Monday 12 December 2011

What hath God wrought?

There's something oddly fascinating about end times mania. You may remember that the Rapture was supposed to happen earlier this year, as predicted by Christian radio host Harold Camping. Virtually nobody believed Camping's arcane numerology, but the media lavished undeserved attention on him, and Facebook was awash in mockery.

When the apocalypse failed to occur, Camping retired. The real story, though, wasn't that somebody claiming to have deciphered a secret message in the Bible had once again been wrong: it was that people cared, if only to ridicule. In 2011, billboards announcing the imminent fiery destruction of all life seemed to be a visible sign of the extraordinary times of economic and political crisis we're living through.

And where there's a cultural obsession there's a market. Enter Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins with their Left Behind series of novels. Left Behind deals with the end of the world, all according to the teachings of premillennial dispensationalism. The books became a publishing phenomenon and would have turned their authors into millionaires if they hadn't been already. They mostly sold in the States, though: I've certainly seen Left Behind volumes prominently displayed in English Christian bookshops, but they remained largely unknown on this side of the pond.

It was inevitable there should be a film; and what a film! Left Behind promised to be the biggest, most ambitious Christian production of all time. Cloud Ten Pictures threw $17.4 million at the film despite realising it would go straight to video, as indeed it did: but strong sales led to Left Behind being thrown into cinemas after video release. Even so, it lost money and led Tim LaHaye to sue the producers, claiming they'd promised him a $40 million film. (Two direct-to-video sequels were produced, and there's supposedly a reboot in the offing.)

We open with a ludicrous fauxlosophic narration by Buck Williams (noted banana expert Kirk Cameron), followed by credits over stock footage of Jerusalem. Then we see something ominous: CGI warplanes approaching Israel both from the east and the west - and, for some reason, disgustingly fake-looking CGI tanks driving east across the Syrian border. Now it's time to meet Buck Williams, Greatest Investigative Reporter of All Time, standing in the Israeli desert (played by a quarry in Ontario) where, thanks to a miracle formula by Dr Chaim Rosenzweig (Colin Fox), corn is being grown. Dr Rosenzweig refuses to sell his formula, but he'll exchange it for peace for Israel, yada yada yada -

- and then Israel is attacked by planes from all directions. A great deal of silliness ensues, but the gist of it is that the massive, overwhelming attack is defeated by the hand of God pretty much swatting the planes out of the sky. (The identity of the attackers is never clarified, by the way: in the book it's Russia and Ethiopia, thus supposedly fulfilling Ezekiel's prophecy about Gog and Magog. Miracle!)

The film's special effects budget thus blown in the first five minutes, it's time to meet the Steeles. They're Rayford (Brad Johnson), a pilot; Irene (Christie MacFayden), his devoted born-again wife; and their children, twenty-year-old Chloe (Janaya Stephens - Lacey Chabert was originally attached to play this part) and pre-teen Raymie (Jack Manchester). Chloe has a nose ring, and dialogue establishes this means she's rebellious & unsaved. Blah blah, Rayford is emotionally unavailable and misses his son's birthday, Chloe is displeased, Irene is saintly, and Raymie is annoying. Then Rayford goes off to work.

Now, about half an hour in, we've finally reached the first page of the novel this is based on: we're on a flight out of Chicago. In the middle of the night, people begin to notice some of the adults and all the children seem to be missing. There's much panicking, and Rayford has to turn the plane around; there's chaos on the ground, too, as the disappearances, apparently global, have led to panic and accidents. (Chloe, for example, has to hit the brakes to avoid a pile-up caused by a disappeared lorry driver. This suggests Christians should not be issued driving licences.) Anyway, the cast realise that the disappearances are the supposedly foretold Rapture: God has whisked away his church, and a seven-year tribulation is about to begin on earth. At the same time, there's a charismatic young man, Nicolae Carpathia (Gordon Currie), rising to power at the UN with promises of world peace.

I don't believe in the Rapture. It's a nineteenth-century invention based on incredibly weak scriptural evidence. (Fred Clark has done excellent in-depth dissections of the books, by the way. His criticism is intelligent, Bible-based and, best of all, hilarious.) I find LaHaye and Jenkins's approach - cobble together bits of 'prophecy' from Revelation, Daniel, Ezekiel and wherever else you can find it into a maddeningly elaborate, fragile whole - both silly and deeply misguided. I've always been told not to waste my time with end-times prophecy since 'concerning that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven' (Matthew 24:36).

But even if I didn't have deep reservations about the film's happy-clappy attitude to the rivers turning into blood, it would still be a bad film. As directed by Vic Sarin and shot by George Tirl, Left Behind looks totally anonymous. (The 4:3 TV aspect ratio doesn't help.) It reeks of cheapness: apart from the initital all-out attack on Israel the rest of the film is talking, and the dialogue is very bad.So's the acting, by and large. Chelsea Noble, Kirk Cameron's real-life wife, is dispiritingly awful, acting mostly by blinking a lot.

But it's very rare for a film to achieve total worthlessness: the laws of probability dictate that something will almost always work out right. And so it is with Left Behind.

Imagine you're Brad Johnson. You may have been a Marlboro Man in the eighties, but for a brief time you were hot stuff after your roles in Spielberg's Always and Milius' Flight of the Intruder. It didn't work out, though: instead of becoming a star, you turned into the poor man's Tom Berenger. Now you're approaching middle age, you've got a mortgage to pay, and there's this part in a Christian film about the apocalypse. It's silly, it's low-budget, and it will go straight to video. How do you approach that role?

You and I would probably be phoning it in. But clearly, we're not Brad Johnson, because he takes one look at the dismal material and creates a believable, relatable character using nothing but good old-fashioned acting skills acquired over long, moderately unsuccessful years in the business. He turns Rayford Steele, obnoxious and vapid on the page, into an actual living, breathing human being. He could anchor the film, if only they hadn't decided to demote him to supporting cast.

This is worth mentioning because of the baffling contrast between Johnson and our nominal lead, Kirk Cameron in the role of Buck Williams. After his conversion to Christianity and the end of Growing Pains, Cameron became increasingly evangelistic and didn't do much acting in mainstream films anymore. As a fervent believer in 'prophecy' he wanted to do Left Behind and create the greatest/only evangelistic blockbuster of all time. They even rebalanced the material to make Buck the main character rather than part of an ensemble. But here's the thing: Cameron is terrible. He can't convincingly present things he actually passionately believes in. He is a very bad actor, and his presence is the equivalent of cement shoes to Left Behind.

It was a tremendously misguided enterprise from the start. Many of the scenes are laughable when they're meant to be sincere, and for some reason the filmmakers decided to shoehorn in contemporary Christian music whenever anyone shuts their mouth for more than a couple of seconds. Ultimately, though, Left Behind is tripped up by its theology as much as by the incompetence of most of those involved.

When Rayford Steele tells Hattie that '[i]t's not about us. It's about something bigger and something better', Left Behind's failure as a Christian work is laid open for all to see. Actually, it is about us; God does what he does because he loves human beings. We're not just ants to be slaughtered from heaven. It's no wonder LaHaye and Jenkins don't understand that, though. There is no Jesus in Left Behind, no cross and no forgiveness, only death and judgment; and I'm glad that's not the world we live in.

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

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