad that even a Good Family Man like Rayford Steele has been driven into the arms of a pretty co-worker, a stewardess named Hattie.
Rayford didn’t realize that Chloe was coming home from college for his birthday and has to make a split-second decision on whether to go through with his plan to jet off to London with Hattie. He chooses to go with the stewardess, who he hopes will become his mistress. To be fair to Rayford, he’s already told his wife that there’s no way he can get out of running this route. Staying in New York for his daughter would make it blindingly obvious that he can’t stand to be around her anymore (because of her Christianity) so maybe he’s trying to save her that pain.
Or, y’know, he really wants to sleep with the stewardess.
While poor Chloe Steele has been abandoned by her father, she meets a charming young reporter named Buck Williams, who is played by Chad Michael Murray. You know, the star of the CW’s One Tree Hill. Chloe and Buck meet after Chloe spots a group of Christian missionaries hassling Buck about a story he produced. She rants at them about how Christians are crazy and Buck immediately deduces, reporter that he is, that she has a wacko Christian mother. What a way to start a romance!
Note: the film isn’t quite clear on whether Buck is a television personality or a serious investigative journalist. It vacillates between those two possibilities as needed. One minute, he’s being recognized by almost everyone in the film. And the next he’s a gonzo, boots-on-the-ground investigator. I dunno. He’s clearly a self-insert for the author of the book.
Sadly, Buck Williams has a ticket on the very same plane to London, so Chloe must also bid him farewell. Just before Buck is about to leave her, one of Rayford’s co-workers recognizes Chloe and asks her to give Rayford two concert tickets that he requested for a concert in London. This proves to Chloe that (a) her father is probably cheating and (b) he wasn’t just immediately called away for work, but planned this trip weeks ahead. Sucks for Chloe, though things are about to get a whole lot worse.
Meanwhile, on the plane, we are introduced to a motley crew of secondary characters in first class: an alien conspiracy aficionado, a drug-addicted heiress, the wife of a football player, a little person who likes to gamble, an inconsiderate rich businessman, and a Muslim. Hoo boy, do I know where that’s going.
Rayford receives the concert tickets along with a note from Chloe. He realizes that she must know about his plan and feels a pang of regret. But just like his daughter, his day is also going to get a whole lot worse.
At this point, we’re over twenty minutes into the film and no one has been raptured yet. Stranger yet, every Christian we’ve encountered has been just as obnoxious as the non-Christians say. The missionaries in the airport were loud and pushy. And when we meet Chloe’s mom (Rayford’s wife) she comes of as legit off-her-rocker. She is played by Lea Thompson with a bizarre, drugged-on-valium affect that verges on self-parody. Within minutes of Chloe’s arrival, she starts a really dumb argument about whether or not God brought Chloe to New York.
This prompts Chloe to run out of the house with her little brother and go to the mall to watch some dudes breakdance. No I am not making this up.
While Chloe is distracted by the breakdancers, her little brother wanders off to go look at a toy drone. She panics for a second, finds him, and breathes a sigh of relief. We’re now thirty minutes in and no one has been raptured. Fortunately that’s about to change. Chloe gives her brother a hug and well…
Chloe’s brother is gone! And he’s not the only one! All the other children standing outside the Chick Fil-A vanish as well! Chloe freaks out, which is the natural reaction. Meanwhile everyone else starts looting. I’m not kidding. Within minutes of a significant portion of the population disappearing from this mall, everyone is looting.
I’m not sure what to take away from this. I get that people freak out and act weird during a tragedy, but just how many folks are even able to transfer from “oh no, people just vanished” to “grab a widescreen television” in less time than your average Smashing Pumpkins song? Apparently a ton of them.
The rapture hits the entire world simultaneously, which means trouble for Rayford Steele’s plane. A few people vanishing is weird, but it’s especially weird when you are thousands of feet above the ground.
Rayford Steele’s co-pilot was taken and, for some reason, had turned off the autopilot shortly before the rapture. This causes the plane to go into a dive and Rayford must run into the cabin to stop it. He discovers his co-pilots clothes in the empty seat and thankfully ignores this weirdness long enough to pull the plane steady. The passengers, however, aren’t so resilient.
Ever the man of action, Rayford releases the oxygen masks above the seats and depressurizes the cabin, forcing everyone into compliance. Once they are all seated and masked-up, he emerges from the cockpit to calm them.
Rayford doesn’t have answers for them, but he does have very loud words. Now, I’ve never been yelled at by Nicolas Cage but I can imagine that it is a fairly effective method of inducing compliance. Angry Cage Face is successful, at least for the moment, and Rayford returns to the cockpit to try and contact someone–anyone–on the ground.
Back in New York, the film struggles to find something for Chloe to do. Her mother and brother have disappeared and every other named character is on the plane. This gives her no one to play off of, or even engage in conversation. We get several short scenes of her wandering around some part of Queens, yelling her brother’s name. At one point, she becomes convinced that he is in the hospital (which makes no sense) and tries to get inside. The front door is mobbed, so she breaks in a side entrance.
Of course, Chloe’s brother isn’t in the hospital. In fact, no children are. All the children have disappeared, along with all the babies.
Back in the not-so-friendly-skies, Rayford runs into a problem. More specifically, he runs into another plane. Now, I’m no expert on aviation. But I know the approximate size of an airplane and I have a pretty good idea how much airspace exists between New York and London. Even assuming there are general “routes”, I have to imagine the likelihood of two planes colliding in midair over the ocean is really fucking small, even if one of them is stuck on autopilot. These sorts of accidents happen near and around airports, where (naturally) air traffic tends to concentrate. But the sky over the Atlantic Ocean is a huge place.
Nevertheless, Rayford realizes that he is on a collision course with another plane and has to pull up to avoid direct impact. Fortunately, no plane can withstand the withering gaze of Nicolas Cage, so disaster is narrowly averted. Well, for Rayford’s plane. The other plane isn’t so lucky.
The plane formerly piloted by two good Christians goes down somewhere over the Atlantic Ocean. They are never spoken of again. At first, it appears that Rayford saved everyone on board his heathen flight, but it quickly becomes apparent that a damaged wing is still problematic. They need to turn back and return to New York because the plane is leaking fuel, can’t pull up, and oh yeah…
The passengers had remained (relatively) calm up until now, but this is the breaking point. All sorts of shit begins to go down. The rich heiress shoots up and starts talking about how none of this is real. And the angry little person decides that this is clearly the fault of the Muslim, even though that makes absolutely no sense.
(As an aside, I feel awful referring to these two characters as “the little person” and “the Muslim” but they are not given names within the dialog of the film and this is literally ALL the characterization they receive, aside from being Angry About Being Stereotyped, which is hella ironic)
Amidst the chaos, the little person sneaks down the aisle of the plane and rummages through the Muslim’s bags. Insulted, the Muslim grabs his bag, reaches inside dramatically, and pulls out…
…a toothbrush! Oh, Left Behind, you really pulled one over on the audience there. We all assumed that he somehow sneaked past security with a weapon. But, no, it’s just an ordinary toothbrush. See, he’s like the rest of us, except more angry.
Back on the ground, Chloe is still wandering around aimlessly without anyone to talk to. Except now she’s figuring out that the people who were taken were religious and things are about to get EVEN MORE HEAVY HANDED.
When Chloe realizes who has disappeared, it dawns on her that maybe her mother was right about everything. Somehow, crazy Ms. Steele understood that the rapture was going to happen. All her obnoxious preaching was her way of trying to save her family. Chloe goes to her family church, where she is shocked to find her pastor. Finally, she has someone to talk to.
Her pastor explains that, yes, this is the rapture. All the true believers were taken by god to save them from the tribulations to come. He knows this is true because he wasn’t taken: he was not a true believer himself, he just spoke the words. EXPOSITION AHOY! But if you thought the pastor’s speech was bad, things are about to get a whole lot worse. Because Nicolas Cage also needs to learn his lesson.
Rayford searches through the belongings of his co-pilot and tells his stewardess girlfriend to bring him the purse belonging to a fellow stewardess who disappeared. He goes through them and, well, I’m just going to let the visual storytelling speak for itself.
Okay, so the co-pilot has John 3:16 engraved on his watch. But that could be, like, a brand or something. What about the stewardess.
Rayford tearfully realizes that his wife was right. All the crazy religious talk was her last-ditch effort to save his soul. And now it’s too late. Naturally, Rayford’s stewardess girlfriend doesn’t take this too well. Just hours ago, they were planning a romantic evening in London. Now Rayford’s (a) admitting he’s married and (b) trying to board the God train even though it’s pulled out of the station.
She is probably the most sympathetic character in this damn movie.
As the plane approaches New York, Rayford finally makes contact with air traffic control. He is informed that all the runways in New York are jammed up and they will have to continue to Syracuse to land. There’s only one problem: remember that jet of flame shooting out of the wing? That was fuel, and the plane barely has enough to make it to New York, let alone Syracuse.
Meanwhile in New York, Chloe Steele has decided to kill herself. Yes, you read that right. She has climbed to the top of a bridge (which, c’mon, isn’t really necessary if you’re gonna jump off the bridge) and is about to take the final plunge.
Look, I realize that this has been a bad day for Chloe. Her father was revealed as a (potential) adulterer, the rest of her family disappeared, and she realized that her mother’s religious rants were correct. But here’s the problem: outside of the brief conversation with the preacher, Chloe’s had no meaningful dialog with anyone since the rapture. All of her scenes have been silent wandering through empty environments, and so there’s been no opportunity to ramp up to this. It’s cheap and totally out of left field.
Just as Chloe is about to jump, her phone rings. It’s Buck Williams, the handsome investigative reporter who is now assisting her father in the cockpit of the plane! Apparently she just needed to climb to the top of a bridge to get good enough reception. Or something. Buck talks to Chloe and tells her how much he’s been thinking of her, then hand the phone to her dad who is surprisingly cool about this 30+ year old dude trying to get with his college-aged daughter.
Rayford apologizes to Chloe, they come to terms with the fact that Chloe’s mother was right, and Rayford tells Chloe about the dire situation in the air. Not enough fuel, no runway, etc. Once their conversation is over, Chloe steps down from the bridge and switches from “absolute despair” to “relentless optimism”. That is to say: she decides to try and make a landing strip for the plane ALL BY HERSELF.
Chloe steals a motorcycle and rides it out to a newly-constructed stretch of highway that is covered in industrial machinery. She calls Rayford again and tells him that she’s clearing a path for him, then drives a truck into a port-a-potty. Really.
Most of the equipment Chloe has to clear away is easily moved–trucks, cones, light wooden barriers. But as the plane begins its descent, she realizes there is a large paving truck that needs to be driven away from the highway. She gets out of her pickup and boards the vehicle, starting up a tense sequence that is basically stolen from an Austin Powers joke.
Chloe uses her belt to tie the controls of the slow-moving paving truck then gets out to start a fire and signal Rayford where to land. He’s not sure there will be enough room, but he tells Chloe over the phone that it is fine so that she won’t think a crash is her fault. You know, because this film totally has the message that it’s okay to lie to your family if there’s a good reason.
Rayford puts the plane down on the makeshift runway and it speeds towards a truck full of gasoline at the end. Note that Chloe didn’t tell Rayford about this truck, so any impending disaster probably would be her fault after all.
Do I even need to say what happens? Of course the plane doesn’t hit the truck full of gasoline.
Thanks to the power of family, love, and newfound religion, Rayford and Chloe safely bring the plane to a stop just shy of total disaster. The plane is evacuated and they are reunited. I’d say that they live happily ever after, but that’s actually completely the opposite of what will happen. Because the rapture signals the beginning of the tribulation and, while I’m no Evangelical bible scholar, I bet the tribulation isn’t a fun time. To drive this home, Chloe has the final line as they watch the city burning on the horizon. “I’m afraid this is just the beginning.”
Oh, and the Muslim kicks the little person out of the plane.
Left Behind is a bad movie, but not the bad movie I hoped for. I wanted Nicolas Cage fighting the forces of the Antichrist, not flying a plane. As I understand it, this is only the beginning of the first book. I can see why it was pared down to a basic disaster story–the rest of the book is probably unpalatable for a true Hollywood film–but it is nevertheless disappointing.
Don’t watch Left Behind because it’s not even funny in the way that most bad Nic Cage films are. It’s just preachy and boring. And I actually imagine it is fairly insulting to Christians as well. Every speaking character identified as a “good Christian” is both depicted and described as obnoxious and overbearing. Even if they’re proven right in the end, it’s not a good look. I can’t say who this film is for, but it certainly isn’t me.
Next up? Maybe I’ll watch the Kirk Cameron version after all.