If Judge David Johnson is caught up in The Rapture and vanishes out of his clothes, he hopes he won't be wearing his Batman underwear that day. Man, that would just be embarrassing, everyone laughing at his underpants. Then again, he'd be in Heaven and they'd have to deal with the Antichrist and seven years of war and disease, so hah!
Our reviews of Left Behind (2000) (published November 6th, 2000), Left Behind (2014) (published January 16th, 2015), and Left Behind II: Tribulation Force (published January 22nd, 2003) are also available.
The End is Near!
The mega-best-selling post-apocalyptic tomes of Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins spring to life on these three direct-to-DVD adaptations. Starring Kirk Cameron (Growing Pains) and bringing with it a huge fan following, the question remains for this Evangelical prophecy trifecta: does it enRapture or enCrapture?
Facts of the Case
• Left Behind
Sometime in the near future, an amazing event happens: hundreds of millions of people mysteriously vanish, leaving only their clothes behind. The world is turned on its head as leaders of all nations struggle to determine what happened. Caught in the chaos are our heroes, renowned journalist Buck Williams (Cameron), suave airline pilot Rayford Steele (Brad Johnson) and his zippy daughter Chloe (Janaya Stephens). Together, these three new friends attempt to decipher the meaning of the disappearances.
Through a religious scholar named Bruce (Clarence Gilyard), they discover that the mass vanishing is in fact the Rapture, a prophecy that claims Christians will be whisked away to Heaven, on the cusp of the apocalypse. Those who are left behind will have to deal with a whole bunch of crap, like famines, diseases, wars, and, the big daddy himself, the Antichrist.
Stepping in to calm things down is the United Nations, now being run by Nicolae Carpathia (Gordon Currie). Carpathia is an ambitious man and foresees a new world order, where no one goes hungry, currency is globalized, and religions are streamlined. Yes, Virginia, he is the Antichrist.
• Left Behind II: Tribulation Force
Following the traumatic events of the first film, Buck Williams and his pals regroup to begin strategizing about how they plan on surviving the seven year rule of the Antichrist, and maybe swell their ranks with a few more believers. Williams and his pal Rayford Steele, newly converted Christian, have decided to spearhead a "Tribulation Force," a group of ragtag believers who will wage war against Nicolae Carpathia and his sinister machinations. Their strategy involves ham-stringing his communications, spreading the word about his true nature, and, most importantly, bringing more non-believers into the Christian flock.
Meanwhile, a pair of fire-breathing old guys from New Testament prophecy have been hanging around Israel's "wailing wall," barbequing any U.N. stormtrooper crazy enough to confront them, Carpathia continues his plans to consolidate power, and a budding romance between Buck and Chloe struggles. But Buck has bigger things on his mind than getting jiggy with it: Carpathia has brought him into his inner circle. Risky as it is, Buck plans on using that Antichrist-access to disrupt Carpathia's plans.
• Left Behind: World at War
The third installment focuses on the impending strife that will soon engulf the post-Rapture planet, namely, World War III. American President Gerald Fitzhugh (Lou Gossett, Jr.) has sat on the sidelines as Nicolae Carpathia has consolidated his power into the sprawling Global Community. In the 18 months since he's assumed power, Nicolae has outlawed Christianity, strengthened his military forces, and exerted complete control over the media. But now Fitzhugh will be inexorably drawn into the coming apocalyptic brawl, and his only allies will be Buck Williams and his Tribulation Force.
I'll be right up front with this: while a Christian myself, I don't subscribe to the type of eschatology (study of the end times) that is the bedrock for these films and the ridiculously popular book series they're based on. There's a lot of stuff I'm still trying to sort out, but a literal reading of Revelation is not what I'm leaning toward. I only bring this up because I honestly think that your appreciation of these movies will largely be informed by where you stand theologically. That being said, no matter what you believe, it would be hard for me to understand why an objective film viewer would find these films anything more than "sorta dopey."
Left Behind: The Movie looks and feels exactly like the low-budget DVD-direct film it is. The special effects, while limited, aren't that special. The major action set-piece happens in the beginning, when hundreds of jets from an unspecified nation descend on Israel to carpet-bomb it. Then, by the Hand of God, they are blown into smithereens. The jets are obviously CGI, as well as some supplemental shots of big tanks rolling through the desert, but the technology is limited and the cheapness of the effects are detrimental to any kind of suspense.
As far as action, that's about it. The rest of the film is more political thriller than anything else, as we see Carpathia's ascendancy to global superstardom. Peripheral to these big-stage events, Buck and his friends come to grips with the Rapture (another disappointing aspect of the film; a major plot point limited to some shpts of people's laundry laid out on airplane seats) and the religious truth that is manifesting itself. Basically, there's a lot of talking.
Look, I won't say this first film was a complete goose-egg, because it wasn't. Despite my personal views, I couldn't help but get a kick out of all the prophecy talk and end times hullabaloo. But that engagement wears off quick, and we're left with cheesy effects, some spotty acting (Currie Eutrotrashes it up something fierce), and a significant lack of scope; for a post-apocalyptic film, I was hoping for a least few epic scenes of chaos and destruction, but most everything happens on a plane or in an office or in someone's apartment. Finally, am I supposed to believe that every major nation in the world collapses and only the U.N.—beacon of action and fortitude that it is!—can flawlessly fill the gap?!? Not from what I've seen.
The sequel is worse. The production looks even thriftier and it's a lot chattier. "Tribulation Force" sounds like a Chuck Norris action flick, but you'd be hard-pressed to kind anything kinetic in this film. The thrust of the film is how Buck and his cronies come together to evangelize to the lost, while also matching up Biblical prophecy with current events. Really, Tribulation Force, more than the other two films, seemed like an Evangelical tool. There's a lot of praying, lots of hand-holding, lots of confession, and talk of salvation, which is great and all, but a compelling action film this does not make.
The visual effects are just as underwhelming, though there are fewer opportunities to showcase them; the fire-breathing old guys, that's about it I think. The story for this one is also pretty bland, with the big run-up to the wannabe unnerving climax this: can the Tribulation Force screw up Nicolae's global transmission where he is crowned the Messiah? That's the big drama—a media blackout. Some half-baked supporting arcs include Buck's romance with Chloe, which, even in the post-apocalyptic world, runs into those goofy sitcom contrivances and the efforts of Nicolae to ban all religions (yeah, like that would fly considering the recent Muhammad cartoon flare-ups).
Finally, we've got Left Behind: World at War, and without a doubt I can proclaim this the best of the bunch. One, it looks more like a "real" movie than the others; the camera-work, the acting, the effects, while still low-budget, were more effective. By taking the story to a more global scale, and infusing some Presidential action, World at War approaches the epic nature the story hints at, but the previous films had failed to accomplish. Too bad in the end, no doubt due to fiscal limitations, the films cops out, by only showing the World War III outbreak on television channels via news reports.
That doesn't take away from the fact that this film has the best action scenes of the three. An assault on the Presidential motorcade is well-done and surprisingly violent and the final showdown between Fitzhugh and Nicolae, while besmirched by some prehistoric computer effects, is a satisfying blow 'em up. Meanwhile, the Tribulation Force is dealing with a mysterious viral outbreak that can be cured by the Eucharist. Cheesy, I guess, but fitting for the subject matter.
It's not great, but World at War is an all-around better effort than the other films.
The first two films are given the full frame treatment, and the picture quality is mediocre. World at War benefits mightily from a slick 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer, a major reason why I think the film is more cinematic than its predecessors. In the sound corner, Dolby Digital 5.1 mixes for all of them, thought the third makes better use.
Tons of extras on these discs:
• Left Behind: The Movie
"The Making of Left Behind" is a good-sized featurette about how the book turned into the movie and "Actors' Messages" is a corny collection of footage at the movie premiere. Music videos and concert footage wrap up the selection.
• Left Behind II: Tribulation Force
Lots here: another lengthy making-of documentary, a set tour of the "Temple Mount," deleted scenes, a blooper reel, filmmakers' audio commentary, interviews with the cast, the "Nicolae morphing effect," trailers, bios, and more music videos.
• Left Behind: World at War
Even more stuff on this final disc: audio commentary, "What Doesn't Kill You" technical making-of documentary, "Characters with Character" featurette, "GCN News Report by Buck Williams" promo spot, a 20-minute sampling of Kirk Cameron's "Way of the Master" ministry, bloopers, deleted scenes with optional commentary, bios, previews and music videos. For Left Behind fans, there is more than enough stuff between these three discs to satiate that curiosity.
Hey, everyone's entitled to their own eschatology. And while Mr. LaHaye and I might disagree on God's designs for the end times, I hope there is something we can agree on: these Left Behind movies are pretty lame.
Good luck with those seven years of tribulation.
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What's "fair"? Whether positive or negative, our reviews should be unbiased, informative, and critique the material on its own merits.
Scales of Justice, Left Behind
Perp Profile, Left Behind
Distinguishing Marks, Left Behind
• Making-of Documentary
Scales of Justice, Left Behind II: Tribulation Force
Perp Profile, Left Behind II: Tribulation Force
Distinguishing Marks, Left Behind II: Tribulation Force
• Filmmakers' Commentary
Scales of Justice, Left Behind: World At War
Perp Profile, Left Behind: World At War
Distinguishing Marks, Left Behind: World At War
• Filmmakers' Commentary
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