The Path—>Lucy—>Watchmen—>Left Behind: World At War
For this entry in You Might Also Like?, we begin with Lucy, the Luc Besson-scripted and -directed science-fiction thriller about an unwilling drug mule who develops superhuman abilities when a super-drug she’s transporting accidentally leaks into her system. This in turn leads Netflix to recommend Zack Snyder’s not-terrible adaptation of Watchmen, a film about the existential angst of superheroes in a world on the brink. From there, it points to 2005’s Left Behind: World At War—the commercially underperforming, barely released concluding entry in a film trilogy based on the series of bestselling apocalyptic evangelical Christian thrillers by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins—which is also about a world on the brink.
Evangelical Christian movies have come a long way since Left Behind: World At War received a weird straight-to-churches release before a discreet direct-to-video burial—or rather, the marketing and promotion of such movies have come a long way since then. Two of this year’s biggest commercial surprises are God’s Not Dead and Son Of God, both of which grossed around $60 million apiece at the box office despite scathing reviews. It’s important to note that the movies themselves aren’t necessarily getting any better, but the people behind these films are becoming increasingly skilled at marshaling their troops and transforming hokey B-movies like God’s Not Dead into cultural events, individual battles in the never-ending culture war. All Christian soldiers have to do to take part is buy a ticket, or preferably, buy out a whole theater and take their whole church to the show.
The reboot of Left Behind a mere 14 years after the beginning of the last series, and nine years after its conclusion, also speaks to the increasing sophistication of a Christian film industry that isn’t about to let a brand as well-known as the Left Behind series go to waste just because the original franchise ran its course. It also helps that the original trilogy gives a new franchise little place to go but up.
Left Behind: World At War unfolds largely in flashback, as President Gerald Fitzhugh (Louis Gossett Jr., who in a more dignified era starred in Roots and won an Oscar for An Officer And A Gentleman) sits in a chair in the Oval Office, as bombs explode and helicopters whir by in the distance, and wearily unburdens himself about the central role he may have played in bringing about the reign of the Antichrist, Nicolae Carpathia. Carpathia (Gordon Currie) is a charismatic former secretary general of the U.N., who has convinced all world leaders to lay down their arms, as a prelude to running the world. The unusually solitary president delivers his words of regret directly into a handheld camera, a post-apocalyptic video selfie of intimate remorse. The film then flashes back a week earlier, to President Fitzhugh skeet-shooting with his vice president and best friend, John Mallory (Charles Martin Smith), as they discuss their contrasting views on the world. Mallory is a patriot who loves the United States and wants her to stand tall and proud; Fitzhugh is one of those internationalist fools who believes in world peace instead of American exceptionalism.
There’s a fascinating tension at play in Gossett and Smith’s shared scenes, as these two old pros valiantly strive to create a sense of palpable human emotion out of the script’s convoluted gobbledygook. They’re working around the material, rather than with it. Gossett in particular is skilled at conveying his character’s conflicting emotions despite dialogue that maps out the film’s backstory as clumsily as possible:
“I was thinking about those terror attacks on the [Global Community] building, and the missing weapons, and those few people who, for some reason, can’t stand the idea of peace. And I’m thinking about how the militia’s intelligence seems to be getting more and more powerful. And about that conversation we had just last week about how vulnerable we’d be if we got rid of too many of our weapons. The militia knew exactly where those missiles were, and my guess is that they knew the codes as well. What do you think about that, John?”
The film, somewhat perplexingly, doesn’t begin with opening titles catching audiences up on the events of the first two films, perhaps because dialogue like this ostensibly serves the same function.
I’ve seen enough Christian movies to be disproportionately impressed by anything resembling production values in an explicitly Christian film. Hell, I’d be impressed to find a really cute dog in a Christian movie, since I’d figure they’d only have the budget and resources for a mildly attractive pooch at best. So I was just about blown away that there’s a scene in Left Behind: World At War—one where Mallory meets his violent demise at the hands of masked, gun-toting assassins—involving an Academy Award-winning actor, masked men on snowmobiles toting machine guns, and someone blowing up a limousine with a rocket-launcher. I felt like I was watching the single most technically accomplished and ambitious Christian action movie ever made, and by extension, the 8 millionth most technically accomplished and ambitious action movie overall.
After the vice president is killed and the snowmobile brigade blows up Fitzhugh’s motorcade, he spends much of the film looking for clues about the true nature of Nicolae Carpathia’s identity and ultimate goals, as if he’s starring in the pilot for a television mystery series titled President Detective. Fitzhugh has plenty of time for sleuthing, since being president in this movie seems to entail no actual governing or work, aside from occasional conversations with Carpathia, whom Fitzhugh initially views as a great man and ally, before realizing he’s literally evil incarnate.
The attack on the motorcade seems to have scared the bejesus out of the President Detective’s Secret Service contingent, staff, and advisors, since he spends much of the film wandering around by himself inside a small corner of a suspiciously empty White House. Like Independence Day, Air Force One, and White House Down, Left Behind: World At War plays into the surprisingly common fantasy that when sinister outside forces threaten our country, it’s incumbent upon our Badass Shit-Kicker In Chief to strap on his Air Jordans and get inside his fighter jet—or, in the case of Left Behind: World At War, first discover the secret of Carpathia’s identity, then take him out.
To help get information, Fitzhugh has dashing journalist Buck Williams (Kirk Cameron) abducted, and pumps him for information at gunpoint. Yes, gunpoint. In Left Behind: World At War, the president has the time to get his hands dirty personally threatening people. Fitzhugh demands answers; little does he know that there’s one answer to every question, and that answer is Jesus. Buck reads Fitzhugh a Bible passage he thinks explains everything: “And as he sat upon the mount of Olives, the disciples came to him privately, saying, ‘When shall these things be? And what shall be the sign of that coming, and of the end of the world?’ And Jesus answered, and said unto them…” Buck then slides the Bible over to President Detective and implores, “Read that,” with a gleam in his eye that suggests this particular passage explains everything. President Detective reads the word “Pestilence,” and Buck utters words that made my heart sing with joy, for I had never heard them unironically uttered by a movie character—only employed by generation upon generation of lazy students in an attempt to pad out term papers: “Webster’s defines ‘pestilence’ as a serious infectious disease that spreads rapidly and kills large groups of people.”
I’m forever fascinated by movies where non-believers are swayed by the authority of the Bible. That’s like someone who doesn’t believe in yetis being convinced by a book that professes to be written about a yeti who insists in no uncertain terms that yetis exist, and that everyone should follow the dictates of the great yeti, and that those who do not believe in yetis will spend eternity in hell for their yeti denial. Accordingly, the initially non-believing President Detective is moved to continue his investigation, which eventually reveals that Carpathia—who looks, acts, and sounds like Count Dracula—is planning to attack the United States using Bibles laced with anthrax.
The image of a poisoned Bible is indicative of how Left Behind: World At War taps into the deep strain of paranoia within the evangelical community. It’s persecution porn, full of crowd-pleasing money shots like one where a Christian rebel is executed for answering the question, “Who do you work for?” with a defiant, “God Almighty.” It feeds into the idea that American Christians, rather than being one of the most powerful religious groups in the world, are actually being hounded by people who hate their way of life in general, and their faith in Christ in particular.
Yet despite the film’s gloomy portrayal of a post-apocalyptic hellscape ruled over by a sneering, Eurotrash Antichrist, there’s never any sense of danger or urgency. That’s the innate flaw of Christian thrillers: The outcome is never really in doubt, since God is always going to win. Filmmakers shameless enough to have a character unironically begin a sentence with “Webster’s defines…” aren’t going to hesitate to use God as the ultimate deus ex machina. No matter how much peril a character might be in, there’s always the certainty that God will intervene. It’s not as if director Craig R. Baxley—whose surprisingly impressive filmography includes fun B-movies like Action Jackson and I Come In Peace, as well as many Stephen King television adaptations—is going to throw in some pro-Satan messages along with all the heavy-handed sermonizing, just to mix it up a little.
So even though the world is at war, the Antichrist is in charge, and poison has been inserted inside the most valuable resource of all—no, not the pure-hearted innocence of children, but Bibles—matters never seem particuarly serious. (Even if these cardboard characters do die, they’ll be in the loving arms of Jesus instead of spending hell on earth with the minions of the damned, which is an upgrade any way you look at it.) Sure enough, the antidote to the deadly poison Bibles turns out to be the red wine used in communion to represent the blood of Christ. (Webster’s defines symbolism as “the use of symbols to express or represent ideas or qualities in literature, art, etc.”) And just when it doesn’t really seem like evil has the upper hand, God sends his most powerful and important vessel—a character played by his greatest contemporary prophet, Kirk Cameron—to instill the love of Christ in the president’s heart so he can strike a mighty blow against the Antichrist by sacrificing himself, Christ-like, by having a missile blow up a building with him and Carpathia still inside it. True, Carpathia does emerge from the flames at the end of the film looking pissed, but nobody’s perfect, and the important thing is that the president finally accepted Christ as his Lord and savior.
Left Behind: World At War was made with a level of craftsmanship rare in the world of Christian films, which is great for its target audience of true believers. In the low-rent realm of Christian movies, Gary Busey and Casper Van Dien are Tom Cruise-level superstars, so I can only imagine how exciting it must be for fans of the genre to see an actual actor like Louis Gossett Jr. deliver a performance with real depth and emotional investment. But post-apocalyptic thrillers also serve another audience, one that thrills to the genre’s curious, often unintentionally funny marriage of disreputable B-movie kicks and heavy-handed proselytizing. For that secondary, hell-bound audience, World At War’s thin patina of professionalism undercuts the camp pleasures.
Thankfully, the entire Left Behind series is being rebooted with a man who’s synonymous with deranged camp, unintentional laughter, and punching and kicking women, sometimes while wearing a bear suit: Nicolas Cage, another Academy Award-winning actor who made a wrong turn—or two, or three, or 5,000—and has wound up headlining an explicitly Christian movie that’s the subject of feverish anticipation for Left Behind superfans and schadenfreude enthusiasts alike.
Cage, somewhat perplexingly, will not be playing the series’ journalist protagonist, Buck, but rather pilot Rayford Steele, who has the most awesome name in existence, but is otherwise is so boring and bland in World At War that he doesn’t even merit a mention in this piece. In the original Left Behind series, this role was played by square-jawed sentient mannequin Brad Johnson, and for bad-movie fans, it’s an incredibly encouraging sign that in the poster for the new film, Cage conveys more personality in a single still image than Johnson did in his performances in all three original films. Unlike the Lord, bad movies will often let you down, and I was mildly disappointed by Left Behind: World At War, but I have faith in Cage, the savior of many an enjoyably terrible movie, and quite possibly the Left Behind franchise. God willing.