A few weeks ago, I took a look at the 2014 adaptation of the Evangelical Apocalyptic Bestseller Left Behind, mostly because it starred an underutilized Nicolas Cage. However, I was disappointed to find that the film was nothing more than a typical Airplane-but-with-a-straight-face Hollywood thriller, veneered with an awkward Christian finish. Other than the central concept–the rapture–all of the bizarre sci-fi/fantasy and niche Bible interpretation of the books was stripped from the story. There was no conspiracy, no Antichrist, just a man trying to land an airplane that was (somewhat inexplicably) damaged shortly after the rapture.
When I realized that the film lacked almost everything that made the books intriguing to me, I decided to see if the earlier adaptation–which went so deep into the series it received two sequels–had the meat I was looking for. Once I saw that one of the first credited roles in the 2000 adaptation was for Nicolae Carpathia, the aforementioned Antichrist, I knew what I had to do. I had to watch it.
Left Behind 2000 is not a glossy, quasi-high-budget bore like Left Behind 2014. No, this is a rougher, stranger beast that ventures deep into the weeds of the book’s bizarre world. So, in other words, it was actually kind of entertaining.
It’s like a flashback to my Atlas Shrugged posts, because it’s time again to introduce a whole new cast of actors playing the same damn characters. Fortunately, these folks reprise their roles for the rest of the trilogy, which hilariously gives these slapdash films a leg up on the pyramid scheme that somehow funded the Rand adaptations. This means it should be the last time I go through this song and dance for a while.
Replacing our Lord and Savior Nicolas Cage in the role of everyman hero and aspiring cheater Rayford Steele is Brad Johnson. You might think you know who Brad Johnson is, but that is probably just because he has the world’s most generic name and looks like someone tried to create Dennis Quaid in the Skyrim character generator. His most significant credit is a supporting role in the Steven Spielberg film Always. Right now I bet you’re googling to see if I’m lying about Steven Spielberg directing a film called Always. I’m not. Brad Johnson also had a role on the TV series Soldier of Fortune, Inc. along with Dennis Rodman. I’m not lying about that one, either
Rayford’s daughter, Chloe (also pictured above) is played by Janaya Stephens. Like Brad Johnson, she has an incredibly familiar looking face but I haven’t seen a single thing she’s credited in so either this entire cast is teaching me that I dropped in from a parallel universe or I watched a lot of the CBS procedural Flashpoint in my sleep. Did you know that Amy Jo Johnson, aka the Pink Ranger, was a lead on Flashpoint? Jesus Christ, at this point even I feel like I’m just making all of this up.
Most importantly, though, is the role of intrepid young reporter Buck Williams. Rayford Steele was easily the hero of Left Behind 2014 but Left Behind 2000 puts Williams front-and-center. And instead of being portrayed by Chad Micheal Murray (who at least looks like a war reporter), Williams is now played by Kirk Cameron. Yes, that Kirk Cameron. In fact, this whole series of films was basically a passion project for Kirk Cameron, who is perhaps the most outspoken hard-Evangelical voice to somewhat intersect with Hollywood. That’s right, Mike Seaver is all grown up and he wants to tell you about Jesus.
The film opens with Buck Williams reporting from Israel, interviewing scientist Chaim Rosenzweig in the middle of a wheat field. Dr. Rosebranch has developed a miraculous way to grow food in the desert. This will supposedly solve the problem of world hunger, which vastly oversimplifies the actual problems that cause world hunger and overlooks the fact that the target audience for films like Left Behind 2000 would protest the hell out of this GMO menace.
In the middle of the interview, the sky suddenly fills with planes. Only a few minutes in and we’re already well off the rails of Left Behind 2014 because that film sure as hell didn’t start with a war against Israel.
As the bombs begin to fall, Dr. Rosebranch and Buck run into a nearby bunker that turns out to be Israeli military command, conveniently located right next to the rural wheat field developed by the good doctor. There is a lot of hacky military ops speech and doomsaying that Israel is unable to scramble its own airforce to defend itself.
Then the sky goes black and the planes start blowing themselves up.
Ever the plucky reporter, Buck runs out to the wheat field to get video of the exploding planes where he meets a mysterious old man who says a bunch of cryptic shit to him.
The mysterious attack on Israel, the identity of the attackers, the unexpected eclipse, and the sudden self-destruction of dozens of aircraft are barely ever mentioned from this point on in the film. I think Buck Williams does, once, ask “what went on back there?” but the world proceeds like everything is generally normal and not absolutely batshit insane. Well, up until people disappear.
When Buck returns to the U.S.,he meets up with a conspiracy theorist friend who works for a major bank. The friend claims to have inside info that he can’t hand over yet, but insists that Buck investigate the international bankers he works for because they’re up to something big–specifically in relation to a global currency. Buck thinks this is crazy until a story comes across his desk about Europe unifying its economy with Korea (what) and he realizes that conspiracy dude was right.
Over in Chicago, we pick up with the plot of Left Behind 2014. Rayford Steele is an airplane pilot who has to leave his family for an unexpected flight to London. He does this a lot, because his wife has become a born-again Christian and is really annoying about it. Rayford and his daughter Chloe fight over this but he puts his foot down and leaves. His flight just happens to contain Hattie Durham, a stewardess who Rayford has been flirting with, and Buck Williams. I don’t think the movie ever explains why Williams was in Chicago or when he went there, but there he is. Maybe he just flies out there for the pizza.
Hattie reveals to Rayford that this is her last flight as a stewardess and that she is departing the airline for a position at the United Nations. No, this does not make any kind of sense. Just go with it. Rayford is disappointed and Hattie tries to get him to give her “a reason to stay.” Just as they’re about to kiss, a bunch of people on the plane disappear.
Panic breaks out on the plane and Rayford decides that they need to turn back and land in Chicago. If you recall, this was the primary plot of Left Behind 2014. In this film, Rayford merely deploys the oxygen masks and lands the plane at a runway (you know, the traditional method) less than a third of the way through the running time.
That’s right, folks, we’re already past the plot of the recent adaptation and there’s over an hour to go.
With Rayford and company off the plane, Chloe isn’t forced to carry the entirety of the plot on the ground. A huge part of Left Behind 2014 featured Chloe wandering silently around the city and giving pained looks in the general direction of catastrophe. Now everyone’s around to do it.
Chloe is on the way back to school when she comes upon a huge car accident. A crazed man steals her car as she’s trying to figure out what happened.
Rayford heads home to find his entire family is missing.
And bizarrely, Buck follows Rayford home because Buck really needs to get to New York and all the airports are shut down. Rayford says that he knows a guy who can help, but Rayford immediately falls apart when he realizes that everyone he cared about is gone. He doesn’t know at this time that Chloe is actually just wandering around somewhere else, so naturally this is a dark time for him.
Chloe comes home and this should really cheer up Rayford more than it does. He remains in his room, moping, and Chloe is left with the answer of which child was Rayford’s favorite: not her. Their reunion is short and played without any emotion and Rayford just keeps staring at the television because there are more important things to get to. What are those things? CONSPIRACIES.
Around this time, we’re introduced to a new character who was never even mentioned in Left Behind 2014. That’s right, we meet Nicolae Carpathia, a UN politician who is beloved by the world. He talks with an Eastern European accent, wants to bring about world peace and nuclear disarmament, and is handsome in a way that recalls the guy at the last Republican debate twitter was freaking out about.
Even though we, as the audience, know better, Carpathia appears to be a great, stand up fellow. He’s only got one problem: all of his power comes from a couple of international bankers who have been working behind the scenes to hoist him up into the halls of power. And they’re the same international bankers from the Conspiracy Theorist’s rantings earlier. They have a nefarious plan involving Dr. Rosebranch from earlier and someone is going to have to uncover it. Who better than Intrepid Reporter Buck Williams?
Back in Chicago, with Rayford barely managing a smile at Chloe’s return, Chloe decides to help Buck Williams (who is sleeping on the couch and, I guess, planning to nap until Rayford snaps out of his funk). They meet up with a private pilot who takes Buck to New York. With all the crazy stuff that just happened–not to mention the even crazier stuff in Israel the film has already forgotten about–Buck is ready to give his conspiracy theorist friend another shot at a story.
Unfortunately for Conspiracy Theorist, Buck isn’t the only one who wants to give him another shot. Get it? Because he’s dead. He was shot. By a gun. Buck shows up just in time to find his body and find the secret minidisc that he hid in his watch. Remember minidiscs? Yeah, those were a thing for about five seconds.
Buck also takes a look at Conspiracy Theorist’s computer because, like anyone else, he’d rather not have to track down a minidisc player in The Year of Our Lord 2000. This is almost a fatal mistake, because there is a sniper watching over the apartment. At first, we believe that this sniper is taking aim at the fuzzy head of Kirk Cameron/Buck Williams. But then…
Believe it or not, the assassin choosing to scare Williams by destroying the computer rather than kill Williams by destroying his head is explained later in the film so I’m not going to explicitly shit on that particular plot point. But I do think that Kirk Cameron’s dive was, at best, a 6/10.
Buck makes it out of the apartment alive and takes the minidisc to a couple of his friends over at his news network, the barely-cleverly named GNN. They review the disc and find a bunch of cryptic documents and a plan for rebuilding Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem. The images are exactly the sort of thing you’d expect to find on the minidisc hidden in a conspiracy theorist’s wristwatch, but Buck takes them seriously (probably because of the sniper) and arranges a meeting with a government friend who was also in contact with Conspiracy Theorist.
With Buck gone and Chloe floating somewhere on the periphery of the story, Rayford Steele finally pulls out of his funk and starts to realize that maybe his wife was right. All the kids are gone, as well as select adults. And his wife was one of those adults. And she was always talking about that “rapture” thing where all the believers would disappear.
Mulling over these thoughts, Rayford heads to the church where he finds one of the pastors, left behind himself, engaging in one hell of a monologue to God.
Pastor BanisterJumper isn’t just angry with God. He’s also angry with himself because he knew the words from the Bible and spoke them, but didn’t believe them. And now it’s too late because God’s already made his rapture calls and there’s no second chances when it comes to being saved from the times of tribulation.
There’s an interesting discussion to be had on this ethical quandary: if Pastor BanisterJumper had a truly altruistic spirit, then the fact that his words saved others while he was left behind should actually make him happy and not mad. Then again, the fact that he’s still on Earth proves his frailty of spirit and– fuck, I’m giving this movie too much legitimate thought.
Pastor BanisterJumper’s speech inspires Rayford, who was lurking in the back of the church, to fully accept what is happening and devote his life to Jesus. Together, they find a tape left by the lead minister at the church, explaining why he and everyone else disappeared. Mercifully, the film doesn’t show the entire speech made by the minister, but apparently it answers all the questions Rayford has. To me, however, it raises a lot more questions.
Specifically, I really want to know how many IRL preachers have made videos to be played to their congregation in the event of the rapture.
While Rayford is sitting in the corner, finding his religion, Buck Williams is meeting with his friend at the U.S. Government. He finally outlines the conspiracy as he sees it: the international bankers have loaned the United Nations billions of dollars and are planning on calling in the debt. They are waiting until Dr. Rosebranch hands over his formula for growing wheat in the desert and the UN seizes 10 vast tracts of previously uninhabitable land to use to feed the world. Then they will bankrupt the UN, take over the land themselves, and the international bankers will control the world food supply.
The US official tells Buck that he will get the FBI and CIA to investigate this and warns Buck to head somewhere safe and lay low. Buck is then distracted by a beggar while the US official gets in his car. We all know what happens next.
With nowhere else to go, Buck returns to Rayford and Chloe Steele and tries to enlist their help in getting to the United Nations to stop the transfer of the Dr. Rosebranch formula to the soon-to-be-bankrupt UN. Buck is shocked to find that his new friends have converted to Evangelical Christianity in the mere days since he last saw them. Rayford tries to warn Buck that there is more to the happenings around the world than just a follow-the-money conspiracy, but Buck isn’t ready to believe.
Remember that this is a week after Buck watched the sun disappear in Israel and dozens of fighter planes explode without a good reason. But the movie has forgotten about that.
Buck heads by himself to the United Nations, where Nicolae Carpathia has just been named Secretary General with the help of the nefarious international bankers. Even stranger, Hattie Durham–you know, the woman who was a stewardess just days before–is working as his personal assistant. Listen, I’m aware it’s entirely possible that she was qualified to be in a highly-placed position at the UN but for unknown reasons was working in an entirely different, largely unskilled field. But, uh, pretty unlikely.
This strange placement is incredibly fortunate for Buck Williams, however, as Hattie (who knows him from the plane earlier) is able to help him get an audience with Nicolae so that he can explain the conspiracy and prevent the international bankers from enacting their terrible plan.
Nicolae looks over the minidisc that Buck retrieved from the body of Conspiracy Theorist and feigns horror at the contents. He claims that he knew nothing about any of this and vows to make things right. We, as the audience, know that this must be an act. Because look at him.
Buck is about to leave satisfied when he notices a blueprint for rebuilding Solomon’s temple on Nicolae’s desk. He asks Dr. Rosebranch why he would want the temple rebuilt when it would inevitably cause a war. Dr. Rosebranch explains that Nicolae has found a way to rebuild it without destroying the Muslim holy site and that this is all part of Nicolae’s great vision. Nicolae explains further that the temple, along with nuclear disarmament and the Grow Wheat In The Desert Project are the three prongs of his plan for seven years of peace.
This throws up a ton of red flags for Buck but, apparently, no one else. I don’t know about you, but when a world leader is going around saying that he’s about to create seven years of peace, I think someone needs to ask him what he intends to happen in year eight. But maybe that’s just me and Buck Williams. Buck is also unnerved because all of this mirrors (an interpretation of) biblical verses that Rayford and Chloe were warning him about.
Nicolae invites Buck into the meeting of the UN Delegates where he intends to complete the handover of Dr. Rosebranch’s research and expose the shady international bankers before they can complete their plot. Buck hesitantly joins them along with Hattie (who has completed the most amazing career path in history by being invited to this meeting).
At the meeting of the UN delegates, Nicolae begins to rant about uniting the world in a new era of peace which will make the delegates kings among their people. This freaks out Dr. Rosebranch, who is slowly beginning to realize that (if nothing else) Nicolae is power-mad. Before the good doctor can object, however, Nicolae uses the Jedi Mind Trick to make him sit down.
When the time comes to expose the dastardly international bankers, Nicolae informs them that news of their conspiracy to bankrupt the UN has already reached the press. Then Nicolae takes a gun from one of his bodyguards and murders both international bankers on the floor of the United Nations, in front of everybody.
Nicolae explains that this had to be done to ensure world peace and literally brainwashes everyone in the room (except Buck) to believe that the international bankers died in a murder/suicide once they realized that their plan was exposed. The police rush in, Nicolae is painted as a victim in all of this, and Buck can’t find one person who will admit to the version of events that he witnessed.
Horrified, Buck realizes that Nicolae is the Antichrist and Rayford was right all along. To make matters worse, Buck even helped Nicolae with his ultimate plan–the assassin from earlier shot the computer because he wanted Buck to live, publish the story about the conspiracy, and give Nicolae cover for killing his international banker friends/benefactors.
Buck returns to Chicago and the church where Rayford, Chloe, and Pastor BanisterJumper have set up a new ministry to convert folks post-Rapture. He joins them and the film ends like all good films should end: with an evil man in absolute power and everyone smiling.
This is a terrible movie but it’s also god damn crazy. It can only get crazier in Tribulation Force: Left Behind II, which is a real thing that was made by human beings because the greatest trick the devil ever pulled was to convince us that he doesn’t exist.
Stay tuned for that in the next couple weeks.