In retrospect, it would have taken a minor miracle. Cloud Ten Pictures, which has specialized in apocalypse-now thrillers like Revelation, Tribulation and Judgement, was hoping that its latest offering, Left Behind, would leave everything else behind at the box office last weekend. The goal was to be the number-one movie in America, which would have shown those Hollywood honchos a thing or two about the market for Christian entertainment. Of course, God helps those who help themselves, and Cloud Ten has spearheaded a church-based promotional campaign that attempts to do for Jesus freaks what The Blair Witch Project This included the unorthodox step of releasing Left Behind on video last October as a way of generating excitement for its theatrical debut. And though it's hard to imagine a more powerful one-two punch than word of mouth and word of God, the strategy appears not to have worked--not as well as Cloud Ten hoped, anyway. Against a relatively weak field, Left Behind failed to crack the Top Ten, finishing well behind such paganistic fare as Valentine and Head Over Heels. On the other hand, it did surpass the opening weekend of 1999's The Omega Code, which eventually left $12.4 million in exhibitors' collection plates. That may not be enough, however, to put the "cross" back in "crossover." It's not as if Hollywood ever turned its back on God, especially when it felt it could make a buck off Him. There were all those Bible epics, all those Jesus movies, all those horror movies with Satan as the ultimate bogeyman, including such godforsaken scare jobs as The Exorcist and The Omen. Then, in the '90s, we witnessed an influx of angels, both in the movies, where John Travolta, Nicolas Cage and Brad Pitt all tried to squeeze onto the head of a pin, and on television, where just about everybody was eventually "Touched by an Angel" on the "Highway to Heaven." But it must have weighed on evangelical Christians over the years that these productions, as often as not, were made by--what's the right word?--heathens. So they started making and distributing them themselves. Actually, they've been making and distributing them for a long time. (Remember The Cross and the Switchblade? Erik Estrada does.) What they've started doing is tiptoeing into the commercial mainstream, both on video and, increasingly, in movie theaters. With career-ending performances by Casper Van Dien and Michael York, The Omega Code was laughably bad by Hollywood standards, but it did what no evangelical Christian film before it had done--left a blip on Hollywood's radar. Suddenly, all those studio producers who thought Christian entertainment meant "Kumbaya" sing-alongs had to reevaluate their belief systems. What Christian films will need, in order to continue growing, is to come up with something other than the end of the world as a way of getting butts into seats. (The Book of Revelation seems to have replaced Matthew, Mark, Luke and John as the greatest story ever told, which makes sense, given the millennial fever that swept over the planet recently, but still.) They'll also need better actors, better writers, better directors--better everything. And bigger stars, perhaps. Thus far, the films have been a dumping ground for lower-tier stars on their way down: Mr. T, Howie Mandel, Margot Kidder, Corbin Bernsen, Carol Alt. And Kirk Cameron, who still seems to be suffering from "Growing Pains" in Left Behind. Cameron, a born-again Christian, throws himself into the role of Buck Williams, internationally respected reporter for GNN, the Global News Network. (Even that cascading head of hair seems to be emoting.) But like Van Dien, he never convinces us he has the stature to save the world. And the plot throws everything it's got at him--death, destruction, the Antichrist. Adapted from the first volume of Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins' bestselling end-time series, Left Behind floats the idea that, even after millions of believers have been called up to heaven, their abandoned clothes marking the spot where they were taken, the nonbelievers will have some trouble figuring out what the hell's happened. Actually, the most enjoyable part of the movie, as with all the apocalypse-now thrillers, is watching the seven signs snap into place--that and grooving on the Antichrist. In The Omega Code, York brought an element of British reserve to the role, punctuated with snit fits. In Left Behind, Gordon Currie brings an element of Slavic deceit; his character comes on like a nice guy, but his name's Nicolae Carpathia, for crissakes. Currie makes for a rather lame villain, and it's sad to watch these Christian films as they turn the Book of Revelation into so many movie tropes. But if they're going to insist on doing so, I wish they would at least do it well. And that they would leave out the references to "international bankers," which has long been a code phrase for God's chosen people. Left Behind skates past the inconvenient fact that, come the Second Coming, Jews are going to have to convert...or else. And it doesn't even acknowledge the existence of, say, Muslims. Instead, it rolls all us nonbelievers into a scuzzball of biblical proportions, then imagines what it would be like for God to squish us between His toes. At heart, the movie's a theological disaster flick. It enjoys the death and destruction, which makes you wonder how the average Christian family can even consider going to see it. Is this what the Republican right means by "family entertainment"? There's a subplot--or is it the main plot?--involving an airline pilot and his daughter, who've been left behind by the rest of their family. Dad's big mistake: an affair with a flight attendant. Daughter's big mistake: a nose ring. Dad finds God, which sets up a whole series of scenes that belong on the Fox Family Channel. Ironically, the whole question of faith is often rendered boring by Christian filmmakers, if only because believers aren't racked by doubt like the rest of us. Which is why I'll take Michael Tolkin's The Rapture or Agnieszka Holland's The Third Miracle--movies where the lead characters have to wrestle with their faith--over Left Behind any day of the week.
I'd also--God help me--take Armageddon, which didn't have much to say about theology but sure knew how to end the world. With its $17.4 million budget, Left Behind has to leave a lot to the imagination, and at least one true believer is disappointed. Tim LaHaye, co-author of the Left Behind novels, has sued Cloud Ten (and Namesake Entertainment), claiming breach of contract. When he sold the rights to the series' first two volumes, LaHaye says, he was promised a $40 million budget for the first film and a theatrical release before Jan. 1, 2000, in order to capitalize on millennial fever. Over a year later, with the first film lagging at the box office, it remains to be seen whether the Second Coming will have a second coming.