Director: Vic Armstrong
Stars: Nicolas Cage, Cassi Thomson
With the reboot of “Left Behind,” the low-budget series about the Rapture starring a faded TV kid star (Kirk Cameron) becomes a low-budget series starring a faded Oscar-winner (Nicolas Cage). Adjusted for inflation, the tiny budget of the 2000 take on the franchise’s first book is only a third of the new one, most of which appears to have been spent on nabbing a name lead. It’s not clear why it was made, at least in this form. It clearly wishes to be a stealth blockbuster that sneaks Christian fundamentalism into the multiplexes, but even for a Bible Belt product — and especially for a wide release boasting a major star — it’s too cheap and slapdash. You expect this kind of shoddy work from a movie with the guy from “Growing Pains,” but not with the guy from “Bangkok Dangerous.”
It could have worked. At its heart, buried under pounds of propaganda and elitist moral tut-tutting, the first novel is a double genre piece — a plane thriller crosscut with an apocalyptic horrorshow. In the wake of the Rapture — depicted as a loud “whoosh!” followed by earth’s most penitent reduced to piles of clothes — Cage’s airline pilot tries to calm his freaked passengers and find a way to land his increasingly tattered plane, all while trying to figure out what happened. (Luckily his vanished copilot happens to have “John 3:14” written on his watch, and an AWOL stewardess actually has “Bible Study!” helpfully written in her datebook. Occam’s Razor works!) Down below, Cage’s agnostic daughter (Cassi Thomson) tries to navigate a society that quickly collapses, though, amazingly, school buses populated only by clothes are still mysteriously flying off bridges a good 15 screen minutes after the incident.
Even in the guise of a thriller with familiar secular faces, “Left Behind” is as subtle about its real messages as anything on TBN. It would be offensive were its intentions not overshadowed by its distracting incompetence. Director Vic Armstrong has the Uwe Boll touch of making every shot look cruddy; his cameras struggle with the basics of framing, and stumble whenever in motion. Armstrong makes his handful of professional actors look like nervous newbies, catching them in unflattering positions in takes that should never have been printed (or, in this age, saved). He surrounds them with unpolished supporting players (including Jordin Sparks, humiliating herself in the film’s worst set piece), as well as the worst extras you’ve ever seen. The riot sequences find people who’ve evidently been asked just to run around. Some do “serpentine,” as seen in “The In-Laws,” while others stand awkwardly in place, as though unsure if the cameras are running. It makes one appreciate the relative polish of, say, “Blended,” and it’s a film where rent-a-hunk Chad Michael Murray, by sheer dint of knowing how to perform for a camera, looks like Steve McQueen.
Meanwhile, Cage — who, it’s important to note, was terrific in “Joe” earlier this year — enters the picture doing the worst double take of his career, then clearly hits on the actress playing his daughter. But he quickly retreats into bored Cage drone mode, mumbling about burning fuel tanks and busted landing gear, trying to inoculate himself against having finally found the worst film of his career. Even the snarkiest of Cage skeptics should feel bad for him. Of course, this is stealth religious propaganda — a wouldbe blockbuster intended to play to believers and skeptic alike. But if it can’t even stage a basic conversation right, let alone a place crash (this offers the least credible one since “Air Force One”), how are we supposed to trust it on the meaning of life?
Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge