How to end the world on a budget.

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Dec. 1 2005 12:51 PM

The "Left Behind" Movies

How to end the world on a budget.

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Last month, Christians everywhere were supposedly locked up in their churches watching the most recent apocalyptic movie, Left Behind: World at War. The three "Left Behind" movies, based on the best-selling "Left Behind" books, were produced and written by the Lalonde brothers, two Canadians who have built their careers on faith-based thrillers. The movies have either been released straight to video or, as in the case of Left Behind: World at War, DVDs were mailed to churches, which were encouraged to hold public screenings. The new "Left Behind" movie disturbs me—not because thousands of people are watching a movie that proclaims non-Christians will burn in hell for all eternity—but rather because thousands of people are watching a movie where Toronto stands in for New York, Chicago, and Israel. Also, Washington, D.C. And Egypt. London, too.

Kirk and Chelsea: apocalypse on the cheap.
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Kirk and Chelsea: apocalypse on the cheap

The "apocalypse on a shoestring" aesthetic has become the hallmark of the "Left Behind" series. It tells the story of the End Times, the events that, according to fundamentalist Christianity, precede the end of the world. Like all enormous bummers, they're tightly scheduled. First comes the Rapture, when Christians are sucked up to heaven, leaving the unsaved behind. Then the Tribulation begins—the seven years when the United Nations, led by the Antichrist and the Whore of Babylon, take over the planet. The movies star Kirk Cameron of Growing Pains as a member of a resistance movement known as the Tribulation Force. In a nice touch, Cameron's wife, Chelsea Noble, has been cast as the Whore of Babylon. The Antichrist is played by Canadian Gordon Currie.

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The first film, Left Behind: The Movie, introduced us to Cameron's character, Buck Williams, an anchorman for GNN news who broadcasts around the world live from an off-the-shelf consumer-model video camera. Melrose Place vet Brad Johnson plays a pilot whose Christian wife ascends into heaven during the Rapture, leaving him with their teenage daughter, Chloe (who, in one of the queasier elements of the series, falls in love with Buck). Things get rocking once the Rapture hits, the Christians go to heaven, and chaos ensues. Planes crash, cars burst into flames, heavy machinery goes unoperated, little old ladies take to the bottle, and everyone freaks out and leaves garbage everywhere.

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The Lalonde brothers admit that the first "Left Behind" movie was a major flop, but it sold well on video and so we got a sequel, Left Behind 2: Tribulation Force, which was a pathetic attempt at filmmaking even by the standards of straight-to-video movies. For the third film, Sony Entertainment got involved and signed the checks. While each installment's budget is estimated to be around $17.4 million, I think that number might be off by $16 million or so. In Left Behind 2: Tribulation Force, for example, Kirk Cameron has to take Ben Judah, a respected rabbi, to the Wailing Wall so that he can tell Jews everywhere that Jesus Christ is Lord. Israel is represented by a few stone walls obviously made of plywood, some Christmas-tree lights, and 500 volunteer extras wearing leftover costumes from a Nativity pageant. The Wailing Wall is patrolled by soldiers dressed in World War II army uniforms. The producers have also dubbed in the sound of goats during scenes set in downtown Jerusalem, which leads to the unusual notion that modern-day Israel is populated by WWII re-enactors, nervous-looking people in bathrobes, and goats.

In low-budget movies there are just some things that you can't portray convincingly. The end of the world is one of them, and the spinning wheels of geopolitics is another. In Left Behind: World at War, the world is never depicted at war, but we do get a brief snowmobile battle. Worse, the Lalonde brothers have reduced international diplomacy to its most ham-handed elements. The first thing that the evil Nicolae (aka the Antichrist) does is seize control of the United Nations by executing his opponents on the floor of the General Assembly, gangster style. Then he proclaims, "While nations deal with the chaos within their own borders, the U.N. has taken a leadership role in stabilizing the world." The United Nations can't even take a leadership role in getting rid of its parking tickets, but in the "Left Behind" universe, the U.N. wants nothing more than to disarm the world's armies, eliminate famine, and bring about a global peace. This, confusingly, makes them the bad guys.

Thanks to Sony's money, the third installment is slightly more upscale—it's even got Louis Gossett Jr. as the pistol-packing president of the United States—yet the series still can't shake its low-budget mindset. The president slips out of the White House in the trunk of a hatchback, invades a chemical weapons lab (the nefarious Nicolae has been poisoning Bibles, causing Christians to become sick), takes out the bad guys by surfing down a flight of stairs on their faces, and then sneaks back in to the White House undetected. Once there, he orders the "SS" to launch an attack. I think he means the Secret Service, but I'm not sure whom the president is trying to scare, as we've already seen his Secret Service detail and there are only two guys on it. At the end of the movie, the Christians discover that communion wine can stop the plague, and the president finds God and almost immediately sacrifices himself in a missile strike on Nicolae. A fine effort, but Nicolae emerges from the rubble without even a smudge on his European menswear. Roll credits, start planning sequel.

There's much more to ponder in Left Behind: World at War, not the least of which is: Did Kirk Cameron actually think that sporting 5-o'clock shadow would make him more viable as an action hero? Did the Lalonde brothers really think no one would notice that they've replaced Clarence Gilyard, a black actor who played a resistance minister in both previous movies, with a totally different black actor? Do they think that all black actors look alike? The Lalondes have said that they are not going to report the box office numbers for Left Behind: World at War in terms of money made but in terms of souls saved. Yet watching this movie's nonstop barrage of bargain-basement digital effects, computer displays of missile attacks that look like screen savers, and scenes of a world at war that feature the same sets used over and over, the only thing I could see being saved was money.

Grady Hendrix is one of the founders of the New York Asian Film Festival and he writes about pop culture on his blog.

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