It's been said before, but it bears repeating - the end of the world ala The Bible would make one helluva great apocalyptic disaster epic. Think about it: the arrival of the fabled Four Horsemen; the ascension of the saved; the raising of the dead; the Judgment of the entire world; the ultimate devastation of everything we know. Give it to the right visionary producer, higher a slick, up and coming director, load the mutha with CGI and spectacle, and you'd have a glorious, God driven hit. Of course, you could up the evangelistic facets, cut back on the F/X, and bathe everything in a b-movie mediocrity that misses the point entirely. The converted don't need to be pandered to - they already get the need for redemption. It's the sinner that needs to be swayed. Unfortunately, nothing in the Left Behind films will provide such salvation. While based on wildly successful best sellers, these low budget realizations of the Rapture are often more laughable than frightening fire and brimstone.
To call the Left Behind series controversial would be like mentioning the Pope's rampant Catholicism. Some have found the books (and accompanying films) a wonderful and powerful depiction of God's word and its application to our current world climate. Others argue that it's nothing more than a fear-mongering money grab that uses bad Biblical prophecy - and in the case of the movies, some lesser celebrity talent - to instill a predisposed pessimism on those straddling either side of the faith-based fence. From an overreliance on violence and an oversimplification of theology to far more troubling attacks on other beliefs, many consider these works marginal, preaching to the already converted screeds. While the franchise now stands at 16 novels (not to mention a bevy of associative merchandising), there have only been three films made. What this box set represents then is the first fledgling attempts to bring Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins vision of the End Times to a more mainstream audience. They even signed a deal with Sony in 2004 for future films (and current DVDs).
The best way to address this set then is to look at each film individually. Only then can a bigger picture approach be attempted. Let's begin with:
Left Behind: The Movie (**)
Plot: Israel is attacked by its Arab neighbors. It survives thanks to some 'divine' intervention. Reporter Buck Williams captures the event. He also learns of a secret cabal bent on controlling the world's food supply and bankrupting the UN. One day, millions of people vanish without explanation. As Wiliams follows up on all these stories, he uncovers a terrifying prospect - the End Times are here, and the Rapture has begun. Those left behind are about to face seven years of Tribulation - and the growing influence of the Antichrist, otherwise known as Romanian politician Nicolae Carpathia.
Review: Who knew the end of the world would be so...talky? Given over to more exposition than your average horror movie and an episode of CSI combined, this first Left Behind adaptation covering the Christian Armageddon is all set-up and very little deliverance. In attempting to ring some suspense out of what most contemporary church goers know by rote, director Vic Sarin attempts to authenticate the action within the story. Though the appearance of star Kirk Cameron should instantly tip off anyone who's followed the actor's post-Growing Pains testimony, this movie does try to be a standard, secular thriller. Towards the middle, once we've had the disappearing people and the backdoor political wrangling, a videotape by a kindly old preacher provides the necessary Gospel link. From then on, it's all prayers and plodding plot mechanics. Yet had the film focused some of its energy on scope, had it found a way to make its end of the world not seem so small, we'd probably accept the sermonizing. But even the suplots involving a pilot and his problems and the eventual appearance of the Devil's own disciple just don't get a chance to resonate here. Sadly, this is perhaps the worst movie of the three.
Left Behind II: Tribulation Force (*1/2)
Plot: Post-Rapture and the world is in chaos. Only Nicolae Carpathia, now head of the UN, is offering any real hope. Thanks to a newly formed group consisting of Biblical scholar Pastor Bruce Barnes, grieving pilot Rayford Steele, his daughter Chloe, and newsman Buck Williams, the truth about the charismatic leader is starting to spread. When a group of individuals are found burned to death near the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem, the Force must find a way to get the message out to even more people. They hope Rabbi Ben Judah will help.
Review: With most of the heavy narrative lifting out of the way, you'd figure that a Left Behind sequel would come out swinging and never let up. Well, guess again. While far more over the top and tacky than the original, Tribulation Force is also overflowing with reams and reams of scripture as screenplay. When Cameron and the rest of the cast aren't trying to countermand the control Carpathia has on the populace, they are sitting around discussing the various interpretations and meanings in Revelations. Talk about your scintillating cinema. Unless you love all things God, it may be very difficult to sit through this movie. With previous director Sarin gone and TV vet Bill Corcoran in, we get a minor improvement in filmmaking. Conversely, because the producers are trying to par down a 450 page novel into a 90 minute entertainment, large chunks of storyline seem shuttered aside. While many prefer this second serving of sacred scare tactics over the first, Tribulation Force lacks the kind of focus to make the series viable for anyone outside the converted.
Left Behind: World at War (**1/2)
Plot: It's been nearly two years since the start of the Rapture. With religion outlawed, the Tribulation Force is trying to steal Bibles from the Global Community compound. When things turn deadly, the group looks to the President of the United States, Gerald Fitzhugh to help them defeat Carpathia. An assassination attempt fails. In the meantime, a bacterial virus is running rampant through the population. It is up to the Force to figure out how to stop the disease before World War III breaks out.
Review: In the most cinematic, quasi-legitimate movie of the bunch, the United States of America finally answers God's call - and it's former Oscar winning actor Louis Gossett Jr. whose got everyone singing "Hail to the Chief". As the President, the aging performer is required to go mano y mano with Gordon Currie's Carpathia, and the results can be almost interesting at times. There are some decent action sequences here (an assassination setpiece comes off well), even if the F/X are still Commodore or Amiga level quality. With stunt coordinator turned schlock b-movie maker Craig R. Baxley behind the lens, it's no wonder things move along more briskly. The bad news, of course, is that no Left Behind film can be completely free of evangelism, and as the series has progressed, Cameron's influence can really be felt. Nothing against the actor and his staunch beliefs, but it's awful hard to reach out to a more moderate audience when you're constantly forcing fundamentalism down their throats. Granted, this is the basis for the material, but a deft hand tends to lure more interest than browbeating...and if it can be accused of anything, the Left Behind films are very heavy handed indeed.
Here's the bad news all your 16x9 lovers. The first two films in the Left Behind box set are 1.33:1 full screen fiascos. There is some grain, a rather flat look to the filmmaking, and an overall lo-fi vibe. Things get better with the Sony supported World at War. The 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen image is clearly more "cinematic". There is a richness missing from the first movies that is welcome here. Details are better defined, and overall, the transfer transcends the limited resources on display.
Since these films are clearly made within certain technological restraints and professional production designs, the sonic situation here is relatively minor. Left Behind offers either a Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround or Spanish 2.0 Stereo mix, while Tribulation Force finds Dolby Digital 5.1 and 2.0 options. World at War rounds out the trio with a Dolby Digital 5.1 presentation that tries, sometimes successfully, to utilize all available channels.
Going over the added content DVD by DVD, here is what the Left Behind box set has to offer:
Left Behind: The Movie - in what appears to be the sole new bonus feature offered, we are treated to a 60 minute Left Behind Documentary. Presented as its own separate disc, it's a decent overview of the issues brought out in the series, even if it starts out with an incredibly cheesy "reenactment" of a Rapture-inspired newscast. Held over from previous editions are a Making Of featurette (decent), a collection of music videos (huh?), a concert video (talk about mass marketing!), a collection of movie trailers, and a 22 minute look at the film's premiere entitled "Seeing is Believing" (lots of pro-God stuff here).
Left Behind II: Tribulation Force - everything that was originally available on previous DVD versions of this title is retained here. They include a Making of, a collection of deleted scenes, some outtakes, more music videos, trailers, biographies, a rote audio commentary from producers Nicholas Tabarrok and Andre Van Heerden, an onset visit, a cast interview piece, and a glimpse behind the F/X.
Left Behind: World at War - again, everything from previous editions appears ported over, including a commentary with Tabarrok, Van Heerden, and Nicolae Carpathia himself, Gordon Currie. The actor's presence really enlivens things. There's another Making of, a Characters with Character featurette, deleted scenes, bios, music videos, a fake news report from Kirk Cameron, a look at the actors Way of the Master series, some outtakes, and another mini-doc entitled "What Doesn't Kill You".
Clearly, the Left Behind films are relatively critic proof. Either you're a believer and buy into everything Cameron and company are offering, or your secular aesthetics will have you running away in a Christian kitsch frenzy. As a result, a Rent It is the only score worth considering. The movies definitely don't deserve higher, but to dismiss them outright marginalizes an audience who appreciates what these titles are trying to do. One day, Tinsel Town will step in and show the fundamentalists a thing or two about filmmaking. In the meantime, we will have to rely on thought provoking past efforts like Michael Tolkin's masterful The Rapture to see a non-believers take on eschatology. As ideas go, there is nothing wrong with the Left Behind series or its ideas. In execution, however, there is more faith than fulfillment.
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