Saturday 17 December 2011

Wars and rumours of wars

Left Behind: World at War (2005) caused consternation on the 'boards because it took a lot of liberties with the source material. This is tremendously wrong-headed. It is almost universally acknowledged that the Left Behind books are, in fact, extraordinarily awful, and boldly deviating from the written word should thus improve the product to no small extent.

So it turns out: World at War is far and away the best installment in the series. It's not Shakespeare, but it is a fully functional, at times legitimately exciting film - despite or perhaps because of the fact that its nominal heroes do virtually nothing throughout. With TV veteran Craig R. Baxley the series finds a director with actual visual flair for the first time, and in Lou Gossett, Jr. there's a seasoned actor to do some of the heavy lifting Cameron & Co. can't.

The opening scene - set inside a partially destroyed and burning White House - is clichéd and a little stupid, but it works well enough, and in that it's a microcosm of the film. Inside the Oval Office, President Gerald Fitzhugh (Lou Gossett, Jr.) videotapes his confession. There has, apparently, been a massive war, Fitzhugh and the United States have lost, and the president feels responsible. Can I say how nice it is to get a cold open instead of the laborious exposition of the previous films?

A week earlier, at a Global Community compound, a group clad in balaclavas break in and steal a shipment of bibles. Ambushed by GC forces, one of the burglars is captured. He turns out to be Chris (David MacNiven), who was converted in Tribulation Force. When he refuses to renounce Jesus at gunpoint, Chris is executed. We find out it's some time after the events of the last film. Individual nations still exist, but are largely disarmed and overshadowed by the one-world government of Nicolae Carpathia (Gordon Currie). Armed resistance to the Global Community comes mainly from the militia movement; Christianity has been outlawed and driven underground.

The first time we meet the Tribulation Force, they're literally hiding in the basement beneath the ruins of New Hope Village Church, which doesn't seem particularly stealth. Pastor Bruce Barnes (Arnold Pinnock, taking over from Clarence Gilyard) is presiding over a double wedding: Chloe Steele (Janaya Stephens) is marrying Buck Williams (Kirk Cameron), while her father Rayford (Brad Johnson) weds Amanda White (Laura Catalano). Getting married together with your dad may be slightly creepy, but this scene is quite well done and somewhat touching, though cheesy.

The plot mostly turns on President Fitzhugh, though. His vice-president (Charles Martin Smith) has discovered that Carpathia is developing biological weapons, but he's assassinated by unknown gunmen before he can tell Fitzhugh all he knows. The president decides to investigate and, teaming up with Carolyn Miller (Jessica Steen) breaks into Carpathia's biological lab. (Shouldn't he have minions to do this for him?) They discover that Carpathia is infecting bibles with a deadly virus to take out the underground churches. Before long, Christians all over the country are falling ill, including Bruce and Chloe. Meanwhile, the president is liaising with his British (Shaun Astin-Olsen, whose British accent is terrible) and Egyptian (Elias Zarou) colleagues in planning an all-out surprise attack against Carpathia's forces.

As I mentioned earlier, the protagonists don't do much: Rayford and Amanda mostly spend their time fretting, Buck meets the president twice, and Chloe looks after the infected before falling ill herself. Actually moving the plot forward falls on Lou Gossett's capable shoulders. This is to the good although Johnson, Catalano and Stephens also continue to create strong, believable characters. I can't help feeling a little sorry for Gordon Currie, a competent actor looking for an angle on the villainous Carpathia the script just doesn't provide. Similar praise, hower, can't be lavished on Kirk Cameron and Chelsea Noble in the role of Hattie Durham: Mr and Mrs Kirk Cameron, the only True Believers in postmillennial dispensationalism among the cast, are far and away the worst actors, and I can't help feeling these two facts must somehow be related.

In contrast to previous installments' obsession with racing through the end times checklist, World at War's script benefits greatly from its interest in what it might be like to live in the earth's last days, and how Christians mightr persevere under Antichrist's persecution: That gives the film an emotional heft its lesser brethren simply cannot muster.

Of course, there's a great deal of wish fulfilment in there: the underground churches' activities allow the audience to feel like bad-ass guerrillas for the Lord. Like previous installments, World at War's plot suffers by running headlong into problems of divine sovereignty versus human free will: if the Antichrist's reign has been foretold, what point is there in fighting him? (The film also engages in a baffling Zwinglian polemic by insisting that communion wine 'is to remind you of the precious blood Christ shed for you' [emphasis mine] and is not, say, the blood of the covenant.)

What really elevates World at War above its predecessors, however, is the direction. In the hands of Craig Baxley, the film finally shows rather than tells: that initial shot of the ruined New Hope Village Church is shocking and communicates in one image what a film ago would have been established by ponderous dialogue. Although Baxley uses too many close-ups for comfort, his visual language is generally uncluttered, efficient and exciting. Further praise goes to the production design: with a limited budget, Rupert Lazarus creates tremendously satisfying sets, especially of Carpathia's headquarters, which are just the right combination of Lucifer and paranoia techno-thriller. The awkwardly inserted Christian songs are gone, too, praise Jesus.

World at War is superior to its predecessors in every way: wherefore, of course, it sank the franchise and destroyed any notion of another sequel. Six years on, though, it seems a reboot/remake is on the way. One can only hope Cloud Ten Pictures will scorn the tedium of the books and take their inspiration from the dark, effective and bold third film, faithfulness to the source material be damned.

In this series: Left Behind: The Movie (2000) | Left Behind II: Tribulation Force (2002) | Left Behind: World at War (2005)

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