But even those of us keeping track of the Cage free-fall were shocked by the announcement that he had hitched his wagon to a “faith-based” feature film. Say what you will about the messaging, but these films have carved out a niche as one of those places — alongside reality shows and televised dance competitions — where careers go to die. And on top of all that, the film in question was Left Behind, which had already been turned into a series of “faith-based” movies, starring the Nicolas Cage of the Christian film world, Kirk Cameron. That series consisted of three films, produced between 2000 and 2005, before the current vogue of moneymaking pictures like Heaven Is for Real, God’s Not Dead, and Courageous. “What the hell heck,” its producers presumably decided. “If they can reboot Spider-Man, we can reboot Left Behind! What’ll Nic Cage set us back?”
And yet, Left Behind doesn’t really offer up the spectacle of the ultimate Nicolas Cage slum; we unfortunately don’t get Cage the nutty over-actor, but a version of the actor so sedated that he sounds like he did a shot of cough syrup before every take. He does, for good measure, wear an SNL sketch-level hairpiece, which gets a few laughs, and there’s fun to be had noting how he spends most of his scenes isolated in a tiny cockpit set; I’m curious to know how many days he actually spent on the set. (Not in the double digits, by my guess.)
So if Left Behind doesn’t give us Cage hooting and hollering and snarling and smoking crack and eating cockroaches, is it bad enough for jeer-viewing? Not really. Don’t get me wrong, it’s terrible. It’s filled with laughable “jargon” (“They get that computer problem figured out?” asks Cage, an airline pilot) and dialogue that suggests the screenwriters have never heard another person talk (“The brand-new baseball glove that I’ve been asking for! No way!”). The visual and aural cues are laughable; we’re introduced to Cage’s would-be mistress via a rearview-mirror close-up of her applying bright red lipstick, to the sounds of easy-listening sax. The passengers in Cage’s first-class compartment are like a clearance sale at central casting: a Texas oilman, a little black girl, a Middle Eastern guy, a smart Asian dude, a pretty blonde drug addict (complete with track marks!), a jaunty black dude (who says things like “hookin’ a brother up!”), and, no kidding, a little person.
The effects are hilarious, the sets are rinky-dink, and the character names are funnier than a full season of Big Bang Theory: Rayford Steele, Chloe Steele, Buck Williams, Hattie Durham, Shasta Carvell. And the “narrative arc” of our heroine — Cage’s religion-hating daughter, who is of course a student at one of those godless secular humanist universities — is laughably predictable.
Yet Left Behind is utterly fascinating as a bit of would-be mainstream entertainment that’s transparently attempting to function as stealth proselytizing, yet plays like we can’t see right through it. This peculiar element of its existence — a subtextual and more interesting reading, really — occurred to me around the 70-minute mark, when I realized they still hadn’t explicitly stated why all of the children and Christians had mysteriously disappeared at once, leaving behind their clothing (I’d like to discuss the logistics of that some other time) and personal items. What is this supposed to be, I thought, some kinda mystery? Who do they think is actually SEEING this movie? When they finally start talking about the Rapture a few minutes later, it’s treated with the weight and surprise of some kind of Shyamalan Twist™. The whole thing is just plain weird. This is an Evangelical movie, based on a famous series of Evangelical books; talk about an audience that’s one step ahead of you.
But I didn’t fully tune in to what they were actually trying (and failing) to do until the big ending, a Die Hard 2-style action climax in which Cage’s plane, running on fumes, comes in for a landing on an under-construction highway that his daughter attempts to clear for him (prompting that immortal line, “Chloe, your phone! I want you to open up your compass app!”). As the music pumps and the effects flex and there’s this whole climactic stretch where no one mentions God or Jesus, it hit me like, I dunno, a thunderbolt from the heavens or something: they really thought they were gonna, like, convert some people here.
And that’s why they got Nicolas Cage — not because he can be gotten, but because he can be gotten and he’s the star of Con Air and Face/Off and The Rock. And that’s why it’s directed not by someone like Alex Kendrick (of earlier Evangelical movies like Fireproof and Facing the Giants), but by Vic Armstrong, a stuntman and coordinator with a long resumé of mainstream Hollywood credits. And that’s why the narrative and action are so much more streamlined than the book’s earlier adaptation (according to Wikipedia, anyway — look, I love you guys, but not enough to sit through two versions of Left Behind). Somewhere, someone decided that if they got the right Hollywood man-of-action and put in the right number of fires and explosions and pushed those hard enough in the ads, they’d get not just the Left Behind loyalists, but also your Average Joe Moviegoer who likes things blowing up, and then they would lead him to God.
It didn’t work, of course; Cage’s brand is too weak, Left Behind’s too strong, and the film’s $14 million domestic gross didn’t even cover its $16 million budget (for on-brand comparison: that’s less than half of the grosses for last year’s way lower-profile When the Game Stood Tall, and about a quarter of Son of God’s, and that was just a repackaged TV miniseries). Yet it is a fascinating oddity, and a reminder that the only thing worse than someone preaching to the choir is someone preaching to the choir while pretending they’re not.
Left Behind is newly available on DVD, Blu-ray, and VOD.