If not for the Harry Potter phenomenon, THE publishing story of the last couple of years would probably have been the "Left Behind" series. The notion that a series of thrillers based on a particular fundamentalist Protestant view of Revelation, the last book of the Bible, would dominate bestseller lists 2-3 times a year had to have been considered one MAJOR longshot.
So, with over 25 million copies sold, and growing interest in the series, there must be a marketing genius somewhere in the background of Left Behind, Inc., right? Not if the way the film rights have been handled is any indication.
Not only was this production given to Cloud Ten Productions, a Christian outfit known for getting minor Hollywood names to star in direct-to-video low-budget movies; but the job of carrying the movie was put on the puny shoulders of "Growing Pains" child star, Kirk Cameron.
Adding to the strangeness is the fact that while the movie opens in theaters this week, it has been available on home video for several months! This "strategy" was the final straw for authors Tim LeHaye and Jerry Jenkins who have sued Cloud Ten over the contract.
Unfortunately, unlike a few movies which were made for-- or first shown on, cable TV-- like "Gettysburg" or "The Last Seduction," there is nothing about "Left Behind" that will make anyone say, "Wow, this should be a big screen experience!" If anything, the reverse is likely.
Veteran TV director Victor Sarin does not even achieve average Movie of the Week production values in this cheapie, with a digital battle scene that looks less realistic than your average video game, an over reliance on interior sets giving us no sense of an outer world in chaos, and acting that mostly couldn't get out of the proverbial paper bag.
But budget constraints are no excuse for not wringing tension out of the story's central scene, a night flight in a jetliner in which all of the children, and a good share of the adults, disappear. Even with the pedestrian prose of LeHaye and Jenkins, this was a memorable, spooky scene in the book. The movie plays it like "Airport 2001" for big disaster-style hysteria with a big orchestral score.
On the flight is world famous TV journalist Buck Williams (Cameron), who helps pilot Rayford Steele (Brad Johnson) settle the frantic passengers.
Upon their return to civilization, Steele finds that his born again Christian wife and young son have disappeared, leaving his young adult daughter, Cloe, (Janaya Stephens) bewildered and bitter. Steele finds out from a young associate pastor who had, apparently, been a phoney, that Christians and young children ("innocent in God's eyes") have been taken in something called the Rapture, and that the Earth is about to go through seven years of trials called "The Tribulation."
Buck, meanwhile, is closing in on a story about the financial backers of the new charismatic young philosopher/philanthropist, Nicholas Carpathia, (Gordon Currie) who has been put in charge by general acclaim at the U.N. to solve the world crisis.
While the book has its share of contrivances-- managing to put its characters at the center of world events-- at least there was detail about getting from here to there. This 95 minute movie rushes over everything so quickly, that the plot holes look an awful lot bigger.
On the other hand, the pace is quick, there is some suspense generated by the climax, and the scenario itself is detailed and intriguing enough to generate interest. While the performances are nothing special, they aren't unintentionally funny (despite Cameron's lack of believability as the globe trotting version of Bob Woodward) like those in say, "The Omega Code."
In a closing message on the video tape, Kirk Cameron appeals to Evangelical Christians to pack out theaters this weekend and bring friends with them. For those who are inclined to want to use "Left Behind" as an evangelism tool, let me offer this advice:
Pop for the three bucks to rent the tape, and invite the people you want to be affected by the movie's message over to your house. They'll be in a lot better mood than if you talked them into spending $30 to take the family to see this unimpressive movie on the big screen.