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Left Behind
DVD
Reviewed by Jason Myers, © 2002

Format: Movie
By:   Victor Sarin (director)
Genre:   Religious Sci-Fi Thriller
Released:   February 2, 2001
Review Date:   October 24, 2002
Audience Rating:   PG-13
RevSF Rating:   5/10 (What Is This?)
Left Behind is a movie based on a book series based on the prophecies in the Bible. Okay, go ahead, ask. I know you want to. Why am I reviewing a religious movie?

Come on, that's easy. Armageddon. Judgment Day. The Anti-Christ. The End of the World. That's been prime stuff, for horror and sci-fi, for decades. And the Book of Revelations (the last book in the Bible) has served as inspiration and source material for works from Rosemary's Baby to The Stand. Even end-of-the-world films that are more concerned with nukes, aliens, asteroids and killer robots than the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse still borrow their vocabulary from the Bible. So, whether you consider the Book of Revelations to be divinely-inspired scripture, or the ramblings of a wacked-out wanna-be prophet who managed to fast himself into a hallucinogenic head-trip that even Hunter S. Thompson would be jealous of, you've still got to admit that Revelations is a source ripe with speculative fiction possibilities.

Nonetheless, since Left Behind does deal with religion, the moment I say anything good or bad about the movie, I risk irking angry atheists, angry Christians, and angry folks of various world religions. (Props, by the way, to all you non-angry atheists, Christians, and folks of various world religions. You rule!).

So, to be clear, this is a critique of a movie, not a critique of religious theology and cosmology.

The scenario is this: In one instant, hundreds of millions of people all over the world vanish. Cars are left without drivers. On airliners, countless seats are vacant, with only the passengers' clothing remaining to mark their absence. Wives look over to find their husbands gone. Buses full of school children disappear. Dumb-struck parents huddle over empty baby carriages. A dog, suddenly ownerless, drags its leash across the floor of an airport terminal.

It turns out that those who disappeared were either children (the innocent, in the classic "unknowing" sense) or believers in the Christian faith. Some of the people who were left behind believe that God has harvested all the souls that belong to Him (what's referred to as "the Rapture" in Bible-speak), and that it's the beginning of the end of the world.

There's that religious stuff again. I guess maybe I might have to weigh in on some things. It's quite possible to see this movie as a product of a "my god is bigger than your god" mentality. Obviously, any scenario which presupposes the existence of the Christian version of God is going to have a definite theological viewpoint (Obligatory Disclaimer: Not all Christians have the same view of the Book of Revelations). But, in my opinion, Left Behind is not so much a thumb-on-nose-with-wiggly-fingers "Neener, neener, neener, I'm going to heaven and you'll be stuck on earth while the world falls apart" movie, as it is a fascinating "what if?" scenario.

After the logistics of the initial disappearance, Left Behind moves on to the "if you didn't disappear, where do you go from here?" Which I found interesting. Pick anything other people believe in that you don't believe in. God, unicorns, extraterrestrial life, dragons, leprechauns, ghosts, E.S.P., reincarnation. Now suppose that something happened that made you question those basic assumptions about what exists and doesn't exist. How would you deal with that? How would you rearrange your perception of reality? (One of the more compelling scenarios in Left Behind is the minister who finds that his congregation has disappeared, but he's still on earth, 'cause he didn't actually believe what he was preaching).

Admittedly, what separates this "what if" scenario from most "what if" scenarios is that it wasn't written just as an esoteric thought exercise. It was written by someone who believes this stuff. From the Christian viewpoint, this makes it a teaching tool. Of course, one man's teaching tool is another man's propaganda. Especially since most people, regardless of religious background, define propaganda this way: assertions, arguments and themes that align with my point of view are "the truth"; assertions, arguments and themes that don't align with my point of view are "propaganda".

Propaganda issues aside, is Left Behind entertaining? WellÖ yesÖ sort of. Because while Left Behind delivers as a "what if" scenario, it doesn't quite deliver as a movie. Some scenes are filmed effectively. Others, not so well. Some actors are convincing. Others, not so convincing. The special effects (flat CG jets and helicopters near the beginning), the star power (Growing Pain's Kirk Cameron, who does a fair job if you can get over the whole Mike Seaver thing), and the music (a limp score intercut with Christian contemporary stuff of varying quality) are constant reminders of the (very) modest budget. The promotional materials make a big deal out of the scope and the action and excitement, but I sure wouldn't describe Left Behind as pulse-pounding.

Ultimately, the movie doesn't have movie-sized directing, movie-sized editing, or a movie-sized payoff. Toward the end, the main character witnesses some world-class manipulation by the Anti-Christ, and just at the moment when Left Behind is building up some steam, it ends. Yes, I know that it's supposed to be the first in a series, so I wasn't expecting anything resembling closure, but even movies that are part of a planned series must function fully on their own (as the Star Wars and Lord of the Rings films do). Left Behind's production values and story pacing (and the DVD's full-screen format) make it feel more like the first part of a cable mini-series, or the pilot episode of a TV show, than a movie.

Still, I was very interested in finding out what happened next. Which is why it was fortunate that I had a copy of Left Behind II close at hand.

DVD Details

Not quite the bare minimum, but almost. A few previews, web links. A biography section that's better than average (one-upping the usual straight list of previous projects each actor's been in), a music/video section that's below average (just clips from the movie set to two songs). The only real meat you get here is the "making of" feature, which gives you, in broad strokes, some behind-the-scenes info, background on the books, brief interviews with the actors, and a sense of the comradery that comes from a group of people having a shared sense of purpose. But the most memorable feature of the doc is young actress Janaya Stephens' amusingly libidinous take on her co-stars. On the Anti-Christ: "Here he is, the Anti-Christ. He is kinda cute, though." And, on the square-jawed actor who plays her character's dad: "I had to keep reminding myselfÖ he's your father."

Also present on the DVD's are mission statements like "[we want to] show Hollywood that there is an audience for films with a spiritual message" and "it's about . . . making Christian films that are on par with anything Hollywood does." Given the $4 million gross for the theatrical release of Left Behind, how well they succeeded is up to debate. Especially since the authors of the Left Behind book series are trying to regain control of the movie rights. I guess they figure that since the books are best-sellers (the ninth Left Behind installment was the number one American hardcover fiction book for 2001), they might be able to get a movie made that doesn't look like it was produced for syndicated television.

DVD Rating: 3 out of 10

When we ask RevSF Film/DVD Editor Jason Myers to dance with us, he begs out, claiming that he has two left behinds. Freak.

 
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