In Left Behind, millions of people—many of them children, the rest pure of heart and intention—suddenly and simultaneously blip out of existence, piles of empty clothes marking the final spot of land they occupied. Were they abducted by aliens? Were they vaporized by some powerful new weapon? Or is it all just a grand illusion, a trick played on the folks still standing? Even for those unfamiliar with the source material, a series of eschatological bestsellers by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins, the explanation for this worldwide phenomenon should be pretty obvious. And yet for most of its two-hour runtime, Left Behind plays coy, not a single one of its characters uttering the “R” word. It’s an odd oversight, given they spend most of the 45 minutes before the mass disappearance having long, awkward conversations with complete strangers about their religious beliefs (or lack thereof).
An evangelical missing-person whodunit for moviegoers who already know who done it (Hint: The culprit has His reasons), Left Behind is flush with mysteries of a different sort. Like how, for example, producer Paul LaLonde managed to make a version of this story even chintzier and more ridiculous than the Kirk Cameron flop he spearheaded 14 years ago. And then there’s the question of why Nicolas Cage, of all secular movie stars, agreed to headline this faith-based clunker. Perhaps he claimed a sizable chunk of the film’s $15 million budget, little of which seems to have made it on-screen. (Some of the film was shot in the Baton Rouge airport, standing in for JFK. Most of the film looks like it was shot in or around the Baton Rouge airport.)
Unlike the previous (and, again, improbably superior) adaptation, this Left Behind takes a micro approach to the end times, doing away with many of the globe-hopping elements. Cage plays Rayford Steele, a pilot who cheats on his wife (Lea Thompson), apparently because he can’t stand the fact that she’s found God. His daughter, Chloe (Cassi Thomson), introduced dressing down a doomsday prophet in the airport, has come to Long Island to surprise her father for his birthday. Rayford, however, has to fly to London, and so the two share a bittersweet reunion—but not until after Chloe has met cute with famous investigative reporter Buck Williams (Chad Michael Murray), who just about every single character in the movie knows by name and face. Coincidentally, he ends up aboard the same plane Rayford is flying; the movie has a way of making New York City seem like a small town, with acquaintances running into each other in passing.
Filming the action through a series of jerking pans and unmotivated zooms, stuntman-turned-director Vic Armstrong tracks parallel dilemmas once the big disappearance occurs. Aboard the NYC-to-London flight, a group of colorful characters debate their predicament, demand answers, and provide some groan-worthy comic relief; this group of lost souls includes a ditzy drug addict, a smarmy rich guy, a conspiracy theorist, and a Muslim man who the film explicitly takes time to establish as a kind, devout fellow, presumably so the audience will understand that even the nice practitioners of other religions are denied salvation. Meanwhile, on ground level, Chloe makes her way across a chaotic Long Island, narrowly avoiding being run down by both a driver-less car and a pilot-less plane. It’s mass hysteria in the streets, which Armstrong conveys by having hordes of extras run around in panic, waving their hands above their heads.
One need not be a Godless heathen to find fault in Left Behind’s message-delivery system: It’s a fire-and-brimstone sermon wrapped in the tissue of a bad disaster thriller—a criticism that’s dogged the book series since its earliest installments. But this adaptation is so broad, cartoonish, and ineptly made that harping on its theological methods seems like overkill; even diehard devotees of the franchise may crack up when, say, Rayford finally figures out what’s going on by flipping through the personal calendar of one of the departed—and then breaking down into sobs when he finds the words BIBLE STUDY scrawled ominously on an open page. This Left Behind may be worse than the last Left Behind, but it’s much less boring, thanks in part to the commitment of its star, who plays the often ludicrous material with the straightest of faces. The Cage works in mysterious ways.