At the risk of seeming indelicate or bigoted: fundamentalist evangelical Christian genre movies are weird. As I am not remotely the first to point out, they represent a miserable kind of paradox about them: they palpably want to be exciting cinema like wot the heathens all get to watch with their guns and their scantily clad ladies and their car chases. Except that it's incumbent upon the terrified, moralistic worldview that these films are so anxious to espouse to specifically lack guns and bikinis and all. The result are films that ape the style of big-budget Hollywood productions, but not the elements that style was designed to showcase; and, of course, not on anything that the most innocent among us could genuinely believe to be a big budget. The result is that these films have a peculiar and at times indefinable whiff of the ersatz: watching them just feels wrong at a semiotic level, like even though everything about them is definitionally cinematic - images pass by at 24 frames-per-second (or 29.97 frames-per-second, when the budgets were really low), giving the illusion of movement, and there is sound synchronised to that movement - it still just has to be some completely different medium all together.

Of all the fundie Christian films that ever were or, perhaps, ever will be, none is more famous and celebrated in all its ersatz-ness than Left Behind, the 2000 direct-to-churches-then-to-video adaptation of the first book in the wildly popular series of novels by Tim LaHaye & Jerry Jenkins. The Left Behind book series purports to be the blow-by-blow account of what happens when God decides that history was fun and all, but it's really time to pack up this whole "Earth" experiment and end time with the return of Jesus Christ to save some people and condemn a whole lot more people over the course of seven grueling years that are going to start like, for serious, any time now, man. At least, they present the version of the Apocalypse as it is predicted to happen by LaHaye's particular brand of pre-tribulational pre-millenial dispensationalism, and if I only needed one reason to regret the decision I made a week ago to become a Left Behind expert for the sake of this review, it would be that not only did i just type out the Jabberwocky-like chain of nonsense syllables, "pre-tribulational pre-millenial dispensationalism", I also have something like an idea of what the fuck it means.

So anyway, Left Behind. A movie whose existence makes perfect sense, actually - books as popular as that get made into movies, among the godly just as among those damn Jews in Hollywood - but whose existence is also immensely pitiable and sad. Left Behind is a stupid, stupid movie. And I do not mean stupid in reference to its plot, for in fact screenwriters Alan McElroy, Paul Lalonde, and Joe Goodman (the latter two are also producers) the best work I could imagine in training LaHaye & Jenkins's absurdly tedious, aimlessly digressive collection of phone conversations and exposition clarifying things we already knew into something that functions as a relatively concise and straightforward narrative of just over 90 minutes in length (and I did, yes, read Left Behind as part of my week of becoming an expert. Congratulations to New Moon of the Twilight series, on no longer being my least favorite novel of all time). And I do not mean stupid in reference to the toxic theology of the piece, which is anyway toned down a great deal in its rhetorical urgency from the book, though it remains fixedly anti-human, and frankly anti-Christian, as far as this atheist understands the most important elements of Christian thought. Hint: not the elements that involve running Revelations through a kaleidoscope to prove why only the people you like are going to Heaven during the Second Coming.

No, I mean stupid as in just plain nuclear-strength stupid at the level of filmmaking craft. This a movie whose basic competence can be illustrated by pointing out that there are scenes cross-cutting between events happening simultaneously, at three visually distinct times of day. Or which implies in its very opening shot that the sun sets in the East over Jerusalem. Which would be a miracle, sure, but not the one that the plot has in mind for that sequence. And it is stupid because of how badly it fumbles every single character arc, which is the literal worst thing that could happen, given that the only thing this narrative has to structure itself is the religious conversion of its three main characters, one of which appears to take place completely offscreen. And it is stupid because the villain is a charismatic Romanian politician played by Gordon Currie who talks like Count Chocula and has been given the singular name of Nicolae Carpathia, presumably because LaHaye & Jenkins's editor insisted that their first choice of "Dracula T. Antichrist" was insufficiently euphonious.

But really, it's mostly stupid because of Mr. & Mrs. Kirk Cameron. The savagely fundamentalist evangelical Right's favorite E-list celebrity who can be trotted out for state functions and not-so-low-as-the-others-budget movies as proof that people who are kind of famous belief in their punishing sectarian variant of Christianity. Though I am quite sure that Cameron is at this point more famous for the unyielding severity of his religion, and his career's function strictly as a vessel for promoting that religion, than he would be if he was just the kid from Growing Pains all growed up with a career in DTV garbage. Anyway, Cameron's presence means that his wife, Chelsea Noble, is also present, and that's a shame, because whatever Noble is up to in Left Behind, which for convenience's sake we shall call "acting", is the most magnificently unbelievable bullshit I have seen in a really goddamn long time. It's exactly like the acting you get from actresses cast solely because they will agree to spend most or all of the film topless, except, y'know, the polar opposite of that. Noble plays, sort of, a young woman of Unwell Morals, and there comes a point where extreme distaste for her character is the only thing happening anywhere near her performance, which is still a step in the right direction from the earlier parts where she's shouting lines and staring vacantly with enormous eyes in what is doubtlessly intended to be a facsimile of the hu-man emotion called "friendliness".

Noble isn't in that much of the movie, though, and she's hilarious to watch. Mr. Noble is the far, far worse problem, because his performance is only a tiny bit better, much less amusing, and he's the film's protagonist: crusading TV journalist Cameron "Buck" Williams, though he more or less stops doing any journalisming by the film's midway point. Cameron's problem is far more terrible than anything in his wife's robotic copying of people feelings: his problem is that he's enormously smug, well aware that he's the big-time star in this incredibly little pond, well aware that he's savin' souls and changin' lives with his hollow proselytising of unpleasant religious dogma, and it oozes out of everything he does onscreen. He's a smirky, insincere jackass, looking more like he's about to start giving the hard sell on some piece of shit car than anything else; the only moment in his performance that's even a tiny bit convincing is when he has a breakdown in a men's restroom and promises to let Jesus into his life. It's not just bad because it leaves us with a terrible protagonist, it takes down another actor's performance as collateral damage: Janaya Stephens, playing the much-too-young love interest for Buck, has to suffer with a scene partner who openly confesses (fuck, openly brags) that he thinks playing romantic plotlines with women not his wife is functionally the same as adultery.

I had better, at some point, shift over to the actual plot of the thing, what there is of it. Basically, the world is full of signs and portents of something important about to happen, though it is ignored by all but the most committed religious believers. After about thirty minutes of meandering character set-up introducing us to Buck, and manly airline pilot Rayford Steele (Brad Johnson), because LaHaye & Jenkins presumably figured out on their own that "Dick Hardcock" wouldn't fly with their target audience, and Steele's daughter Chloe, the aforementioned love interest. All three of these individuals share one characteristic; they're awful, vile Christ-haters, and so when the Rapture comes and magics all the True Believers into heaven, they are among the millions upon millions of people who are… wait for it… left behind. Which happens while Rayford is flying a plane on which Buck is a passenger

(Incidentally, something that's always confused me about the whole notion of these books: when the Rapture happens, all the disappeared Christians leave the highways lousy with empty cars. But my impression of the sort of people who subscribe to LaHaye-style apocalyptic thought also view themselves as a persecuted minority; surely they wouldn't actually expect that there are nearly enough Rapture-ready believers as Left Behind, in either medium, implies).

So Buck, and Rayford, and Chloe, all have to learn about the ins and outs of post-Rapture life, eagerly devouring knowledge from Bruce Barnes (Clarence Gilyard, the beneficiary of a gratifying bit of colorblind casting - the character is heavily implied to be a generic thirtysomething white guy in the book) the junior pastor at a megachurch where virtually the entire congregation was zapped into heaven. And as they learn, one by one, what's going on, they also learn that Carpathia, a philanthropist and peacemaker who has just been made UN Secretary-General from total obscurity, is almost certainly the Antichrist, because in the disgusting worldview that LaHaye espouses, desiring world peace is literally, actually against the will of Jesus. And the newly born-again heroes agree to form a force to stop Carpathia, who has just solidified his rule by killing some gangsters in the Howard Johnson conference room that's temporarily serving as the UN General Assembly. With a homemade banner that, if you see the TV out of the corner of your eye while you're running across the room, might look like the UN seal. But they don't do it in this movie. See you in the sequel, everybody!

The almost total absence of anything that actually looks like a narrative is one of Left Behind's issues, but it's not, honestly, one of the biggest. The unmitigated ticky-tacky cheapness of it is; the feeling that director Vic Sarin and crew were trying their absolute best to make a movie like the real kind, but without any sort of modicum of discipline or creativity. So not only are all the locations slugged with cards identifying the place and time (but not the date, oddly), those cards are also in a painfully generic font, and we hear that teletype tikatikatika noise as the words spell themselves out. Plot details are stated then shown then reiterated. The number of close-ups of actors who didn't have enough makeup put on to counteract the glare of set lets borders on the criminal.

It's not all a wash - Johnson is actually good at playing a man who silently hates himself and still gets caught by surprise to find out that God hates him too, while Gilyard's incredibly corny and lazy "screaming at God" scene, though hardly a triumph of the screenwriter's art, gets a boost from the actor's sweat-streaked commitment to the scene's physicality. And Currie has the basic decency to know that he can stand out and make people at least ironically happy by devoting himself to pure, visceral camp. So that's three good bits of acting. And it's manna from heaven for bad movie fans: if not the stiff, unspeakable dialogue, it's the openly desperate production design, trying to make a whole lot of locations out of some pretty anonymous, church-basementy spaces, and if it's not that, it's Smug-Ass Cameron and Soulless Android Noble, strangling the movie a little bit every time they talk or move.

The bad news, of course, is that all this bad movie fun is yoked to a movie with a deeply irritating tendency to quietly clear its throat and ask if you'd maybe like to talk about eschatology and religion, or whatever. It's not remotely as obnoxious as the book; by the standards of Cameron's filmography, it's positively muted. But even in tiny doses, the paranoid, anti-charity, anti-love, anti-everything cant of Left Behind's ideology is absolutely no fun at all, and in fact becomes quite depressing when you think about the number of people that fervently believe in it. Some things are just too grim to mock.

Reviews in this series
Left Behind (Sarin, 2000)
Left Behind II: Tribulation Force (Corcoran, 2002)
Left Behind: World at War (Baxley, 2005)