Movie Review: Left Behind

On December 31, 1995 something momentous happened.  Tim Lahaye and Jerry Jenkins released the book Left Behind, a fictional account of their (somewhat fanciful) ideas of what the rapture would be like, as well as the 7 years of tribulation that followed.  The book spawned a series that would ultimately involve 16 novels and would sell 65+ million copies.  Many people read the books, many people hated the books, and the whole series became both a topic of continual conversation/embarrassment as well as the reason for rejecting various points of end times theology (properly known as eschatology) for the next 20 years (if I had a dime for every time I found myself in a conversation about eschatology where someone brought up a series of fiction books as the main reason for rejecting Biblical doctrine…).  But that wasn’t the end of it all.  On October 31st, 2000, the Left Behind series hit the big time when it (*gasp*) became a movie.  Not only did it become a movie, but it was a movie that starred Kirk Cameron (the greatest Christian celebrity ever)…

Left Behind

…as well as that guy from Die Hard and Walker, Texas Ranger.

This was one of the first “big budget” Christian films ever ($4 million), and I’ll never forget seeing my first “Christian” movie: shock.  Shock that people on my TV were talking about Jesus in a way that wasn’t utterly idiotic or revealing a writer who apparently slept through every post-flannel board lesson in Sunday School.  I was weirded out, but mostly because I wasn’t used to seeing Christians act like Christians on my TV.  It was obvious that this was no Hollywood production but was still something I was not used to seeing, and that “newness” factor was likely what gripped me the most about the movie.

Now that Hollywood has basically remade everything that was ever any good, they’ve remade Left Behind too.  This time, it was staring Nicolas Cage rather than Kirk Cameron, and the budget is way more ($16 million).  Tonight, on opening night, I sat through the remake.

Here’s a summary of the movie and some thoughts (both positive and negative).

1.  The Movie in a Nutshell:

– The story is somewhat the same as the original movie…
– Nicolas Cage is the pilot (Raymond Steele – the only actor of note in the movie, though there are several familiar faces), and the other characters are Buck Williams (an investigative journalist), Chloe Steele (Ray’s daughter), Irene Steele (Ray’s wife), Remy Steele (Ray’s son) and Hattie Durham (the stewardess who Ray hopes to have a fling with).  There are other characters, but they’re all somewhat minor and there as filler.
– Buck Williams, who is a famous reporter, arrives in the airport and is questioned by a somewhat crazy “Christian” woman  who comments on how he’s traveled the world and seen a ton of earthquakes.  She asks him if he (the unbelieving reporter) recognizes them as the “signs of the end times” that they apparently are, and Ray’s daughter Chloe (who’s home from college for her dad’s birthday) pipes up and brings up the philosophical problem of evil (basically “why does God cause all these earthquakes if he’s so loving?”), to which the lady says “The Lord works in mysterious ways”.
U2 Trab
– Chloe then sees her dad at the airport flirting with Hattie (the stewardess) and is crushed.
– Ray pretends like it’s nothing, lightly lectures Chloe about being nice to her mother (who’s now “drank the kool-aid”, meaning converted to Christianity), Buck Williams flirts with Chloe (by talking about the problem of evil) and gets her number.
– Chloe goes home, talks with her mom and things get uncomfortable as she refers to the lady at the airport as “crazy”.  Her mom takes it seriously, Chloe leaves awkwardly, goes to the mall with her younger brother (who looks around 10 years old) and watches some break dancing.
– Buck gets on the plane, and the plane takes off shortly after Ray flirts with Hattie.
– While at the mall, Chloe’s brother runs off.  She finds him, scolds him and hugs him, and mid-hug he vanishes in a small puff of smoke.  Every baby at the mall disappears, as well as all the toddlers, and a handful of adults.  Immediately (like within seconds), people start kicking in the windows at electronics stores and stealing televisions.
– In the air, all the babies & toddlers, a stewardess and the copilot, as well as a half dozen other adults, all disappear.  Everyone freaks out.
– The phones stop working (apparently the rapture is accompanied by an EMP or something), and some of the electronics on the plane stop working as well.
– Chloe’s car is destroyed, she eventually ends up at a hospital (trying to find her brother), finds an empty maternity ward, and discovers that the phenomenon is global.  On the plane, nobody knows what’s going on and theories fly (aliens, parallel universes, wormholes, etc.).  Everyone agrees it wasn’t a wormhole.
– Chloe finally makes it home, finds her mother’s necklace and rings in the shower, and then realizes it’s God…so she throws a bible through a window.
– In the air, Ray tries to find a common denominator to the disappearances and finds out that the missing stewardess was a Christian (she had a Bible study in her day planner, so obviously…).  Ray starts crying and then another woman in first class (after awaking from doing drugs in the bathroom) mentions that she knows what’s going on too since she went to Bible camp as a kid (everyone went to Heaven…or something…).
– Chloe runs from her house to her mom’s church to find the church empty with the pastor there.  He goes off on a speech about how he used to know it all, but “you have to believe”, which apparently he didn’t do (a fact about which Chloe proudly reminds him).
–  Chloe runs off to commit suicide.
– Ray’s plane gets into a minor collision with another plane (with nobody flying it) and starts leaking fuel.  Buck calls Chloe as she’s about to jump off a bridge (the phones apparently start working again) and Ray apologizes for lying to her and tells Chloe how much he loves her.  Chloe, at some point, puts on her moms necklace (I forget when exactly, but apparently it suggests she becomes some sort of vague theist, which is apparently all one needs to do; she doesn’t say a word but just puts on the necklace. The necklace has a fish and a cross on it, so that’s enough, right?).
– Ray tells Chloe that the plane cannot land since all the airports are closed, and Chloe finds a closed section of highway for the plane to land on.
– The plane lands, everyone gets off, and Ray delivers the epic line “It looks like the end”, to which Chloe replies “No, this is only the beginning”.  The movie flashes Mark 13:32 and a cover of the Larry Norman song “I wish we’d all been ready” plays.
Yup.  That’s about it in a nutshell.
2.  My Positive Thoughts:
– I’m glad that the movie exists.  If anything, it may give opportunity to have some gospel conversations with people.
– The movie isn’t as horrible as some suggest, at least on the quality front.  People who mock the acting, soundtrack, special effects, etc. have apparently never seen actually bad “Christian” movies.  It’s far more endurable than many other “Christian” movies out there…
…and Christians are used to having second-tier media.  We’ll endure a whole lot of kitsch if it is encouraging or about Jesus.
– I’m glad that someone in Hollywood is at least trying to make the effort to reach out to the Christian audience.  Seeing that there are tends of millions of believers out there (I mean, Tim Hawkins makes a real career out of making church jokes in the South), it’s about time that Hollywood started tapping into that market with a measure of seriousness.  Even the recent gong shows (like this movie or this movie) reveal that the Christian market has tremendous potential, and only one movie has really decently tapped that market.  There are untold billions to be made if Hollywood takes evangelicals seriously and puts in the effort to understand us as a market (I’m open to consulting offers).
– And, well, I’m running out of positive things to say.
3.  My Negative Thoughts:
I’ve got a lot of negative things I could say about the movie, but I’ll try to explain my dislike for the movie in a few simple statements:
A.  It has nothing to do with Christianity.
Now I’m not being nitpicky or taking apart the bad theology that surfaces in the movie (though there was lots).  What I mean is that this movie doesn’t actually portray Christians or Christianity, but rather Americana Religiosity.  I’m talking about the cultural Christianity that one finds in large swaths of the American South where “being American” is somehow related to “being Christian”.  A big part of the reason I say that is because throughout the entire movie, nobody even mentions Jesus Christ at all.
No kidding.  He doesn’t make an appearance in a single conversation.
People talk vaguely about “God”, and the “need to believe”, but nobody talks about Christ.
Nobody mentions him.
Now I’m not complaining because people don’t talk about the things I want them to talk about.  If people would have said “Jesus” a few times in the movie, that wouldn’t have fixed things.
The real problem wasn’t that Christ was not mentioned, but rather that nobody shows any understanding about him whatsoever and people somehow “get right with God” in the movie without Christ or the gospel being a part of it.  The “good news” in Christianity is “good news” about Jesus.  The “message” of Christianity is, at it’s essential and uncompromisable core, about Jesus Christ.
If you remove Jesus Christ from Christianity, you don’t have Christianity.  It’s that simple.
B. It wants nothing to do with Christianity.
Before the rapture, all the Christians in the movie are either actually annoying/crazy.  That describes the woman at the airport.  She runs up to Buck, mentions how he’s seen lots of earthquakes, refers to Matt. 24:7 and then asks him if he thinks they’re in the “end times”.   Other are simply annoyingly stupid.  That describes Irene Steele (Ray’s wife).  She talks to Chloe about the end times because she wants Chloe “to be ready”, but apparently never mentions Jesus. She apparently doesn’t understand that “being ready” means “knowing Christ” rather than “knowing disassociated and random facts about the end times but remaining unregenerate”.  The New Testament constantly and continually makes this point, basically every time there’s eschatological talk (i.e. Matt. 25, 1 Peter 3, etc.).  The only thing a person needs to “be ready” is to believe the gospel.
I definitely wanted to scream when I watched the Irene/Chloe conversation.
The movie portrays Christians in what I’d consider a consistently negative light (i.e. the problem of evil is “solved” when Buck talks to Chloe about suffering and says “if you look hard enough, you’ll see whatever it is you’re looking for”), gives no explanation of the events in the movie (the confusion is never really resolved beyond suggesting that the missing people are “in heaven”), and is actually a movie that is more of a plane crash thriller than any sort of “Christian” movie at all…assuming that a “Christian” movie has some sort of vague purpose that involves presenting the message of Christianity in some way (which this movie absolutely wants nothing to do with).
In this respect, the original Left Behind was an unbelievably better movie.
C.  It shows no understanding of Christianity.
This part was the worst.  It’s like people in Hollywood don’t have a clue about evangelical Christianity but are intentionally not facing that obvious fact.  If you want to make a movie and get millions of Christians to pay $15 to see it, you need to show that you understand Christianity (at least a bit).  Points A and B are the main illustrations here.
Let’s be serious here: “Christian” movies aren’t aimed at the liberals.  They’re already watching all the garbage that Hollywood puts out and Hollywood could make a musical out of First Blood and some self-professing “Christians” would make an argument that Rambo is “really” a sort of Christ figure and the movie has a veiled Christian message (I mean, the movie has “blood” in the title; it’s obvious, right?).  Christian movies are aimed at the conservative evangelicals that make up the only growing segment of Christianity in North America, but Hollywood doesn’t understand conservative evangelicals at all.  All Hollywood seems to do is either make fun of us or show that they don’t have a clue about conservative evangelicalism (and don’t really care about learning).
We don’t like being mocked.
We don’t like being misrepresented.
We take our Christianity seriously and don’t recognize the version of us that Hollywood tries to sell us.
We are the ones who do apologetics.
We are the ones who do evangelism.
We take the Bible seriously and make a habit of attempting to know it beyond a surface level.
We are the ones who are still interested in theology and buy 1,200 page books on the subject.
Essentially, Hollywood shows no interest in understanding us but also wants our money.
One of those things has to change.
4.  Various rambling thoughts:
– The humor in the movie was totally stupid.  The movie made fun of an old lady with alzheimers, a Muslim, and had a series of midget jokes that climaxed with the Muslim kicking the midget down the emergency plane ramp.  It was painful.  No clever dialogue humor, no witty visuals, etc.  Just slapstick mockery of short people, old people and Muslims.
–  The whole looting spree that started within seconds of the rapture was absolutely hilarious.  I mean honestly.  If a bunch of people around you in a mall vanish into thin air, is your immediate reaction to kick in the display window at Best Buy and steal a TV?  Is that anyone’s immediate reaction?
–  I was laughing at several things in the movie that were not intentional jokes or were totally missed opportunities at jokes.
– For example, the airline was “PCA Airlines”.  Seeing that this was a movie about a pretribulational rapture, I found it rather funny that the name of the airline was coincidentally PCA; those folks definitely deny the pretrib rapture.  I kept waiting for some tearful Presbyterian to recognize that they were unbelievers and then attempt to soften the moment by making a joke about a “mid-millennial rapture” or something (though truthfully, I thought it would be funnier if some PCUSA Amil/Postmil clergywoman would have been on there fighting with the people on the plane about how it couldn’t have been the rapture since “the Bible never mentions the rapture” and “revelation is a book of symbols and metaphors”.  I would pay $500 to see that).
– Another thing that made me laugh was how Irene Steele’s pastor was Left Behind, as was Chloe, but nobody else showed up at the church.  Apparently her unregenerate pastor shepherded an entire church of believers…yup.  I’ll buy that for a dollar.
– One totally missed joke was that Chloe could have walked by an Episcopal Church that was setting up an emergency shelter in their gym with their church sign reading “we’re here throughout this period of tribulation to help”.  Completely missed comedy gold.
–  Another missed joke was that they could have had Joel Osteen (or a look-alike “celebrity pastor”) on CNN giving a “pastor’s perspective” on speculations about whether this disappearance was something to do with “a thing mentioned in the Bible”, to which he could have said “well, I don’t know about that but I know that God loves each and every one of you and wants to turn your pain into your prosperity!” and then tried to sell his latest book “God’s your biggest fan”.  Completely missed comedy gold.
–  For that matter, they could have had a great clip of somebody on TBN offering its explanation of why TBN is still on the air at all.
Talk about missed jokes.  Feel free to toss out more in the comment thread.  I have a few that I’ll save for the comments as well.

So, that basically sums up all that I’ve got to say.  I could go into detail about how the movie misrepresented this or that specific point of theology, or offered my own ill-informed critique of something involving production or special effects, but really I would suggest that if the movie doesn’t offer any understanding or hope or gospel that involves Jesus, it doesn’t really have any value as “Christian” film.  It’s vaguely religious film that doesn’t understand its subject matter.

Feel free to see it, but don’t say I didn’t warn you.  There isn’t any serious swearing (one “s-word” that I remember) and there’s obviously no sex scenes or nudity or anything, so it’s at least a relatively clean movie that you can see with someone.  At least that is worth something.
If you’re like me though, you will either be really annoyed by it or will find yourself providing color commentary and making all the theological jokes that they missed…
Until Next Time,
Lyndon “I endure this stuff so you don’t have to” Unger

34 thoughts on “Movie Review: Left Behind

  1. Talking about Christian movies, when was the last time that you’ve seen a Hollywood/major release movie that depicted Christianity correctly? Maybe something like the original Martin Luther movie or a movie adaptation of Pilgrim’s Progress. If you go to your local “Christian” bookstore you will find tons of movies that are anything but Christian.

    I would enjoy seeing something that is remotely Christian. The new Exodus: God’s and Generals shows some promise but I wouldn’t count in it.

    • I think the last “Christian” movie I saw that didn’t actually offend me was the original “Left Behind”…though “Hells Bells” was one of the most hilarious movies I’ve seen in a long time. I’m not sure other people thought it was as knee-slappingly funny as I did.

      I don’t know why Hollywood folks don’t just take a Bible story, hire a mixed bag of consultants that includes at least one guy from a conservative seminary (i.e. WTS, RTS, SBTS, etc.), and simply stick to the story.

      Dwayne Johnson as Sampson, slaying Philistines? How would THAT not sell like mad?

      You could have a ton of people getting their skulls bashed in, Jezebel the skanky love interest, and a main character that’s essentially a meathead jock who solves problems with his fists. It would be like all his other movies, just based on a true story and with some overt mentions of God.

  2. thank you thank you. I had strongly suspected when they cast Nicolas Cage in the film that it would be ghastly, especially after some of his post production comments. But your money quote was this: “In this respect, the original Left Behind was an unbelievably better movie.”

    I saw that movie, and while a step up from the originals (a big step), to compare any component of another movie 14 years later and say it was better is unbelievably sad. (and I’m a pretribber).

    So, sadly, I will have to force my children and wife to watch the new LB DVD ($1.27 at Redbox) in the next few months (just like with NOAH) and have a discussion about how much the world hates biblical truth. However, I won’t watch Heaven Is for Real.

    Thanks for your help here.

  3. Love your list of missed jokes, unfortunately I’m not sure a lot of people would ‘get’ them, especially the people making the movie.

    We need to keep in mind that this is not a Christian movie. To be Christian, Christ needs to be involved, which He is not. There will never be an actual Christian movie to come out of Hollywood for one simple reason: Hollywood hates us. Hollywood loves to make movies showing Christians to be every type of villain you can imagine: from homophobes, to white supremacists, to axe murders, to terrorists. And if we’re not completely and utterly evil we’re portrayed as stupid and (worse of all) intolerant. Hollywood movies making villains out of fundamentalist Jews are as rare as frog teeth, while Scientologists, Wiccans, and evangelical atheists are on the “do not touch” list. Muslims are treated with white kid gloves, scripts originally written to show Islamist terrorists as the bad guys are almost always rewritten to make the villains out to be fundamentalist white guys.(Perfect example: in the movie Sum of All Fears the Islamist terrorists who nuked Denver in the novel became secretive far-right white supremacists led by a neo-Nazi.)

    Hollywood isn’t stupid, they know we have money in our pockets, and they want it. They also know that there are a lot of Christians who’s knowledge of eschatology comes purely from Tim LaHay’s fairy tales and their lack of discernment is embarrassing. Just think of how many people actually think that Joel Osteen is Christian. As a Christian I’m supposed to believe that an actor who has played numerous demons from hell and is considered Hollywood’s Patron Saint of Freemasonry to be the best choice for leading man in a “Christian” movie? But Hollywood slaps the label “Christian” on a low budget film, regardless of its content, and it’s cash in their pockets as the goats line up at the box office.

    • I disagree that for a movie to be “Christian” it has to explicitly mention Christ, the Bible, or have a gospel presentation in it. I don’t know if that’s what you actually meant, but just throwing that out there.

      Ben-Hur wasn’t marketed as a “Christian” movie. It was just a really good movie.

      That’s what id like to see more of. Stop this talk of “Christian” movies or “Christian” music. At the moment those terms are just excuses for mediocrity.

    • Yeah, Hollywood isn’t THAT stupid. They know that most people aren’t terribly discerning…but imagine what would happen if the crowd that turned “Fireproof” into a box office smash hit (6,600% return at the box office) got behind a big budget film? There’s a fair amount of people that still see movies like this as pretty mediocre.

  4. “If you want to make a movie and get millions of Christians to pay $15 to see it, you need to show that you understand Christianity (at least a bit).”

    This is simply not true. The fact is that “Christians” will line up and support just about anything anymore except Gospel preaching and good blogging. 🙂

    When you think about it, the worse a movie is in properly portraying our worldview, the better chance of it actually targeting liberals, etc., they eat this stuff up.

    • Meh…I guess. I hear what you’re saying, but the liberals are often the ones who love bashing “Christian” movies the most (but my definition of “liberal” and yours may be different; I AM from Canada and what’s raging liberal in the US is pretty middle-of-the-road up here). I’d suggest that the mediocre “Christian” movies are targeting the nominal Christians and charismatics; they tend to swallow a lot of the junk that’s tossed their way since there’s a lot less discernment in those circles.

      There’s a strain of evangelicalism that loves Gospel preaching and good blogging. Those guys are mostly spread around in small churches, but there’s likely more of them out there than you might think.

  5. Thanks for a very insightful and creatively written movie review. I really enjoyed it. And now I don’t have to see the movie, not that I had any intention of doing so, but you know what I mean.

    We are totally on the same page. I get it.

  6. For the record, this is not a Hollywood movie. It was produced by Paul Lalonde, a Canadian filmmaker, and his Ontario based production company Stoney Lake. Freestyle Releasing, the company that is putting the movie out into theaters this week is an independent company, and therefore by definition not a Hollywood studio. Any company that is willing to spend the money can release a movie in theaters, and plenty of non-Hollywood companies do.

      • Lyndon
        Dion is accurate. Are you intentionally being obtuse?
        You write “Now that Hollywood has basically remade everything that was ever any good, they’ve remade Left Behind too.”
        Nothing “Hollywood” about this film other than Nicholas Cage.
        This is as much of a Hollywood film as God’s not dead. It had Kevin Sorbo – arguably a bigger star (and better actor) than Nic Cage.
        Nothing secular or mainline about it.
        The main writer and producer is Paul Lalonde who along with his brother also did all the previous Left Behind movies. Willie Robertson is an executive producer to help draw in the southern crowd. Good tactics.
        He enlisted very few “Hollywood” technicians because he burned too many bridges among the Christians in Hollywood (and angered Tim Lehaye) on the first Left Behind eg Ralph Winter (producer), James Covell (music)
        Please don’t mis-characterize this as a “Hollywood” movie.

  7. Lyndon
    You write “It shows no understanding of Christianity.” That’s Paul Lalonde again. It seems he wants to become the Michael Bay of “Christian movies.”
    Blame the “Christians” in this case.

    You write “This part was the worst. It’s like people in Hollywood don’t have a clue about evangelical Christianity but are intentionally not facing that obvious fact.”
    Yes. you are right. The mainline, secular people in Hollywood don’t.
    Many Christians in Hollywood do know the difference. It’s tough to make a good movie of any genre nowadays. Ask Phil Cooke and Ralph Winter.

    Doug makes a good point “As a Christian I’m supposed to believe that an actor who has played numerous demons from hell and is considered Hollywood’s Patron Saint of Freemasonry to be the best choice for leading man in a “Christian” movie?”
    Hey Nic’s a star and has star power to attract viewers. For Lalonde it’s about the money not biblical accuracy nor Christian integrity.

  8. Scene: a Benny Hinn crusade. Some Christians go up front to testify about “healing” and instead start preaching Christ and repentance. Hinn threatens to mow them down with his Holy Ghost Machine Gun. As he starts ‘shooting’, they disappear. Hinn announces God’s judgment on the wicked Christians, and demands money.

  9. Your review was hilarious. I think your suggestions would have been a vast improvement!

    In terms of “not so bad” Christian films, you might want to check out “Time Chaser” sometime. Yeah, it’s a tad cheesy, and stars the guy from Love Boat, but its a reasonably entertaining film that isn’t shy with the gospel message.

  10. I will probably rent the movie just out of curiosity. Over the last 8 years the Kendrick brothers have made some enjoyable Christian movies. As each movie hits the screens they are honing their technical expertise. I have really enjoyed the movies and they are specifically aimed at bringing salvation through Jesus Christ on to the big screen. I have not been a reader of your blog for very long so you may have touched on their movies but if not I suggest giving them a try. Here is their website: The history of how they started is also interesting. Thank you for taking the time and effort to review movies from a Christian point of view. I appreciate it.

  11. is everybody’s clothes laid out nice and neat after they disappear?

    also as far as Christian movies go…I thought End of the Spear was a good movie.

    • Sure.

      Frank Viola doesn’t weigh in on any of the debates because intelligent commentary on them is above his pay grade. He’s possibly unaware of that fact and would get angry at the insinuation, but that’s irrelevant.

      I’ve already interacted with him in the past and, though he’s a quite popular blogger, have demonstrated that his competencies as a biblical scholar and researcher are demonstrably mediocre.

      Much to his credit he makes corrections when confronted with his errors (though not exactly publicly or joyfully). I’ll certainly give him that.

      Still, he’s irrelevant to serious discussion of theology or exegesis. For his sake and my sanity, I’m quite happy to ignore him and let him do his thing. I have absolutely no interest in following him, and even less interest in attempting to debate with him.

  12. More missed humour.
    A series of Calvinist/Arminian bloggers in basements all over Nort America attempting to justify why they are still on earth.

    • I’ll give you 90% for the idea but 35% for the execution.

      Calvinism and Arminianism both?

      Are they both unsaved or do you think those two positions are related to eschatology?

      Why would both groups be left behind?

      Just my feedback on what could be a really funny idea.

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