Our review of Left Behind Collection, published May 4th, 2006, is also available.
The continuing drama of those Left Behind.
The Left Behind phenomenon continues to be one of the great success stories in Christian publishing—or any branch of publishing, for that matter. The series of books (now numbering ten with no end in sight, and that doesn't count the spin-off children's series, board games, and the like) have been read and enjoyed by millions of people around the world. This audience has not been limited to the predictable conservative Christian fan base for religious fiction; it seems that many people, regardless of their particular beliefs or lack thereof, are interested in the brand of eschatology-as-current events served up by authors Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins.
With such widely appealing subject matter and a devoted army of fans, it was only logical that these novels should make the transition to the screen. Left Behind II: Tribulation Force is the second in what promises to be a long series of films based on the exploits of those left behind to face the dangers of the seven year Tribulation period.
Facts of the Case
A week after the Rapture, people around the world are still trying to make sense of the mass disappearance of billions of Christians as well as all children under the age of twelve. Among those left behind to pick up the pieces are Buck Williams (Kirk Cameron), a high-powered news anchor with an audience that spans the globe; Bruce Barnes (Clarence Gilyard), a pastor of a Chicago church who didn't come to believe what he was preaching until it was too late; Rayford Steele (Brad Johnson), an airline pilot struggling to deal with the loss of his wife and son; and Chloe Steele (Janaya Stephens), Rayford's daughter. This small group of committed (and unusually well-connected) believers sets out to spread the truth of Christ to all who will listen. They also work to sound a warning about UN Secretary-General Nicolae Carpathia (Gordon Currie), whom they have discovered is the Antichrist. Carpathia is cleverly exploiting the worldwide chaos and confusion as he seeks to solidify his hold on power and become not just head of the UN, but ruler of the entire world.
Each member of the "Tribulation Force" carries out this mission in different ways. Bruce continues to operate his church, preaching a message of salvation and end times prophecy to all who will hear. Buck uses his media presence to win the trust of Nicolae, and seeks out opportunities to broadcast the truth about world events. Rayford uses his flight skills and his personal connection to Nicolae's assistant Hattie Durham (Chelsea Noble) to infiltrate the Antichrist's organization and become the pilot of his private jet. Chloe does her best to help the sick and suffering, and nurses an affection for Buck that grows into a real romantic relationship.
The mission leads the group to the highest corridors of world power, and to confrontations with age-old prophecies come to life.
First off, I have a confession to make: it seems I was far too lenient in my review of the original Left Behind DVD. I wanted to be as fair as I could with that film, and I genuinely wanted to like it. I even went so far as to buy the VHS version and donate it to my church library; it is somewhat telling that a total of about six people have checked it out in the meantime. Of those, all faithful fans of the novels, no one has had much good to say about the first film.
That said, I would like to state clearly that this new film is an improvement over the previous installment in just about every way, both as a movie and as a DVD. The story this time is more narrowly drawn, playing out among the group of friends that form the Tribulation Force. It becomes a two-track narrative, showing Bruce and Chloe as they stay behind in Chicago and deal with the day-to-day realities of the chaos enveloping the world, but also showing Rayford and Buck as they deal with events of global importance.
Among the actors, the only performance that really stands out is Brad Johnson as Rayford Steele. Johnson does an excellent job with the material. Rayford is a complex character. He still grieves the loss of his wife and son, but is coming to understand their glorious destiny. He is still working to understand his own newfound faith, yet he feels the obligation and the passion to share it with others. He loathes and fears Nicolae Carpathia, yet works as his personal pilot to help further the cause of the Tribulation Force. Johnson is very good at balancing all of these competing forces within the character and produces a passionate, conflicted performance.
The rest of the cast is good, but not particularly noteworthy. Kirk Cameron is his usual self, energetic and perhaps just a bit too earnest. Gordon Currie as the Antichrist makes for a pretty good villain: cold and cunning at times, over the top at others and willing to chew a little scenery when necessary. Special mention goes to Janaya Stephens, who was a glaring weak link in the cast in the first movie but shows surprising improvement in this installment.
I am disappointed in the choice to provide a full-frame transfer only. I don't know if this is the proper aspect ratio or not, but given plans for a theatrical release of this film, I tend to doubt it. The picture as presented is very good. Fine details stand out sharp and clear, and colors are faithfully rendered. There are a few problems, noticeably in darker scenes which are quite grainy and a bit soft. Shadow detail in these scenes is variable: sometimes very good, sometimes very murky. There is the occasional bit of moiré shimmer in patterns such as brickwork, but it is not obtrusive.
There are two audio options provided: a Dolby Digital 5.1 mix, and a Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo mix. The 5.1 mix sounds nice and clear, with a nice blend of sound effects, music, and dialogue. There is not a lot of directionality across the surround channels, but they are put to use with some atmospheric background sounds and the musical soundtrack.
The crew at Cloud Ten Pictures evidently has a real love for the DVD format, because this disc is packed with so many extras that any other studio would be hawking it as a Super-Duper Special Collector's Ultimate Extravaganza Edition. Well, that might be overstating things a bit, but you get the idea. There is a "Making Of" documentary featurette that runs a good 26 minutes. At times it is a little too self-congratulatory, and it certainly overstates the success of the first Left Behind movie, but overall it is an honest look into the motives and methods behind the making of Tribulation Force. The makers of this movie stress that they believe the Bible can be a source of good storytelling, and that this is what they have tried to bring to the screen. There are also five deleted/extended/alternate scenes which can be watched with or without commentary. There is an amusing (and refreshingly brief) three minute "gag reel" of bloopers and outtakes. Of interest to the special effects enthusiasts is a short feature which shows various test concepts for a morphing special effect applied to the Nicolae character late in the movie. The filmmakers also include a three minute tour of the Temple Mount set, where some of Left Behind II's pivotal action takes place. A humorous interview segment, "What Do They Really Think of Each Other," allows the cast to have a little fun at each other's expense. Text screens of biographical information are provided for six on-screen cast members and four of the behind-the-scenes crew. We get music videos for two of the songs on the soundtrack, featuring fairly well-known Contemporary Christian recording artists. Trailers and Web Links are provided for this film as well as its predecessor and several other Cloud Ten Pictures productions.
Finally, the Cloud Ten DVD department shows that they are really making an effort to join the big leagues by including a feature commentary track. Collaborating on this track are producer Nicholas Tabarrok and production supervisor Andre Van Heerden. Unfortunately, it is not one of the better commentary tracks I have heard. It is informative, and does provide some interesting nuggets about the making of the movie, but it is a bit dry and has numerous gaps. Most of the time Tabarrok and Van Heerden simply react to what is on the screen, rather than providing any deep insights into the film. Still, any commentary track is better than none at all. I assume this was the first commentary for each of these men; I expect they will get better at it over time. One odd thing about this commentary track: usually, when listening to a commentary, one can hear the actual movie audio in the background. In this case, there is just silence in the background. It's not a big problem until we hit some of the many gaps in the commentary, or until the two gentlemen comment on something happening with the film's score at a given moment and expect the audience to be able to hear what they are referring to.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
As much as this sequel improves over its predecessor, it also shares many of the same problems. One of the tenets that is drilled into the head of any aspiring writer is "Show, don't tell." This is even more important for filmmakers. It is unfortunately broken with astonishing frequency in Tribulation Force. It seems that most of the dialogue in the movie is exposition. Kirk Cameron gets stuck with some of the most blatant; it seems that every other line is something to the effect of, "Oh yeah, that must be that (insert generic "big thing" here) that everyone's been talking about." There are major, dramatic, exciting world events happening all around these characters, but do we see any of them? Occasionally we get a shot of our heroes watching something happen on television, but mostly we just get talky scenes where they stand around and discuss what they have heard is happening. It then falls to Clarence Gilyard as Pastor Bruce to provide even more exposition from the Bible so that the audience can understand why the things the characters have been discussing are significant. Some of these problems arise due to the difficulties in translating a 400+ page novel to the screen. Others presumably arise due to budgetary constraints. Still others are just bad writing and a failure to envision a truly cinematic version of the story. In any case, they make for a movie that often bogs down in dialogue.
There are other problems with the movie that stem from the script as well. There are inconsistencies, such as Buck Williams being some sort of high-powered globe-trotting journalist/anchorman, but then getting chewed out for using a cubicle in his network's offices without permission. Probably the biggest problem coming from the script is the lack of a coherent plot. As stated above, the narrative follows two tracks, depicting the small, human events in Chicago and the earthshaking events happening on the global stage. The problem is that the personal dramas in Chicago are depicted with a lot more clarity than the big global events that theoretically drive the plot. The movie winds up telling two separate stories that are linked but don't mesh very well at all, giving a disjointed feel to the whole picture. Again, this is the sort of thing that can be made to work in a novel, but the filmmakers would have done better to take one story and tell it clearly, rather than muddying the waters needlessly. Finally, the big victory that the Tribulation Force scores at the end of the movie doesn't seem like much of a victory at all; there is no sense of buildup, climax, or resolution to the film. From what I understand, the Tribulation Force novel was cut in two in order to fit into the allotted running time for this movie. Based on the results, it would seem that they cut out too much. As it stands, Tribulation Force only runs 94 minutes, which is pretty paltry for this kind of movie; cut out some of the Chicago scenes and there would have been ample time to develop a more complete, compelling story and fill out a more respectable running time in the neighborhood of two hours or so.
Based on what I have been able to glean from the IMDb, it appears that a Left Behind TV series is in the works. Very little information is available at this time, but it seems to me that this might be the best direction to go with this material. With a series as lengthy and complex as the Left Behind books, episodic television might be a better fit than a series of feature films that really don't stand on their own very well.
It is a close call, but Left Behind II: Tribulation Force is going to go free, based on the improvement over the first film and the obvious effort that went into the DVD presentation. It's not a great movie but it's not terrible, either. The DVD, however, is an excellent effort, and Cloud Ten Pictures could teach a thing or two to some of the major studios.
We stand adjourned.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Cloud Ten Pictures
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