Aug 10, 2013

Anticipating the tone of the new Left Behind

"Some folks," said Nicolas Cage, star of the forthcoming remake of Left Behind, sometimes "think that we're not in on the joke."

He wasn't talking about Left Behind specifically. Cage was promoting his latest release, a serial killer story set in Alaska, and talking about his career. He talked about the Nic Cage memes, and critical responses to The Wicker Man, and his reputation generally. But could that comment could also apply to the Left Behind reboot?

Fan-produced promotional art
for the Left Behind remake
The filming of Left Behind, the blockbusting series of books that fictionalized an evangelical understanding of the imminent apocalypse, got started this weekend. It's been eight years since the third installment of the original series, a low budget affair that was panned by the few critics who bothered to review it. The series reboot has a bigger budget -- an estimated $15 million -- a mainstream distribution deal, more than 10,000 likes on Facebook, and a cast not associated with church basement movies or Christian television.

There's a good bit of information available about the forthcoming rapture remake, but one thing that isn't clear right now is what tone it will take.

Is there a joke here?

Is there a layer or level at which this will be all irony?

Perhaps the whole thing will be very serious, and ridiculous in that way. Certainly the previous Left Behind films were presented in that fashion, as B movies for youth group showings. Some of the same production people are involved.

There's some evidence, though, that the people making this movie are having fun with it. It's difficult to tell, but the question is there. Will the new Left Behind be a campy send-up of of the story that, as Yale English professor Amy Hungerford pointed out, has the aesthetics of an action flick and is occasionally oddly erotically charged?

It's possible this film will be more like Bubba Ho-Tep or Snakes on a Plane than the last Left Behind or, say, Fireproof.

For one thing, the co-author and originator of the ideas of the mega-bestselling evangelical apocalypse novels has said that he's read the script and he hates it. "It's probably the worst script I've ever read," LeHaye said to the Christian Post. "There is no redemptive value to this movie."

More fan-produced promotional art.
The remake will be released in 2014.
LeHaye has fought with the people making this movie before, though, and even took them to court over the last film. Perhaps the comment shouldn't be taken too seriously.

Part of what LaHaye might be reacting to is the constriction of the plot. Where the first book in the series tells of the rapture, the three main character's conversions, the rise of the Antichrist, and the organization of the new believers into a resistance movement, the remade film will reportedly only depict the rapture and the very immediate aftermath.

There's going to be a lot less exposition of premillennial eschatology and evangelical soteriology, a lot more action sequences.

Another bit of evidence is the choice of director, who's known not for his directing, but his stunt work. Vic Armstrong's autobiography is sub-titled The True Adventures of the World's Greatest Stuntman. He worked as Harrison Ford's stunt double in the Indiana Jones movies and has, more recently, been the stunt coordinator for the 2000 version of Charlie's Angels, Mission Impossible III, Mummy: The Tomb of the Dragon Emperor, and the 2005 version of War of the Worlds.

He has directed before, but it's been films like the decidedly B production Joshua Tree, about an ex-race car driver trying to prove his innocence, and Ethyrea, also slated for release in 2014, a film where "elemental warriors" attempt to take back the fantasy country of Ethyrea from an "evil queen and her army of nightmares."

His aesthetic tends towards B movies.

Then there's also Cage, who is, sometimes, something of a joke, a kind of walking send-up. See: Nicolas Cage losing his shit. The character Cage is playing was previously played by Ron Johnson, a former Marlboro Man who looks quite a bit like Mitt Romney, an acted the part with a similar sense of humor. The choice of lead could indicate a different approach. If one was going to make an over-the-top, are-they-serious version of the best-selling Christian fiction of the last century, Cage might be who you'd choose.

Certainly he would be who the anonymous snarky writer at Relevant would choose:
there is an extremely high likelihood that at this very moment Nicolas Cage is deep into character. In a descent as bottomless as the depths of the Atlantic’s mysterious Mariana Trench, Cage has plunged into the psyche of the man who is Rayford Steele. He is ascending to the ultimate peak of understanding, wherein his method acting draws its great power. On wings of a mighty eagle, soaring on the jetty of time, he grasps the blaze of Rayford’s consciousness. Summoning the courage of a lion, the cunning of the viper, the speed of 1,000 jaguars and the might of a silverback gorilla, he is becoming the hero our generation needs.
Cage might argue that he's in on the joke (and that his career is "not all cobras and flaming skulls"), but even if that's totally true, there is, a lot of times, a joke in what he's doing.

The other actors aren't as established as Cage, but could also work well in a film with a campy, self-aware B sensibility. The casting choices don't definitely indicate the film's tone. These are all serious actors, and could fit well in any number of blockbuster movies. But if you were going to make this movie tongue-in-cheek, these might also be the actors you would cast.

Chad Michael Murray was on Dawson's Creek. He's playing the character previously played by Kirk Cameron, an actor who has never appeared to believe his acting was a joke to be in on. Murray seems like his approach might not be as self-serious as Cameron's. One of Murray's recent roles was in The Haunting in Connecticut 2: Ghosts of Georgia.

The other scheduled star, Ashley Tisdale, is famous from High School Musical. Fans were recently invited to vote on this film's Facebook page for whether she should be blonde or brunette in the movie. She has quite a following, which has driven a lot of interest in the remake. Last weekend, the phrase "Left Behind Movie Will Be Epic" was trending on twitter. This was due to Tisdale's legions of fans tweeting and re-tweeing the phrase.
She has now dropped out of the film -- scheduling conflicts -- but the fact that she was cast and brought these fans to the film would seem to suggest the filmmakers are going for something different. Tisdale's is a different fan base than one would find for other evangelical films, probably. The audience for her work -- Scary Movie 5, the TV show Hellcats -- isn't typically thought of as the same audience that was curried for the previous version of Left Behind, the audience for The Blind Side, The Chronicles of Narnia, and Courageous.

There are other ways to interpret all this though.

Perhaps this is the filmmakers' attempts to reach people with this film who weren't reached with the last one. That, after all, was the substance of the dispute the film's producers had with the books' authors (which led to a lawsuit and a settlement that, incidentally, has much to do with the timing of this series re-boot). Last time, the filmmakers imagined the film as strictly for the Christian market, to be shown mostly to youth groups and in church basements. Now, they're imagining a big-budget, mainstream film, and you have this director, these actors, and a script that LaHaye hates.

That's the interpretation producer Paul Lalonde is offering. This Left Behind is different, he says, because what his company is doing with this film this time is meant for a mainstream audience. They're going for wide distribution. They're going mainstream. In an interview with Glenn Beck's news site The Blaze, Lalonde said,
We are certainly aiming this time to have more of a crossover movie. When we did the first 'Left Behind,' it was never an outreach. It was made by Christians for Christians … there was never an idea that we’re going to put this in the cineplex next to 'Spiderman' and compete for the same audience.
That seems like a plausible explanation for all the choices.

Maybe. Still, one wonders. Is this the set-up to a joke?

Isn't all this what someone says before producing a masterwork of awfulness (which maybe is self-conscious, maybe not)?

Even if LaLonde is entirely serious, and has the people and the skill to avoid an accidentally ridiculous film, there're some suspicion about the tone. At least some of those anxiously awaiting the new Left Behind -- who want the movie to come out and want to like the movie -- are afraid this will be a joke and that the joke will be on them.

A promotional poster designed by the studio.
The tone of promo material is inconsistent.
However many Tisdale fans there are, wondering what color her hair will be in the film, however many Cage fans there are, wondering what weird moans he'll make as Rayford Steele when the rapture happens, and however many ironic viewers this film might attack, there are still more than a few fans who're serious about this story, who are fans of the books and want to see a big screen adaptation that's faithful to the novels.

On the movie's official Facebook pages, these fans regularly comment. They offer up prayers for spiritual protection for the cast and crew, prayers for the quality of the product, and prayers that the evangelical apocalyptic message will come through.

These fans aren't coming to the film ironically.

One wrote on Wednesday, "I know it is fiction because it hasn't happened yet but everyone will see one day that this will come true! Jesus will take his Church(Bride) out of this World. It will be devestating to the World when this takes place!"

Another wrote a month ago, "I'm praying the rapture would have already taken place [by the time of the film's scheduled release] but if not and The Lord tarries, I'm there!!! Use this film Lord Jesus to draw many to you."

One woman has posted more-or-less same prayer repeatedly, almost every day, writing "May the Good Lord Bless and Keep all who are involved in this filming," and "May the good Lord pour his bowl of mercies upon the production, cast and crew of this movie." She has also urged others to pray, writing, "Let us all pray daily over this movie for the Hand of God to place many blessings on the cast and crew."

Those fans are praying because that's what they do when they care, but they're also praying because they're worried. On the Facebook page, this comes up again and again. Commenters are pleading with the producers not to mess it up and not to turn this into a joke. Some examples:
  • "Hopefully this is a serious take on the book and not some campy feel good movie."
  • "I hope it stays true to the script! To the Word of God!"
  • "My concern is that the stars are not professing believers. Without the Holy Spirit leading the production, it'll just be an action movie with apocalyptic references that won't be taken seriously."
  • "Remember only the Gospel can save the lost because God provided no other way but the Gospel! .... I hope to see a little apologetics too and I'm sure you know of some great sources for that such as  Frank Turek, Norman Geisler, Ravi Zacharias, etc."
  • "They better not screw this up!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!"
  • "I think they chose the wrong actors."
  • "I sure hope since hollywood thinks its great fun to mock God and His word ... the remake of Left Behind will stick to the Bible and not mock God."
It's hard to tell, at this stage, as the filming has just begun, but these suspicions that the film that's being made is something that won't be taken seriously, something that those involved in the making themselves aren't taking seriously, may be justified.

It could be that this movie is going to be a joke.

There's a sense, at least, a feeling out there, that the rapture reboot is going to accentuate and play with and play up the aspects of this story that seem particularly preposterous.

Left Behind, the remake, is due out next year.