Where's the rocket science in releasing a movie on video three months BEFORE it's due to hit multiplexes? But that's the cagey marketing plan for Left Behind: The Movie (2000, 95 minutes) a Bible-based doomsday thriller born of the ferociously successful book series by Jerry Jenkins and Tim LaHaye. The hope is that the videos will build a fervent religious fanbase, one that will generate impressive box office returns, such that'll make Hollywood wanna get into the salvation biz. Brothers Peter and Paul Lalonde have earned a rep as Christian-exploitation filmmakers with a series of End Times-obsessed flicks: Apocalypse, Revelation, Tribulation and, coming soon, Judgment starring Corbin Bersen, everyone's favorite homicidal-maniac dentist. It's also the Brothers Lalonde who came up with the hiney-backwards release schedule. And according to Entertainment Weekly, they didn't even bother to tell director Vic Sarin, his crew or the Left Behind novelists who swear they'd never have sold the rights having known the scheme, er, strategy.
All this comes on the heels of The Omega Code surprise, another faith-based, end-of-the-world thriller that made a bunch of money because word spread that suffering through all 99 inane minutes of it was, well, the CHRISTIAN thing to do. So why are evangelicals so dang preoccupied with The Bible's book of Revelation, anyway? And who forgot they all ready MADE these movies 20 YEARS AGO?! The current crop are just glorified retreads of another scare-em-to-Jesus series -- A Thief in the Night, Distant Thunder, Image of the Beast and Prodigal Planet -- which followed the perils of Patty, a woman whose hubby got called up to heaven, with the rest of the good folks, and left her behind to deal with an Anti-Christ who enjoys seeing heads roll -- literally.
And while we're at it, why is a group who so adamantly derides Hollywood's affinity for carnage making such VIOLENT movies? Not that there's cause to object. No! No! But one must pose the question. In fact, religious pictures should have MORE explosions, MORE beheadings and MORE bloody highway disasters. The Lalondes seem to agree when they proclaim, "It's not a real movie unless you blow something up!" These are my kinda fellas.
The movie: "Growing Pains" heartthrob Kirk Cameron is Buck Williams GNN's star reporter -- which basically means he points a microphone at people and looks vaguely interested while they babble. Buck's standing in a wheat field in Israel, doing exactly that, when about 80 gajillion fighter jets swoop in and attempt to level Jerusalem. But some "supernatural" stuff happens and Buck grabs his camera and films a fella in a bed sheet talk about real estate opportunities. Or something, it's confusing. Afterward, everyone keeps telling Buck what a great reporter he is, using his name over and over, which probably reads fine in print, but spoken in a variety of accents, it sounds like people are hurling enough F-bombs to make the potty-mouthed boys of "South Park" duck 'n' cover.
Anyway, the money shot of the flick is when Kirk (no more cursing) is on a transatlantic flight when a mess of folks just up and disappear into the ether. If you paid attention at all in Sunday School, you'll remember some talk about this deal where Christ is going to zap the faithful up to heaven -- in what's called The Rapture -- just before the Anti-Christ rises to power and begins a seven-year reign of terror. Exciting, huh? Here, it's BORING! One minute Joe Christian is sitting in 11B. The next, his conservative wardrobe is neatly pressed and positioned in his vacant seat. Where's the special effects? No puff of smoke. No flash of light. Zilch! Surely the good Lord has something wicked cool like one of those sparklily "Star Trek" transporter raygun deals. What IS interesting is who gets taken. Heaven-bound ticket holders are ONLY born-again Christians and, for some reason, children of all stripes. Apparently, God's chosen people, the Jews, ain't welcome anymore. And why are the little yard monsters waved on through? Doesn't that go against the whole principal of Original Sin? And what's the magic birth date? "Sorry, Timmy, you just turned 5 and didn't profess your belief in Christ's sacrifice and resurrection for your salvation. Hope you packed an electric fan." But I digress.
All these disappearances cause nasty accidents as planes fall from the sky, 18-wheelers barrel into oncoming traffic and the like. Kirk runs around looking concerned, while we're taken into an airline pilot's home, where his born-again wife and son are missing. Captain Steele (Brad Johnson) didn't have time for religion as he was too busy breaking the sixth commandment with stewardess Hattie Durham, played by the seriously H-O-T wife of Kirk Cameron, Chelsea Noble. Steele's daughter Chloe (Janaya Stephens) had a nose ring, so she's out also. But the most compelling scenario is that of a preacher who was left behind. Pastor Bruce Barnes (Clarence Gilyard) walked the path of the righteous, even led many to Jesus, but didn't truly believe the words he was parroting. His broken-hearted conversion is honest and moving. Elsewhere people just sorta stand around for HOURS looking at their empty baby carriages and such. The United Nations promises to soothe the global crisis, but wait, their leader's motives might not be entirely pure. The seemingly benign Nicolae Carpathia (Gordon Currie) just might be Satan's boy, but he certainly can't decide which accent to use -- slip-sliding between U2's Bono and the Burgermeister from "Santa Claus Is Comin' to Town." CineSchlockers will remember Currie got kilt by Jason Voorhees in Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan.
Notables: No breasts. Four corpses. THE Beast. 142,380,000 missing believers. Smoking. Boozing. Air-to-ground attack. Multiple explosions. Mirror busting. One rodent. Demonic-mind control. Implied lesbianism. One adulterous kiss.
Quotables: Buck's babbling informant won't chill out, "I'll get all the sleep I need when I'm dead." Filthy-rich banker who's plotting to take over the world, indulges in a little Old Testament humor, "World peace. It's been a dream since Cain first looked sideways at Abel."
Time codes: Weird-beard stranger rambles about the end of the world (9:00). Bible-prophecy televangelists Jack and Rexella Van Impe's dreams are about to come true (23:38). The -- yawn -- rapture (26:25). Captain Steele emotes (38:22). "So You've Been Left Behind" instructional video (1:12:18). Buck meets Jesus in the mens room (1:32:50).
Audio/Video: Maybe the added benefit of seeing the movie in theaters is that it'll be presented in its original ratio. Or maybe the flick REALLY IS fullframe. Its director is certainly schooled in the format as he's a TV veteran dating back to Robert Urich's "Spencer for Hire" in the mid-80s (Sarin even worked on the movie-of-the-week Spencer revivals). We shall see. Anyway, there's some pixelation and shimmering here and there. It's especially noticeable when type appears on the screen, but strangely, holds up fairly well during the low-rent CGI sequences. The Dolby Digital stereo track is reasonably respectable.
Extras: Here's where the marketing angle is really clear. Enclosed are two matinee-priced tickets for the theatrical release. There's a 25-minute featurette, specifically geared toward church groups, touting the project as "the biggest and most ambitious Christian film ever made." In a separate segment Kirk Cameron pretends he LIKES the idea of delaying the big-screen release, and spends a couple minutes trying to cajole viewers into bringing everyone they know to the theater. Also included are some music videos by artists no one's ever heard of -- with good reason. Don't forget to check out the trailers for other Lalonde exploitation features (Look for Gary Busey and Howie Mandel in Tribulation. Plus, get this, Mr. T has joined the B-Team in Judgment.)
Final thought: A sometimes engaging supernatural thriller. Where The Omega Code was more bewildering than evangelical, Left Behind's salvation message is written in wide strokes: "The doodie's about to hit the fan. Better get right with the J-Man." Recommended.
G. Noel Gross is a Dallas graphic designer and avowed Drive-In Mutant who specializes in scribbling B-movie reviews. Noel is inspired by Joe Bob Briggs and his gospel of blood, breasts and beasts.