My World Of Flops is Nathan Rabin’s survey of books, television shows, musical releases, or other forms of entertainment that were financial flops, critical failures, or lack a substantial cult following.
There was a time when the idea of Nicolas Cage in a Christian movie would have been inconceivable. Cage is, after all, an Academy Award-winning actor and the scion of one of show business’ most legendary families, the Coppolas. Cage has been a household name for three decades.
Christian movies, meanwhile, are rightly considered the minor leagues of the motion picture industry, designed to proselytize first and foremost and entertain a distant second. Most of the time, Christian movies forget about that second part altogether, as entertainment tends to get in the way of the militant preaching to the converted that are most Christian movies’ raison d’être.
Cage was A-list and Christian movies were, and remain, a ghetto, a haven for small-timers, has-beens, the faithful, and the desperate. Over the past decade, however, Cage has become nearly as well known for his terrible judgment in managing his finances and his film choices as his still-impressive talent and presence. The same poor decision-making process that led to Cage buying a number of castles and at least one expensive dinosaur skull also led him to think that re-making The Wicker Man so that its protagonist punches a woman while wearing a bear suit was somehow a good idea.
We long ago stopped cackling maniacally with Cage and started laughing at him. In the right role he can still be fantastic, as David Gordon Green’s Joe illustrated. But these days, he seems motivated primarily by howling financial desperation.
Christian movies, meanwhile, have stubbornly and rightly maintained their reputation for being terrible, the worst of the worst. But over the past decade they’ve consistently shocked the non-Christian world with their box-office grosses. The secular world watched with morbid fascination as 2008’s Fireproof, a movie about a cranky firefighter played by Kirk Cameron trying to be less of an asshole to his wife and tame his pornography addiction, made over $30 million at the box-office on a tiny budget. These movies haven’t gotten any better: They’ve just gotten more profitable. So when Cage signed on to star in a 2014 reboot of Left Behind, an adaptation of a bestseller previously made into a 2000 film starring Kirk Cameron, it seemed like the eccentric actor’s downward spiral had hit a new low.
There are two ways to see Cage’s involvement in Left Behind, neither of them flattering to Cage. One is that Cage’s desperation to raise money to pay off his massive debts led him to cynically sign on to a movie designed to spread the Gospel Of The Christ solely for financial reasons. The other was that Cage had experienced a religious epiphany and now stood with people who would like to outlaw abortion and gay marriage, bring prayer to public schools, and erase that pesky line separating church and state.
It seems safe to assume that, like pretty much everything Cage has done as of late, it was all about the money, but one of the many strange aspects to the 2014 Left Behind is that the movie actually feels much cheaper and less ambitious than the novel’s 2000 adaptation. For all its faults, the Kirk Cameron Left Behind movie attempted to tell its story on an epic scale. It was about a world at war, about the rise of the Antichrist through his sinister vessel the United Nations, about an international conflict that pitted the forces of good against Satanic evil. The 2000 Left Behind was a film with ambition. It was laughable, wildly unfeasible ambition, to be sure, but ambition all the same.
The Nicolas Cage version of Left Behind, in sharp contrast, is essentially about a single, stressful flight. It feels less like the tentpole for a Christian franchise than the cinematic equivalent of what is known in television as a bottle episode. The bottle episode strands a show’s characters in one location, then cranks up the conflict to reveal something trenchant and profound about them. A good example of a bottle episode would be the Rian Johnson-directed “Fly” episode of Breaking Bad, where Walter White’s obsessive belief that a fly was loose in his crystal meth laboratory and threatened to contaminate his work led to one of the tensest and most riveting episodes of a famously tense and riveting show. By stranding Walter and sidekick/foil/former student Jesse Pinkman in a lab nearly the entire episode, the episode beautifully fleshed out their relationship while deepening our understanding of each character.
Needless to say, the characters in Left Behind aren’t just less well developed than those in Breaking Bad. They’re less well developed than most of the characters on VeggieTales. Yet Left Behind nevertheless strands them primarily in a single location, in this case an airplane, then cranks up the conflict as some of the passengers are raptured and the rest are left wondering what has happened, in a desperate attempt to create drama on a tight budget.
A distractingly chinless, side-burned, and balding Cage stars in Left Behind as pilot Rayford Steele, a father and husband who has been increasingly estranged from wife Irene (Lea Thompson) after she caught the Jesus bug and devoted her life to evangelizing on his behalf. Out of deference to Thompson’s role in Howard The Duck, I like to imagine that her character was brought to Christ through guilt over a long ago, dearly regretted sexual fling with an anthropomorphic space duck.
In the Left Behind novels and the 2000 film, Rayford Steele is cheating on his wife with a sexy stewardess. In this version, he’s merely contemplating cheating on his wife by arranging a kissing date in London at a U2 concert with sexy stewardess Hattie Durham (Nicky Whelan), who exposes her harlotry by wearing scandalous red lipstick and ungodly high heels.
Rayford’s daughter Chloe Steele (Cassi Thomson), one of several characters with weirdly porn-like names (others include Buck Williams, Shasta Carvell, and, of course, Rayford Steele) is similarly alienated from her mother due to her mother’s fervent Bible thumping. Chloe is introduced in the airport, naturally, angrily confronting a Christian woman with the glazed expression of a pod person who is preaching to hunky, non-believing journalist Cameron “Buck” Williams (Chad Michael Murray). The airport proselytizer goes from 0 to quoting scripture in about 30 seconds. Like Irene, she comes off as an off-putting crazy-woman, but by the end of the film we are supposed to be won over to her side rather than the rational, skeptical folks who are wrong. Because, hey, if they weren’t wrong, would Jesus be yanking the faithful, and the babies, and the children back to heaven to kick it with Him for eternity?
Buck Williams ends up on a flight piloted by Rayford Steele en route to London, which runs into something considerably worse than turbulence when the sacred are raptured up to heaven. Rayford must then find a way to make it back to New York when all the airports are experiencing rapture-related problems. Thankfully, Rayford has Chloe (and also Jesus) and her magical cell phone on the ground to help him engineer a safe landing amid all the apocalyptic chaos.
Up in the air, meanwhile, a cross-section of thinly drawn characters are left to wonder what has happened and why some of their fellow passengers have vanished into thin air, leaving behind only their clothing. In the film’s best/worst scene, Rayford tries to figure out what’s happened by sorting through the belongings of someone who’s been raptured and finally pieces together the cause of these mysterious vanishings when he sees that a Christ-lover “left behind” a watch emblazoned with “John 3:16” and a date book with the word “Bible Study” written on it. Even Jesus would have a hard time choking back mocking laughter watching Cage try to fake tears and anguish upon learning that his missing colleague totally loved Him, so that the end times are obviously at hand.
The time up in the air avoiding costly sets and expensive extras affords audiences an opportunity to get to know the folks on the plane. These include a Southern businessman in a bolo tie; an antagonistic little person ready to fistfight anyone who looks at him funny, or even looks at him at all; a Muslim man who is not raptured but otherwise is treated with surprising respect; and a hysterical mother played by Jordin Sparks, who has smuggled a gun onboard to make the film feel even more like a play performed solely in church basements.
The presence of Cage might be expected to elevate the material, but instead Cage sinks to the level of the script. Despite a bigger budget than the 2000 original, the movie feels hilariously cheap and incompetent. It’s filled with memorably inept elements, like a framed photograph of Rayford and Irene Steele together with their children so poorly photoshopped that it looks like they simply tore an image of Cage’s face out of a magazine and taped it onto a photograph of the other three actors. It’s as if Cage agreed to star in the movie, and to promote it, but absolutely drew the line at being photographed with Lea Thompson. A man has to have his limits, even when that man is Nicolas Cage.
Despite the presence of an Academy Award-winner in the lead and its roots in a best-selling series of novels, Left Behind grossed less than a third of God’s Not Dead, whose biggest star was Kevin Sorbo, a man equally known for playing Hercules and saying horrible things on Facebook. It similarly grossed substantially less than last year’s surprise smash War Room, which grossed over $70 million despite a cast whose most famous name was its director, the non-Academy Award-winning Alex Kendrick.
Left Behind was such a resounding failure that the filmmakers went begging unsuccessfully on Indiegogo to raise money for a sequel. They gleaned a mere $78,624 out of a $500,000 dollar goal, despite stirring testimonies on its Indiegogo page like:
Your movie made an impact on my friend that lives with our family. I didn’t have to begin a full-fledged church service to get him to see the way the rapture is going to be. Now he really thinks about it and wants to know more. Great job. I believe God is proud of you too. (from “Keshi Bartie”)
I just watched it yesterday, here in Jakarta-Indonesia. Many non-Christians saw it and they were “shocked” in positive ways. Thanks a lot for making it. Blessings. (from “Cogito Ergo Sumadi”)
By the Indiegogo page’s reasoning, over a dozen people were brought to Christ through Left Behind. But apparently that isn’t enough for those Satanists in Hollywood to pony up money for a sequel that could bring dozens more to Jesus.
The film likely failed commercially because rapture-themed Christian movies have fallen out of favor with godly audiences in favor of more grounded, less fantastical melodramas, like the ones directed by Fireproof director Alex Kendrick. Then again, Left Behind reflects that trend as well. It downplays the science fiction and fantastical elements of the novels, leaving the Antichrist out of the picture entirely in favor of a look at how a diverse group of characters deal with the after-effects of the rapture.
It clearly wasn’t enough, and even a country as feverishly Christian as our own ended up rejecting Left Behind as a sad, futile attempt to resurrect a relic of a bygone era for contemporary times. Christian movies haven’t exactly evolved, as befits a demographic with a distinct hostility toward the concept of evolution. But they have definitely moved beyond Rayford Steele, Buck Williams, and this godly foolishness.
Failure, Fiasco, or Secret Success: Fiasco