I have wonderful news: Left Behind: World at War isn't nearly such an angrifying slog as its predecessor, Tribulation Force, and we'll have none of the bitterness that got in between me and my snark when I wrote about it. Compared to that film, and compared also to 2000's original Left Behind, the 2005 trilogy-capper is actually quite a different experience altogether, one that feels much more like a secular bad movie that has these regular, strange interruptions from Kirk Cameron smugly evangelising. And the difference between those movies and this one is obvious enough: World at War somehow managed to finagle the financial backing of Sony, and thus suddenly looks enormously more professional and competent. Which is not to say that it's actually professional or competent, in the absolute sense: its sets look like set, full of random computers and monitors and shiny surfaces, and they are lit hard and flat, and the handful of showcase effects are very much at the level of a film with a title like Bearacuda or Piranhaconda vs. Boa Sharkstrictor, both in the quality of their rendering and the grace with which they have been composited in. But it no longer looks like the whole thing was shot in a convention center lobby. It's even in widescreen!

The biggest difference the budget made, though, was that it enabled World at War to afford a real actor. The first two Left Behinds had to make do with Brad Johnson as their representative good-or-decent actor, an oasis of some kind of solid professionalism that threw into relief how tawdry most of the film was around him, and I will always be grateful to the stolidity he brought to those movies. But he's got nothing on the actor paid what I'm certain was not nearly enough money to validate the dime store spy picture shenanigans of World at War, that being Academy Award-winner Louis Gossett, Jr. It is not possible to communicate just how much his presence alters the landscape of the movie. Most importantly, the filmmakers had the good damn sense to realise that they had somebody with genuine onscreen authority and presence, and the good luck for that person to have concluded that even if he'd ended up in a direct-to-video-churches Christian thriller in which the President of the United States Gerald Fitzhugh (Gossett just looks like a Fitzhugh, doesn't he?) does his Nancy Drew act against Dracula playing David Bowie playing the Antichrist, well dammit, he was still a paid professional and he'd still treat the part like an actual part in a real movie. God bless him (and for begin in this movie, I imagine that's exactly what happens), Gossett is actually trying. Faced with the impossible dialogue and speeches that Paul Lalonde, Peter Lalonde, and AndrΓ© van Heerden's screenplay screenplay leaves him to recite, Gossett dives right in and tries to figure out what his character might be thinking and feeling in those moments, and while he cannot translate the words of the screenplay into the sounds of human speech, he delivers them with enough gravity and feeling that they still feel like reflections of his character's emotions.

Better yet, between Gossett's wildly disproportionate skill level and the amount of money the producers had to invest to get access to him, he got promoted to the level of lead, which means that Cameron has been knocked down a peg. And that is a development which is all alone enough to make World at War the classiest Left Behind movie with the most human interest. And that's even with its plot revolving around a paranoiac fantasy about the UN lacing Bibles with toxic gas, something I'd expect to see in a parody of hard-right Christian filmmaking rather than a legitimate example of it.

Poisoned Bibles, in all their melodramatic excess, are to be found nowhere in the book series upon which this was based (it's mostly taken from the last two chapters of Tribulation Force, the second novel, with some grace notes from the third, Nicolae), and that's not the only overt way in which the film mostly discards the source material in order to invent a plot in which things actually happen and there is some kind of momentum to be had. It's thanks to this development, which does very much make World at War the least boring Left Behind movie (leaving it plenty of room to be immensely boring, mind you, especially in the first, more character-driven half), that the series came to a halt after only three movies adapting only the first two of a 16-volume series. For novelists Tim LaHaye & Jerry Jenkins, but probably mostly LaHaye, were upset at how much the films had drifted from the mission state of the books, which was to present made-up eschatological esoterica through the matrix of lifeless prose and empty characters inching their way through a story in which virtually nothing happened. They were able to cut the series off at the knees before it diluted their brand any further, and immediately set to re-starting the series with more of the intemperate religion that was the whole notion of the series in the first place.

It is true that as an End Times field guide, World at War is serious lacking. Antichrist and world dictator Nicholae Carpathia (Gordon Currie) is, functionally, no different than any other mustache-twirling Bondian supervillain, except for the part where he's immortal, and the plot by which President Fitzhugh and his survivalist militia team resist Carpathia's wicked schemes doesn't meaningfully differ from any random action thriller about a rag-tag rebel group. Even our very own Tribulation Force, the team of True Believers forming a more godly resistance to Carpathia, feels denuded of explicit religious zeal in a lot of the movie, and that's not even acknowledging how very little most of them are involved: Rayford Steele (Johnson) mostly just shows up because it would be weird if he didn't (though he does get married off in the early scenes to a woman we've never met and don't get to know), and his daughter Chloe (Janaya Stephens), herself having married the dashing TV reporter Buck Williams (Cameron), is largely on hand to be The Woman for Buck's plot. Which, given Cameron's skittishness about being a filthy un-Christian actor and doing things like touching the actress playing his new wife, isn't much of a good deal for her, given that the husband she's ostensibly supporting is visibly uncomfortable being around her. And as for Our Buck, he's laden with some random bullshit that takes up a lot of time, as a star of Kirk Cameron's white-hot celebrity would clearly deserve. His main job is to preach at Fitzhugh until he converts the president to the withholding and joyless fringe Christianity that, in LaHaye's worldview, is the only kind that keeps God and Jesus from hating you and your sinful ass.

By cutting down the rage-drenched theology down mostly just to the scenes that involve Cameron, World at War proves to be a whole lot more pleasant to watch than the bullying, accusatory pair of films that precede it. Though I cannot say if that's because the film isn't so wedded to its gross reduction of Christian thought to its angriest elements, or simply because Kirk Cameron comes off as so supercilious and boastful that it listening to him talk about any subject would be intolerable, and he's happily reduced to a supporting role. Whatever is causing it, World at War ends up feeling more like a movie than the other two, in all possible ways, and between Gossett pretending that there's some actual emotional weight and importance to the President's actions, and Currie's continued refinement of Carpathia into an ever more pure articulation of campy flair and self-satisfied wickedness, the film even enjoys something of a compelling relationship between its hero and villain.

Is this enough to make the film good? Oh, hell no, in no uncertain terms. It's quite terrible: Craig R. Baxley has, unquestionably, the strongest overall career of any of the Left Behind directors, and it shows in his significantly higher investment in making the action scenes vaguely exciting and the thriller scenes tense, but budget and the moral limitations placed on him by the production put a firm cap on how ambitious World at War can possibly be. It's glossy and mainstream and exciting for a fundamentalist Christian movie, but I really can't express what an enormous qualifying statement that is: being the most action-packed Christian movie in history only puts it at about the level of a no-budget underground Filipino thriller from the '70s.

And for all that I'm grateful that Cameron isn't the focus this time around, he still has the second-largest role in the movie; Buck Williams and his preening awful face and Cameron's inability to do that fussy thing "acting", when he can just recite his punishing, theologically inane dogma and sit back beaming with the flush of his evangelical zeal, they are all still very much with us (so is Cameron's wife Chelsea Noble, never worse in the series than in the scene where she confronts Rayford for leading her on; a gifted actress might have found the irony in playing a scorned woman who never actually had an affair with the man she's screaming at, but since Noble has decided that her character is a vindictive slutwhore, that's what we see, even though it's virtually impossible to justify that approach based on the script). World at War is a breath of fresh air compared the high school drama club production values of the first two, and the madman on the street with a sandwich board quality to the messaging, but compared to virtually any other action thriller about fighting a crazed supernatural Romanian dictator and stopping him from poisoning all the Christians with toxic Bibles, it's still unmistakably poor, hobbled by its philosophy and tremendously shy of actually being a genre film. It's the difference between getting your hand slammed in a door versus actually having your entire arm ripped off; there's still nothing pleasant about it, but the pain doesn't hang on for nearly as long.