fake boobs go to heaven too? I ask because if the feature film Left
Behind has it right, and all the true believers in Jesus Christ
will be beamed to paradise in advance of the
Antichrist's rule, and the clothes off each Christian's back will
fall right where he or she stood before God's eye twinkled
well, what, then, is going to happen to breast implants? Artificial
knees and hips? Does Pastor Jay Bakker, the pierced progeny of Jim
and Tammy Faye, get to take his golden liploop to that dee-luxe
apartment in the sky?
Sorry to be impious, brethren and sistren, but Left Behind
made me do it. The movie, which opened in theaters this past weekend
after selling nearly 3 million copies on videocassette, is bad beyond
all telling. It's like The Day of the Jackal as conceived
by Ned Flanders, and produced by the film and video department of
a rural Bible college. Hoo boy, is this thing ever an embarrassment.
(But probably not as much of an embarrassment as the forthcoming
apoca-palooza productions from the same Christian studio, Cloud
Ten Pictures, which are touted on the video as "coming attractions."
One, called Tribulation, features an all-star cast that includes
a horribly bloated Gary Busey, Margot Kidder, and Howie Mandel.
Oy. Another, Judgment stars L.A. Law's Corbin Bernsen
as a heathen lawyer who comes to Christ while defending a believer
in a courtroom during a future persecution. Judgment also
stars Mr. T., who observes grandly, "It ain't God world anymore.
It belong to th' debbil." Verily, verily I say unto you, I pity
th' fool who has to review these movies.)
Because Left Behind comes from the Earnestness Is Next to
Godliness school of Christian art, I am compelled to make two declarations.
One, I am a believing Christian, though as a Catholic, one who no
longer shares the eschatological convictions of Left Behind.
Two, my problems with this movie have nothing to do with religion;
many good and intelligent people, among them dear friends, believe
in the End Times theology espoused by Left Behind, and a
film critic is in no position to judge them on this.
No, this is about art, and the wrongheaded idea that a movie should
be judged on its usefulness in spreading a particular message (pop
Catholicism has its own version of Left Behind, usually based
around alleged Marian apparitions). It's about the difference between
art and propaganda, and if the people who made Left Behind
understood that distinction (and had a budget), they might have
turned out something watchable instead of grindingly dull, achingly
They start from an amazing sci-fi premise, one with its roots in
a relatively recent theological development in a certain
wing of Evangelical Protestantism. The idea is that the Bible foretells
a seven-year period called the Tribulation, in which the world will
be overtaken by war and pestilence, and ruled by a one-world government
headed by the Antichrist. On the cusp of the Tribulation (the theory
goes), all born-again Christians will instantly disappear, taken
to heaven to be spared the seven years of persecution and suffering,
which will culminate in the Second Coming of Christ.
like The Day of the Jackal as conceived by Ned
Even if you don't believe a word, you have to admit it's a pretty
compelling vision. Given the catechetical illiteracy of the times,
people eat this stuff up with a spoon. Hal Lindsey, author of the
runaway 1970s bestseller The Late Great Planet Earth, built
a lucrative career as an "expert" in the field of pop eschatology,
despite the fact that his interpretations of Biblical prophecy didn't
work out (being an Evangelical prophecy guru means never having
to say you were wrong). Excitable TV evangelists and Left Behind
advisers Jack and Rexella Van Impe have milked the crackpot cash
cow of Biblical prophecy for all their professional lives, finding
prophetic significance behind the headlines (if the European Union
announces restrictions on the export of goat cheese, Jack will show
you where Ezekiel prophesied this as a sign of the End). Tim LaHaye
and Jerry Jenkins have made a mint from an extremely popular series
of Tribulation-set novels, the first of which was Left Behind.
Aside from the literary merits of the books, there's no question
that the Bible prophets and their pop interpreters offer an imaginative
writer or filmmaker a spectacular trove of material.
If you knew what you were doing, you could make a hell of a movie
from it (no pun intended). Or if you didn't, you could make Left
The story begins in the Israeli desert, where allegedly swashbuckling
TV correspondent Buck Williams (Kirk Cameron, who looks too dewy
and fragile to cover spring break for MTV News, much less Armageddon)
is meeting with Chaim Rosenzweig (Colin Fox), an Israeli scientist
whose miracle discovery could feed the whole world. Suddenly the
bright afternoon sky fills with computer-generated smudges and the
sound of attacking fighter aircraft. Though Israel is a tiny country,
it takes the jets hours, apparently, to reach their targets; the
Buckster sees the Russian MiGs falling out of the pitch-black night
sky, the victims of Yahweh's invisible marksmen.
Soon, we're aboard a jetliner piloted by Rayford Steele (Brad Johnson),
a heathen who is having trouble with his marriage because his wife
has become born-again. During the flight, the Rapture strikes, taking
away a number of his passengers and sending Capt. Steele into a
personal crisis (he gets home to find his church-lady wife and devout
son gone), and, inasmuch as millions of people, including world
leaders, have disappeared, plunging the world into chaos.
Or so we're told: The budget is so paltry on this production that
a handful of extras have to stand in for crazed mobs. A couple of
wrecked cars and discombobulated garbage cans stand in for the fragmenting
of civilization. Indeed, most of the "action," such as it is in
this film, occurs in indoor settings living rooms, churches,
and offices. The whole world is convulsing with the birth pangs
of the Apocalypse, and we're stuck on a suburban staircase with
the newly converted Capt. Steele witnessing to his faithless daughter.
Some thriller. Imagine "Tora! Tora! Tora!" as depicted from the
perspective of the sorting room at the Honolulu post office.
Meanwhile, a slithery Eurostud named Nicolae Carpathia (Gordon Currie),
perhaps the only naturally blond Romanian on the planet, takes over
the United Nations, and starts throwing his Antichrist weight around.
Like the dainty Cameron, poor Currie is far too young to have been
cast in such a weighty role. Imagine: The Great Beast, 666, the
Satanic counterfeit of Jesus Christ, has all the gravitas of a college-student
waiter at the Outback Steakhouse. World domination, the martyrdom
of millions, the establishment of a Satanic dynasty, and the final
Armageddon? Fine, mister but first, bring me my damn Blooming
"I've got to get to New York and find some answers!" says Jimmy
Olsen I mean, Buck, in a line typical of the film's comic-book
dialogue. When he does, Buck is rather improbably pulled into the
evil orbit of Carpathia, who has concocted a world-takeover plan
so preposterous, nonsensical and lamely staged as to be virtually
unparodyable (Stand down, Dr. Evil!). Lucky Buck meets his Maker
in the born-again sense in a U.N. loo, and is thus
protected from Carpathia's Discount Darth Vader powers of mind control.
Good thing, too, because there are several more Left Behind
series novels available for filming, and at some point, that meddling
kid's going to have to join forces with Moose and Squirrel to put
a stop to the Fearless Leader's nefarious doings (which include,
if memory serves, building a Bennigan's on the Temple Mount).
"The next seven years are going to be the worst that mankind has
ever seen," Buck says at the end. And the next seven Left Behind
movies too, one guesses. Clearly the video sales of this movie show
utter lack of quality is not an impediment to big sales in the Christian
At the end of the video, Cameron, a born-again Christian in real
life, appears to make a personal pitch to the audience, asking them
to spread the word about the movie so that the February 2 theatrical
opening will "send a wake-up call to Hollywood." And you think:
Who are these people kidding? They have yet to learn the difference
between art, even explicitly Christian art, and propaganda. Good
intentions are no substitute for craftsmanship. Having your heart
in the right place does not count for anything if your head doesn't
know how to tell a story, if your hand can't write good dialogue,
if your tongue can't speak lines convincingly, and your eye doesn't
know where to aim the camera.
In his final line, Buck says, "I don't claim to know all the answers,
but for now, faith is enough." If only that were true when it came
to moviemaking, alas, the woebegone Left Behind would be
a masterpiece instead of testimony to calamitous feebleness in the