The future is clear.
The Book of Revelation, the last book in the Bible, has fascinated people for centuries. Theologians and laypeople alike have debated the meaning behind its rich allegory and symbolism. For those of us who believe it, Revelation contains prophecies that spell out what will happen as human history approaches its inevitable endgame.
There are those who believe that the events described in this book are to happen soon, or may already be happening. That is the premise behind a series of novels by Christian authors Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins. Their Left Behind series now extends across seven novels, many of which have appeared on the New York Times bestseller list. These novels take the most commonly accepted interpretation of the prophecies found in the Book of Revelation, and project them into real-world events and terms in a world not too far into our future.
With the runaway success of these books, and an ever-present curiosity about the end times, it was only a matter of time before this story found its way to the big screen. Left Behind: The Movie comes to us from Cloud Ten Pictures and Namesake entertainment. In an interesting marketing strategy, this film has now been released on DVD and VHS in anticipation of its theatrical release on February 2, 2001.
Facts of the Case
Hotshot TV journalist Buck Williams (Kirk Cameron, Growing Pains) is in Israel, covering a breaking story. In the face of global food shortages and crop failures, Israeli scientist Chaim Rosenzweig (Colin Fox) has made a momentous discovery. His "Eden" formula will allow even the most barren deserts to produce grain to feed starving people all over the world. He is willing to give the formula for free to any country that asks, provided that they agree to lay down their arms and live in peace.
Rosenzweig's dream appears to be short lived, because as Buck ends his broadcast Israel is attacked simultaneously by forces of multiple Arab countries. The Israeli forces are experiencing electronic failures that render them unable to counter the attack. Just when all seems lost, the attacking planes explode and fall from the sky, apparently stopped by divine intervention.
Upon returning to the U.S., Williams hears from a friend, an ex-Pentagon spook named Ken Ritz (Neil Crone). Ritz is on the verge of hysteria, rambling on about a global conspiracy that would make Fox Mulder's head spin. When Ritz winds up dead, Williams realizes that he must have been on to something and begins to pursue his own answers.
Events accelerate on a transatlantic flight to London as passengers suddenly disappear without a trace. Pilot Rayford Steele (Brad Johnson) turns the flight around and heads back to Chicago. Millions of people all over the world have disappeared, and the authorities have declared martial law as a result. Together, Williams and Steele search for an explanation, and their search leads them to Bruce Barnes (Clarence Gilyard Jr., Walker, Texas Ranger, Matlock, Die Hard), assistant pastor of a local church. Barnes explains why people have disappeared; it is the rapture foretold in the Bible, when all the Christians are taken to Heaven in the blink of an eye. Barnes, as a pastor, is quite distraught that he is still around; he has been exposed as a fraud, with no real faith in what he was preaching. With help from Barnes, Williams comes to realize that the conspiracy he is investigating has its roots in ancient prophecies that are only now coming to pass.
Williams, Steele, and flight attendant Hattie Durham (Chelsea Noble, Growing Pains) are launched on an adventure that eventually leads them to the highest corridors of power in the world, and brings them face to face with the Antichrist himself.
Movies based upon novels are tricky things. The two formats are very different, and there are many pitfalls that can prevent a successful adaptation. Movies that are intended to be the first film in an ongoing series can be tricky as well, often getting bogged down in setting scenes and introducing characters. This is a movie based on a novel, more specifically the first novel in a series, and as such is an enterprise fraught with danger. However, Left Behind is mostly successful in avoiding the pitfalls inherent in either scenario.
Filmed in Canada on a shoestring budget of $17 million, Left Behind does a surprisingly good job of capturing the feel of the end times and creating an entertaining story. It succeeds as an action/conspiracy thriller, a character drama, and also as a primer on pre-tribulation eschatology. Making a movie with a message can be a risky proposition. Many filmmakers forget that their work first and foremost must be entertaining. Make no mistake; there is a definite spiritual message to this movie. However, unlike most episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation for example, the message doesn't get in the way of telling a good story. The conspiracy elements surrounding the rise of the Antichrist are particularly well done; one wishes George Lucas would have done as well in scripting Emperor Palpatine's rise to power in The Phantom Menace.
The cast for the most part give solid performances. I was very pleasantly surprised by Kirk Cameron's work in this movie. I grew up watching him as the scheming, whining Mike Seaver on Growing Pains, and I had trouble picturing him playing an adult role. However, he exceeded my expectations and brought a real energy and sincerity to his role.
The one really outstanding performance comes from Clarence Gilyard as Pastor Bruce Barnes. This is a man who has just learned that everything he has worked for in his life is true; the problem is that he didn't really believe it himself until it was too late. Gilyard captures the conflict between Bruce's discovery of the truth and his exposure as a colossal fraud.
Left Behind is presented in a full-frame non-anamorphic transfer. Based on my examination and some footage from the "making of" documentary, it appears to be open-matte as opposed to pan and scan. Overall the picture is bright and crisp. Colors are well-balanced and do not bleed or bloom. Blacks are well-saturated and solid. Flesh tones are faithfully reproduced for characters of various ethnic backgrounds.
The audio is Dolby 2.0. It sounds better than you might expect from a 2.0 mix, but lacks the punch that a better mix would bring. Dialogue has a tendency to sound hollow on occasion, as though the characters were speaking in a bathroom or tunnel.
There is a very nice selection of extra content on this disc. There is a 28 minute "making of" documentary. Like most documentaries of this kind, it combines behind the scenes footage and interviews with the actors, producers, director and so on. This is a movie with a clear purpose and message, and this documentary does a good job of explaining the movie's origins in the Left Behind books as well as the intentions of those making it. In addition to the documentary, there is a short personal message from the makers of the movie, delivered by Kirk Cameron, who explains the movie's objectives as well as the goal of the unique video-to-theater release strategy. Extensive cast and crew biographical notes are provided. There is also a musical section with videos for two of the songs used on the soundtrack, as well as a complete track listing. The extra content is rounded out with weblinks and previews of three other Cloud Ten Pictures productions. (Of these, I found Judgement to be especially noteworthy, as it features that icon of my '80s childhood, Mr. T!)
For those that care about such things, the menus are very nicely done, often incorporating video from the movie and songs from the soundtrack.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
This movie is not without its flaws. First, the plot is very thick, and there are a few leaps that are unexplained. I'm still not sure why an Israeli botanist would have access to a high-tech defense bunker, or why such a bunker would be located in the middle of an experimental wheat field. Second, as I mentioned above, there are several shifts in tone. One minute the movie wants to be a Tom Clancy-style conspiracy thriller, and the next it wants to be emotionally touching and dramatic. This works pretty well through most of the film, and gives a nice sense of balance. However, there are some scenes that are meant to be dramatic but feel like outtakes from an after school special. The scenes I have in mind involve newcomer Janaya Stephens in her role as Chloe. Stephens is pretty good through most of the movie, but is a little out of her depth when dealing with the emotional issues surrounding the disappearance of her mother and brother and the drastic change in life as she knows it. Her shortcomings are probably most obvious in a scene early in the movie with Kirk Cameron, where she is called upon to cry. The scene succeeds in being painful, but probably not in the way the filmmakers intended.
Also noted above were the dangers in adapting a novel for the screen, as well as the "first in a series" problems. While Left Behind dodges a lot of these bullets, it does not escape completely unscathed. Novel dialogue and screen dialogue are two completely different animals. There is a lot of dialogue in this movie that might have seemed fine on the printed page but comes out as awkward and clunky on film. In particular, many of Chelsea Noble's lines come across as slightly…wrong, somehow. A very good actor can sometimes compensate for this kind of dialogue; Noble is pretty good, but she's not that good. Movies also leave a lot less room for background exposition than novels do, and this is a plot that requires a good deal of exposition. To be fair, a lot of it works more smoothly than you might expect, but there are some real clunkers here as well.
As stated earlier, the budget for this picture was about $17 million. That is the highest budget ever for a religious film, but it is less than the budget for a standard forgettable teen comedy. The people involved in this project did their best to keep the production values high, but there are places where the lack of budget shows. Early in the movie we are treated to a CGI invasion of Israel by Arab forces. It might have looked impressive ten years ago, and it's far from the worst CGI I have ever seen, but modern audiences will find it unconvincing. In fairness, there are some explosions and other special effects that look sufficiently realistic.
While the video transfer is sharp and clear overall, there are a number of flaws that appear on closer inspection. Most of the problems appear in background details. There is a lot of shimmering and/or moiré patterns in fine background features such as brickwork, tree leaves, clothing, and so forth. This results in digital movement in surfaces such as a cliff wall that should not show movement. The picture is frequently grainy, especially in darker scenes. I detected some minor motion artifacts, including occasional blurring or "smearing." All of these are fairly minor, and the casual viewer might not notice them. However, there are some more serious problems as well. In Chapter 13, during and just after a climactic confrontation with the Antichrist, I noticed some serious video problems. For several minutes the motion on the screen became noticeably jerky. It was not enough to make the scene unwatchable, but it was very distracting. I also noticed some more pronounced shimmering in clothing patterns, et cetera in the final chapters of the movie.
The extra content provided is very good, well above the average product put out by mainstream studios. However, the lack of a commentary track is always a major defect as far as I am concerned. A commentary track for this movie would probably have been very helpful to viewers unfamiliar with the Biblical material.
All told, this is an intriguing movie that will entertain Christians and non-Christians alike. I enjoyed it and was impressed with the quality of the production given the limited budget. I would certainly recommend it to anyone curious about the Biblical view of the end times, or anyone with an interest in the conspiracy/thriller genre.
The movie and all involved are acquitted. Cloud Ten Pictures is convicted of sabotaging their own work by giving us a full-frame, non-anamorphic transfer, Dolby 2.0 sound, and no subtitles of any kind. However, considering the interesting variety of supplemental material provided, they will certainly get some time off for good behavior, assuming they aren't freed by supernatural means first.
We stand adjourned.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Cloud Ten Pictures
• "Making Of" Documentary
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