Left Behind: Following Chad Michael Murray Into the Apocalypse

What a Christian movie about the rapture says about American anxieties—and the entertainment industry

There are a number of ways to look at Left Behind, a new movie adaptation of a novel series about the rapture and second coming of Christ. As a piece of cinema, it's bad. As a theological or existential meditation, it’s worse. But as a product of the film industry, it’s a fascinating, timely mashup of two trends: the recent boom in mass-marketed Christian films like Son of God, Heaven Is for Real, and God's Not Dead, and pop-culture’s ongoing apocalypse fascination, seen recently in works like The Leftovers, Planet of the Apes, and Noah.

There's an anxiety beneath both trends, one that's old and never truly absent from artistic expression: What should we make of the unknown, the inexplicable, and, really, human existence? If, as happens in Left Behind, millions of people just up and disappear from the face of the earth on an otherwise regular day, how should you even start to deal with that?

Left Behind offers one answer, which echoes the beliefs of at least some of the 2.18 billion Christians around the world: At the end of days, there will be a rapture. In certain interpretations of the Bible, like that of the movie, this means some people will rise to join God in heaven (hence the sudden disappearances), while others will remain on earth for a period of "tribulation" before Christ returns. There's no question of "how to deal" because the fate of humanity has already been written and a path out of the chaos has been offered: redemption and salvation through the forgiveness of Christ.

No one should be surprised that this is the message of Left Behind. First it was a bestselling book series; then, it was a movie trilogy starring Kirk Cameron. Even so, watching the movie feels like being tricked into a game of existential "gotcha!,” which isn't satisfying either as entertainment or as a spiritual experience.

The movie takes place within a relatively short timespan—a few hours, at most, with a majority of scenes happening on the first half of a flight captained by pilot Rayford Steele (Nicolas Cage), whose passengers include investigative journalist Buck Williams (Chad Michael Murray). During those few short hours, a lot happens: the disappearances of the faithful lead to general chaos, including robberies and murders, car crashes, and a woman brandishing a gun in the first-class cabin (which: unclear how a gun got on the plane, but let's not get distracted with airport security when the world is ending). Back on land, Rayford’s daughter Chloe climbs atop a bridge and nearly commits suicide because she thinks her whole family has died or gone missing. When she finds out her father is still alive and flying a jet that's running out of gas without anywhere to land, she decides not to jump—and is able to quickly find an abandoned highway and set a fire big enough to signal the plane to land.

Before all the rapture-induced hijinks, though, the film feints by playing up its characters’ religious doubts. Chloe makes a skeptic's stand in the airport when a woman tries to evangelize to Buck—she has a whole speech prepared about how a loving God could never let people die in natural disasters, to which the woman has no answer. (Come on, lady! Surely you could find some stock response to a basic question of theodicy. That's Bible study 101!) There are hushed conversations about the "craziness" of Irene Steele (Lea Tompson), Chloe's mom and Rayford's wife, who went through a Christian conversion at some point in the previous year. Buck is also skeptical of God, although that takes the form of vapidity more than anything; while he proves himself capable of spinning faux-philosophical reflections well enough to pick up a girl in an airport, he says several times, "It doesn't matter what I believe."

All of which makes these characters' relatively quick embrace of Christian eschatology pretty jarring. After the great vanishing, the passengers who’re left behind exchange some stilted dialogue about possible causes of the disappearances. They consider alien abduction, invisible assassins, and wormholes until a Lady Gaga look-alike (who spent the first part of the movie tripping on drugs) wakes up from a nap and offers a novel explanation.

"It's in the Bible," she announces to the group. "My parents sent me to camp one summer and everyone was talking about this. They said that one day, millions of people were going to just disappear."

Incredulous looks. "Are you saying it was the devil?" asks a caricature of a greedy tycoon.

"No. It was God," Lady Gaga look-alike proclaims.

And from that point on, the consensus among the characters is pretty much set: The clear explanation for the weird stuff that is happening can only be found in the Bible, which describes what they're all currently seeing (or, at least, so they've heard through a second-hand account from an addict who went to Bible camp one time). This consensus is confirmed when the camera cuts back to the cockpit, where Nicolas Cage has been monologuing to himself about airplane mechanics and the end of days. Around an hour into the movie, he starts dropping hints that the script is heading in a Biblical direction. He looks the stewardess in the eye and says, "I think I know where they are," while tension builds in the score. He chides himself out loud for not listening to his wife's predictions about the apocalypse, and by the time the plane lands, he's repented for his former (almost) adulterous ways.

This total embrace of the Bible happens surprisingly fast. In the midst of planes catching on fire and chaos unfolding on the streets of New York, the metaphysical presuppositions of the movie subtly shift; the scriptwriters seem to want to assure the viewers that they thought through all the possible logical objections one might have to a Biblical interpretation of this massive inexplicable event, and, yup, the fictional scenario they've set up is definitely the end times.

Plus, the way the characters talk about God is curiously thin. There’s no discussion of why the rapture is happening, or what’s ahead, or what it means to accept the divinity of Christ and ask to be saved. In fact, Jesus isn’t really mentioned in the movie; the entire logic of the New Testament, minus the apocalypse part, is basically ignored. The characters accept the truth of the Bible without engaging in what it means; insofar as this movie is designed to evangelize, this feels like a cheap victory.

The casting reinforces this feeling of trickery. Nicolas Cage has acted in some metaphysical mind-benders before, and Lord knows he's starred in some not-great movies. But it's different to take a leading role in a film that's basically Christian propaganda; Cage's presence adds a secular sheen to a project that's quietly stuffed with very specific ideas about human existence. If anything, this is even truer of Murray, who dutifully plays the role of a generic cardboard-cut-out hot guy wherever he goes. Both of these casting choices seem like attempts to make Left Behind more attractive to Americans who either aren't Christians or who don't make their cultural consumption choices based on faith; the secular star power implies, "See, if these guys believe it, you can, too!"

The ideas of sin and rapture and apocalypse are quite serious, but not in action-film form.

None of this holds obvious appeal for any kind of viewer, faithful or not. Those who share Left Behind’s interpretation of Christianity might appreciate a big-budget film that addresses themes they care about, but that doesn't change a basic reality of the movie: It's just not that great, filled with thudding dialogue and bad performances. And for those who don't see the world this way, alienation seems inevitable: Watching this movie feels distinctly like you're being set up.

Of course, as much as Left Behind is a vehicle for clumsy evangelization, it's also a play to make money. At least one sequel is already in the works; the producers are probably hoping for the kind of success that other religiously themed movies have seen so far in 2014. And perhaps that's why Left Behind is such a misfire: It's catering to a demographic that's clearly hungry for religious media, but it pretends to be something other that what it actually is.

Plot-wise, the scriptwriters are certainly pacing themselves, perhaps in hopeful preparation for a franchise; this reboot only covers a fraction of what was portrayed in the 2000 film. After the plane has safely landed, the three main characters come together for a final scene, gazing out at the flaming towers of the New York skyline.

"Looks like the end of the world," Chad Michael Murray says.

"No, not yet," says Chloe. "I'm afraid this is just the beginning."

We should all share her concern.