What Nicolas Cage's 'Left Behind' Says About Apocalyptic Christianity
Left Behind is a terrible movie. Just terrible. But you all already know that.
So, the rapture happens. Instantly millions of people disappear, leaving behind nothing but their clothes and belongings. Apparently heaven has a nudity clause. The problem is that it takes 45 minutes of nothing happening to get to it, slowly introducing characters and milking situations that if done with competence might be classified as a slow burn and tense start.
It’s not done with competence.
One could go on at length about atrocious acting, worse dialogue, and the jarringly out of place music, sort of bad instrumental tunes that seem to have been cribbed from very low budget nineties melodramas. The writing is terrible, and not in any interesting sort of way.
Perhaps most annoyingly, there is little understanding how basic components of physical reality work. And one could point out that the co-pilot disappearing wouldn’t make a plane careen out of control, because there’s an autopilot for a reason. Or that if you spot an unpiloted plane on radar, the chance that it’s on a precise collision course has essentially zero chance of happening, and that even if it did, it would take a single nudge to avoid said collision. Or that people disappearing wouldn’t suddenly make satellite phones and airplane radios not have signals. Or that air traffic control wouldn’t be incapable of landing all the planes in the air over a several hour period since that’s sort of what they do every single night. Or that if a plane takes off in the afternoon from New York, flies three hours east, and then flies three hours west back to New York, that it will not in fact arrive back in New York as the sun rises the next day. Because 3+3 is less than 12.
But really, none of that is the point. Bad movies are not inherently interesting except in an exercise of cathartic masochism. What is interesting is pulling apart why particular people like particular bad movies.
So let’s dig a little deeper. See, this is dystopian fiction, this is horror fiction on a civilizational level. And from a certain point of view, it’s just as unfair to criticize the dystopia of Christians believing we’re in the final days for its being a terrible world as we are to criticize the Walking Dead for not being happy. Our fictions tell us everything about who we are. And our nightmares, they tell our darkest secrets.
On one level there is something so terribly smug and off-putting about the entire genre of rapture-porn. Look all the good people get plucked away, and the world goes to hell. Look at us! We were right all along, hallelujah fuckers! And that spirit of triumphant exceptionalism has about as much in common with the bedrock precepts of Christianity as bullets do with teddy bears. And one could make the very strong theological argument that the sorts of people who feel that way about rapture fiction are exactly the people least likely to qualify for the rapture by the standards of any church, Protestant or Catholic.
The film is quite clear about teasing the anticipated sequels, that this is only the beginning of what amounts to hell on earth, the final battles, etc. But here’s the thing. It’s our hell on earth. One character early in the film, a shrill believer who is interestingly the least sympathetic character in the entire film, insists that we live in a fallen world. It’s a curious choice of words, because of the way it evokes Paradise Lost.
The most powerful technique you can use in a debate is to stand up after your opponent finishes speaking and say “I agree with absolutely everything my opponent just said. And here’s why none of it matters.”
The marketing for this film is hilariously insisting that Satan doesn’t want you to see this film, and encourages everyone to drag non-believers along because it will show them the light. It doesn’t. It shows me the appeal of the darkness. Because if the world is going to hell, and it is our doing, then it is also in our hands to stop it. Even if I accept every premise of this film’s world view, I still reject its conclusion. Because here on Earth my decisions matter. Because here I have agency. Because here I can make a difference. Because the hero is the guy who stays, the one who reigns in hell rather than serving in heaven.
But there’s a further nuance to this genre. Notice that the dystopia of apocalyptic Christianity is not about Christians. It’s right in the very title of the film that it is about those whom are left behind. It’s about their loved ones. It’s about the ones who they cannot reach no matter how much they talk and how much they pray. Apocalyptic Christians are not heroes in their own fiction, which is a fact far more interesting than the fiction itself.
This film spends most of its time making the non-believers most sympathetic, making them strong, independent people. And it entirely avoids the smugness that is Kirk Cameron’s trademark. It does not cast its believers as righteous or triumphant. It casts them as deeply sad and lonely. There’s an honesty there, a good faith effort if you’ll excuse the pun, to explore what it means for a real person who knows that they are going to heaven and their loved ones aren’t, at least in the immediate sense of the rapture.
We watch dark fiction for comfort, and apocalyptic Christians are no different. So what comfort do they find here, watching the sadness of their doppelgangers and the desperate struggle for survival of their loved ones? It’s not triumph, it’s not a sneering giggle at the suffering awaiting those that don’t believe. And it’s not really even a celebratory tale of how their loved ones will find the right path in the end.
It’s about seeing that their loved ones are strong enough to face hell. That they are strong enough to fight the good fight. That even those who aren’t angels can stand against the demons. There’s a simple sweetness to that, even in the midst of all the wrongheadedness.
Steven Lloyd Wilson is a hopeless romantic and the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. His novel, ramblings, and assorted fictions coalesce at www.burningviolin.com. You can email him here and order his novel here.
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