Why am I here? The question arises on many levels. On the surface, clearly, I’m here to review “Left Behind,” based on the second-best-selling series of books of all time (“Harry Potter” is the first).
In theory, LB should be the biggest of a run of terrible Christian movies, including “Heaven is for Real” and “God’s Not Dead.” In practice, I’m not sure. But of course, there’s no way to tell by the attendance in a New York theater (besides me, there are eight people — all African-American, which maybe is interesting).
But really, why am I here? The Forward didn’t assign me this review; I pitched it. I’m here because some part of me wants to be. I’m interested in what 40% of Americans believe about the imminent future — to wit, that there will be a history-changing rapture and second coming of Christ. It’s easy to stay cozy in my Jewish Brooklyn echo chamber, but the reality is that there are 400 times more Americans who believe that the world is about to end than who believe in any form of Judaism. Like it or not, this is the reality.
I’m also fascinated by millennialism in general. I wrote my dissertation on a Jewish messianic movement, and I’m irresistibly attracted to UFO cults, Y2K, the rapture. I’m just fascinated that so many people really believe this, and why. This is also the reality for a gigantic slice of Americans — and over 75% of Republican voters. One could describe end-timers as a quirky subculture that believes in something ridiculous (and are easily ridiculed as a result). But in some ways, they’re running our country.
Of course, I’m also here because I’m a glutton for punishment. Which is why, outrageously, I’m going to live-blog this movie as it happens. Don’t worry, I’m sitting where the other eight people can’t see my screen. I won’t type in the quiet parts. Let’s see what happens.
5:05 p.m. Three other people came in during previews. They seem like hipsters. Maybe they’re here for the irony. Interesting trailer for Ridley Scott’s “Exodus” with Christian Bale. Religious movies are big business now.
5:15 p.m. Very cheesy, major-key music for the opening credits. They do know that millions of people die in this story, right?
The film jumps right into an absurd theological argument between an end-timer and someone concerned about theodicy (“How could God allow all those people to die in the tsunami?”), as if that’s the only reason someone wouldn’t believe the world is about to end. How about the fact that the world didn’t end in 148 BCE, 1000 BCE, 1666, 1865 or 1973? The world of these believers is almost kabbalistic: Everything is interpreted, freighted with possible meaning. No event is too trivial. God helped me make that basket. (Jeremy Lin makes this point in the Christian documentary about him, “Linsanity.”)
5:20 p.m. The film is like a big revenge fantasy. We see these arrogant nonbelievers, knowing that in half an hour or so they’re going to get their comeuppance.
I wonder how much of this movie I will spend feeling sorry for Nicolas Cage, who at one point had a prominent career.
Extremely long conversational scene in the airport café. I realize that the religious reasoning here is a lot like the music. Everything resolves into an obvious, major chord.
One of our heroes is a sexy journalist named Buck Williams. His love interest, Nicolas Cage’s daughter (who is not in the cabin of the plane), is Chloe Steele. Like the music and the theology, the film is not subtle. One might also call it “stupid.”
Green Mountain coffee product placement is ALL OVER this scene.
5:31 p.m. Finally, Nic Cage’s plane is about to take off. El Al airlines featured in the background at JFK. (Note: Despite Jews’ key role in the LB version of the apocalypse — 144,000 of us save the world by not accepting the sign of the beast, though we die in the end — this will be the only Jewish reference in the film.)
5:40 p.m. Dramatic, happy music as the plane takes off. I guess foreboding music would spoil the surprise. Everything seems lovely and sweet — but the word is doomed. It’s like a gnosticism that refuses to take itself seriously. This world is fallen, but lemonade on the porch is still delightful.
5:49 p.m. At last, the rapture happens — not with a bang but with a whimper. On the minus side, this leads to chaos, and we know that eventually the earth will be shaken by trials and tribulations. On the plus side, all the extremely irritating and judgmental people have just disappeared. If only!
6:01 p.m. Twelve minutes in, and still no global perspective. It is dawning on me now that this entire movie will take place in the first-class cabin of the plane Nicolas Cage is flying. It is a first-class cabin that looks like America, or a bizarre rendition of it anyway. Really? There’s a nice Muslim in first class, who looks exactly like Adam Levine. Plus an African-American woman whose child has been raptured, an Asian man who believes in UFOs, a rich white businessman, and a drugged-out blonde chick.
But the show is being stolen by a “little person” who embodies every poor personality trait: He’s cowardly, angry, dishonest, obnoxious. But why is his being a dwarf relevant? Is that a curse from God? Is he angry because he’s a dwarf, or a dwarf because he’s angry? In any case, the actor seems to be hamming it up.
Still: The entire world just ended, and all we’ve got is a little squabble on an airplane?
6:03 p.m. Chloe really hasn’t been paying attention. The highly improbable, impossible to understand phenomenon that her mother has been predicting happens, and Chloe still has no idea what’s happened.
Maybe that actually is Adam Levine.
Night fell instantly on the plane but it’s still broad daylight in the suburbs of New York. The plane has traveled for three hours — that’s one time zone at most. Yet it’s pitch black (suddenly) over the ocean and about 2 to 3 p.m. on land.
6:09 p.m. This is more like the Kirk Cameron version (2000’s “Left Behind”) than unlike it. All the best stuff happens off-screen, in little news crawls on television sets. Given the rash of Armageddon films lately, they really missed an opportunity here. The film feels low budget. A person crawls through a broken glass door and the tragic music swells. That’s all you’ve got? No meltdowns at the nuclear plant or anything?
According to a hospital worker, all babies and children have been raptured. What about original sin? The only conclusion is that it’s puberty and sex that make us evil. No puberty, no problem.
Dogs are left behind to mourn their masters. This is a radical anthropocentrism. No way to understand this cosmology unless humans are the only creatures who matter.
6:16 p.m. The dwarf is now stealing the entire movie.
The narrative is so underdetermined as to be ridiculous. Basically, Cage’s plane is on fire because he didn’t perform an evasive maneuver to avoid a “ghost plane” that was flying with raptured pilots. Moral: Never hire good Christians to be airplane pilots.
The movie has become boring. It’s slow moving, with absurd clichés and plot holes all over the place. At this point, I’m angry at it — the rapture could be a lot more interesting than this. Massive theological message, huge potential for action and CGI, and we’ve got these totally uninteresting people trying to land a plane? The only interesting thing is that people actually believe this science fiction. In that way, the closest analogue is “Battlefield Earth,” another horrible fantasy film that the producers actually believe to be factual.
6:35 p.m. Finally, some theology. “He did, just like he promised, in the blink of an eye.” “It’s in the Bible.” Where, exactly? Oh that’s right, nowhere except in a handful of metaphors that actually were written about ancient Rome.
What do you have to do in order to be raptured? Says a pastor (who didn’t make the cut), “You have to believe.” Says another character, “It’s not about what we do, it’s about asking for forgiveness.” The structural anti-Judaism of Christian apocalyptic thinking is evident in these lines. Creed over deed, intention over action, grace over will, faith over good works.
At the same time, the most grievous sin that keeps appearing in “Left Behind” is being too busy at work, and not prioritizing family time enough. Personally, I still think that perpetuating planetary ecocide by doing nothing about climate change is worse. But that’s just me.
This is the kind of religion that gives Dan Harris, Christopher Hitchens, et al, an audience. Bad, bad religion.
6:43 p.m. Chloe singlehandedly saves the plane by clearing out barricades on a highway that’s under construction, so that the plane can land there instead of at JFK. Where’s Chloe when my plane’s in a holding pattern above LaGuardia? Anyway: no police, no firefighters, no Homeland Security folks concerned that a plane is landing on an expressway. Just Chloe in a pickup truck. At one point, she says, over satellite phone, “I’m flashing my brights — can you see that?” No Chloe, they are in a plane.
What does any of this have to do with the rapture? Nothing — it’s just a result of Nicolas Cage’s poor evasive maneuver. Science and competence would have saved the day.
But at least now, I have figured out the dwarf. He is the face of liberal resentment. God has given him this disadvantage, but instead of bearing it willingly and manning up, he bears a grudge. He wants a government handout and makes a lot of noise, but is actually a coward underneath.
6:55 p.m. Dwarf-tossing takes place. I’m not making this up. I guess this proves that in every terrible movie, if there’s a dwarf, he’s going to get tossed.
7:02 p.m. Worst line: “This looks like the end of the world.” “Not yet — I’m afraid this is just the beginning.” Oh that’s right, because “Left Behind” is a 12-book series. See you next time.
Jay Michaelson is a contributing editor of the Forward and author, most recently, of “Evolving Dharma.”