Fair warning: The "Left Behind" series of books, movies, T-shirts, and cookware spring directly from an aggressively evangelical section of the New Testament, and this review is being written by a Jewish guy who knows nothing about the Armageddon, the End of Days, and the Rapture that he didn't learn directly from movies called Armageddon, End of Days, and The Rapture. As such, my goal is to review the movies SOLELY for their cinematic value, and comment very little on the overt religiosity therein. Please understand that if I take a slightly irreverent tone below, it's not because I lack respect for the religious beliefs of others, but because all three of these "Left Behind" movies are pretty damn silly.
Left Behind (2000) -- Movie #1 focuses on the early section of the Book of Revelation, the one that says half the world's population will instantaneously ascend into the heavens, leaving those "left behind" to deal with the mysteries of God's will and the arrival of a particularly hard-working anti-Christ.
Sounds like the plot of a potentially compelling fantasy flick, right? Wrong. Because none of the Bible authors were wise enough to comment about things like half-decent production values, intelligent screenwriting, or talented actors, the true believers are now stuck with a flagship flick that looks amazingly chintzy, sounds like it was written by a 9-year-old Sunday schooler, and is littered with some of the most hilariously inert acting performances of the new millennium.
Not so much a cautionary tale for the uninitiated as it is a corny tongue-bath for those who are already flock-members, Left Behind doesn't work as drama, science-fiction, or theology. It's a flick that's content to ponderously preach at its own congregation, secure in the knowledge that "the message" is what will allow its intended audience to overlook the myriad flaws in pacing, production value, dialogue, and simple common sense.
As a movie, Left Behind is an abject failure, and as religious propaganda it's even worse. Were I a staunch believer in the Evangelical teachings, I'd absolutely cringe at the way my beliefs were carried across in this laughable film. But I suppose you have to take the bad with the good when you truly believe you're one of God's "chosen angels." These folks get eternity in heaven, while I'm stuck here watching the Left Behind trilogy. The one that stars Kirk Cameron. I'm calling my rabbi.
Left Behind 2: Tribulation Force (2002) poses the question: What happens after half the world's people vanish in a cloud of God's love, leaving behind the confused and bereaved to deal with the anti-Christ's nefarious plans to mess with Israel, the United Nations, and the world's monetary structure? And the answer is this:
More Kirk Cameron.
Tribulation Force plays out like some sort of Evangelical "What if we were right??" party game. Our world is about to be taken over by the devilish diplomacy of Nicolae Carpathia, a man seen as a savior by millions ... but he's really the devil says the Tribulation Force! Composed of a whiny news reporter, a blockheaded Air Force pilot, a forever sermonizing preacher man, and a few hundred extras, the Tribulation Force is committed to spreading the word about Carpathia. And that word is this: Only those who accept Jesus Christ will escape this Earth-bound hell-hole. All other will be left to rot. How nice.
The meandering plot is interrupted every few minutes so that lead actors Kirk Cameron and Brad Johnson can convert a non-believer, preach about the short-sightedness of non-Christians, or get all moon-eyed when discussing Jesus this and Jesus that. Again, I mean no disrespect to the religious folks, but heck, movies like these just make Christianity seem more weird.
Anyway, the reporter heads to Israel to look into some trouble at the Wailing Wall while the pilot gets a gig jetting the anti-Christ across the globe. Both are acting as Jesus' undercover operatives, searching for clues to the Devil's unpleasant plan while converting a few souls along the way. Not a whole lot of anything actually happens in LB2: T-Force, because every time we think the plot is about to advance somewhere interesting, we take a chat-laden detour into Preachville. All we need to know is that the true believers are on the case against the Auntie Christ, and their mission can only be completed by converting a rabbi into a devout Christian on worldwide television ... or something.
Left Behind: World at War (2005) gets things rolling with a bigger budget, some (slightly) niftier FX work, and a cast list that now includes out-of-work character actors like Louis Gossett Jr. and Charles Martin Smith as the U.S. president and vice-president. (Yes, respectively.) It's also the first movie I've ever seen that includes dialogue like "Mr. President, look, time is running out ... and I don't want you to go to hell," and it's just as overstuffed with smug sermonizing as its predecessors.
Sure you can go out and hire yourself a half-decent low-budget director (this time it's Craig Baxley, the director of Storm of the Century, Sniper 2, and Kingdom Hospital), but it's not going to matter all that much if your flick is forever beholden to endless prayer sessions and pedantic preachifying. There might be a mediocre "end of the world" thriller buried beneath the layers of endless religo-babble, but between the insipid dialogue and the horrific editing techniques, Mr. Baxley's slick surface work looks like a fancy wax job on a broken-down junker.
So yeah, nasty ol' Carpathia is up to his apocalyptical tricks again, only this time he has to contend not only with a nerdly little reporter guy, but also a surprisingly virile U.S. President who somehow becomes immortal after stumbling across a nefarious plan to poison the world's Bibles with a nasty and invisible bio-toxin from Hell. Or something. I don't remember much of my New Testament, but someone might have to remind me what chapter it is where the president breaks into a top-secret bio-lab and uncovers Satan's Death-Bible gambit.
Summing up, all three of these movies are about the "message" first, and everything else (character, narrative, production design, dialogue, you name it) is a close third or fourth. This is an example of "preaching to the choir" on a multi-million dollar scale. Those who believe they're "saved" and I'm "not" will adore these flicks for re-confirming their passionate beliefs, while those of a more skeptical nature will have just another reason to dismiss this stuff as pandering propaganda pieces. Frankly, even if I were a member of the "intended audience" for the Left Behind series, I think I might be more than a little embarrassed by them.
Video: Parts 1 and 2 are presented by way of a rather blotchy and unflattering full frame transfer. Part 3 comes in an anamorphic widescreen (1.78:1) that makes the flick look a little better than its predecessors, but that's about it.
Audio: Part 1: Dolby Digital 2.0 in English or Spanish. Part 2: DD 5.1 and 2.0 English. Part 3: DD 5.1 English. Only the third movie offers subtitles of any kind: English, French, and Spanish.
The Left Behind DVD comes with a handful of goofy extras, most notably a 22-minute Seeing is Believing piece from the 2001 premiere of the movie. Here you'll find reporters, filmmakers, and fans doing all they can to name-drop and convince themselves that Left Behind is a real movie. "Look at all this press!" and stuff like that. Puh-leeze. Oh and don't miss the plugs for the Left Behind touring concert and soundtrack CD. I suspect Jesus would appreciate it.
There's also a 28-minute Making Of featurette that recycles a lot of the material from the "Seeing is Believing," as well as some cast bios, four Christian rock music videos, and a bunch of trailers for "Cloud Ten" flicks Revelation, Tribulation, Judgment, Waterproof, The Miracle of the Cards, and Deceived.
The Tribulation Force DVD is also stocked with supplemental material: a 28-minute Making Of featurette, a handful of deleted scenes, a brief outtake reel, a look behind the FX of the Nicolae Morphing Effect, a quick Tour of the Temple Mount Set, a goofy cast interview piece called What Do They Really Think of Each Other?, some cast & crew biographies, another pair of music videos, a rather dry audio commentary with producer Nicholas D. Tabarrok and producer Andre van Heerden, and a bunch of trailers for Tribulation Force, Revelation, Judgment, The Miracle of the Cards, Waterproof, Left Behind, and Left Behind 3.
On the World at War platter you'll find another parcel of supplemental material: an audio commentary with actor Gordon Currie, producer Nicholas D. Tabarrok, and writer/producer Andre van Heerden, a selection of Moments That Were Left Behind (that's "outtakes" for the heathens in the audience), a pair of featurettes called Characters with Character and What Doesn't Kill You, some deleted scenes, Cast & Crew Bios, two music videos, a Kirk Cameron "Join My Ministry" infomercial, and the whole stable of trailers.
Jam too many sermons into a movie and it stops being a movie and it becomes a 90-minute sermon. With really bad special effects. And Kirk Cameron.