Films are sometimes critically panned not because they’re inherently bad, but because of the larger story surrounding them. Consider Battlefield Earth, for example: a terrible movie, sure, but its production history (not to mention its connection to the Church of Scientology) made it an easy target.
Solar Crisis, released in 1990 was an equally awful movie–and with a budget of $55 million, just as financially calamitous–but it was largely ignored while Battlefield Earth‘s hideousness was trumpeted from the rooftops.
Which brings us to 2014’s Left Behind, a film so universally panned by critics that its Rotten Tomatoes score sits at an abysmal three percent. This places it a mere whisker above such legendarily bad films as Jaws: The Revenge and Mac and Me, and a startling 10 percent below the poverty row superhero sequel, Superman IV: The Quest For Peace.
But is Left Behind really a terrible film or has it been subjected to a critical drubbing because of its overt religious themes? To be clear: it’s the former. For this writer, the core idea in Left Behind is a really effective one and could have made for a properly eerie apocalyptic thriller. People all over the world are suddenly vanishing into thin air, and those remaining are quite understandably freaking out. The problem with Left Behind isn’t its concept but its execution. This is best summed up in one particular scene, which we’ll get to in a moment.
But first, here’s a bit of context.
A decidedly out-of-sorts seeming Nicolas Cage stars as airline pilot Rayford Steele, who is thousands of feet above the Earth when the planet’s good-hearted souls are whisked off into the ether. While Rayford deals with terrified passengers and the disappearance of his co-pilot, Steele’s daughter Chloe (Cassi Thomson) is having an equally bewildering day at ground level. Chloe’s little brother has just disappeared during a shopping trip, leaving her to roam a panic-stricken city in a fruitless search.
Directed by Vic Armstrong (perhaps best known for his work as a stuntman), Left Behind adapts a relatively small portion of the source novel–one of a series of bestsellers written by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins. The result is a kind of disaster movie with an apocalyptic, biblical edge, with the later, Book of Revelation-inspired events of the novel presumably being saved for a sequel.
At present, plans for a follow-up to Left Behind appear to be on hold, which is quite disappointing in a strange sort of way. With its bizarre dialogue and inexplicable filmmaking decisions, Left Behind presents one of the funniest apocalypses yet committed to film. We could pick all kinds of moments that illustrate just how uniquely strange Left Behind is: the scene where Lea Thompson (who plays Cage’s wife) stares adoringly at an appallingly photoshopped picture of her family.
Or maybe the scene where Chloe’s left holding the clothes of her vanished little brother. Or the way everyone reacts to these mass vanishings not with confusion or horror, but with the kind of unrestrained enthusiasm you usually see at a Black Friday sale.
Or the bit where this woman shrieks, “Please staahhhpp!” to the unaccountably angry guy ramming her car with his pick-up truck.
Instead we’ll concentrate on this:
The Worst Break-In Scene of All Time
As the world descends into a maelstrom of looting and screaming, Chloe heads off in the search for her brother. Her travels eventually lead her to a pair of glass doors leading into a hospital. Taken with the idea that she’ll find some answers within, Chloe picks up a large “no smoking” sign and uses it to smash a hole in the glass. Gingerly lowering herself onto her hands and knees, Chloe slowly–painstakingly–crawls through the hole, trying to position her hands in order to avoid the tiny cubes of glass.
The scene runs for a scant 40 seconds or so, but actually feels much longer. It’s weirdly voyeuristic, to the point where it no longer feels as though we’re watching Chloe, the character in the story, but Cassi Thomson the actress trying not to injure herself. It’s as though Left Behind ceases to be a movie at this moment, since we’re suddenly become sidetracked by the apparent drama Thomson appears to have faced in this scene: is that real glass? As she drags herself through the shattered doorway, she wears the expression of someone truly concerned about the possibility of accidental harm.
Having made it through the glass and back on her feet, Chloe’s look of relief looks genuine. In a movie full of illogical character decisions and moments that never quite ring true, it’s a distracting moment of verisimilitude. Like the looks of exhaustion on the faces of everyone in Fitzcarraldo or the very genuine looks of fear in the eyes of The Exorcist‘s cast, Chloe’s un-athletic break-in attempt sees reality and illusion collide. But rather than heighten the effect of the story, as in Fitzcarraldo or The Exorcist, the sudden realism merely underlines just how unreal the rest of the movie is.
Just to top things off, Chloe then slips through a door into the hospital, which is positively humming with activity. It’s a reminder of how odd Chloe’s break-in really was; she could have entered via the front door, but chose not to because there were a few people in the way, pushing and pulling each other around.
This whole escapade sums up Left Behind as a whole: as Nic Cage sits gloomily in his plane and Chloe wanders around hospitals and supermarket car parks, the movie itself seems to be searching, in vain, for a meatier story to tell.
Nic Cage, clearly uneasy with the whole situation, finds his own way of passing the time.