Without a Prayer

When did religious entertainment become synonymous with low-budget crap? In the 1950s and '60s, the most expensive films weren't sci-fi flicks or action movies: they were blockbuster biblical epics like Ben-Hur, King of Kings and The Ten Commandments. These weren't pitched to niche audiences; these were solid mainstream, mass-market entertainments—Oscar bait! —with A-list talent before and behind the cameras.

But by the 1970s, religious movies were pitched primarily at the same audience that turned out for Bigfoot documentaries and The Lincoln Conspiracy. It was a long way down from Max von Sydow in 1965's The Greatest Story Ever Told to John "The Guy Meredith Baxter Dumped on Family" Rubinstein in 1980's In Search of Historic Jesus.

And it's a longer drop still to Kirk Cameron fighting the Antichrist in Left Behind: The Movie, a flat wedge of Jesus cheese hobbled by blah filmmaking and shoddy production. This innocuous straight-to-video thriller, a PaxNet rendering of the Rapture, reportedly cost $17 million—which sounds like an impressive amount until you realize Hollywood sank almost four times that amount into the Scientologist silliness of Battlefield Earth.

What matters, though, is that none of the $17 million seems to have gone into the factors that would produce a first-rate film, such as imagination or artistry. The chintziness is doubly hard to understand, since Left Behind is based on Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins' blockbuster Christian-apocalypse novels. The books have sold tens of millions of copies on the strength of their what-if depiction of Judgment Day and its aftermath.

Given the built-in audience, you'd expect more care given to this tale of the onset of Rapture, which leaves globetrotting newsman Cameron, square-jawed pilot Brad Johnson and other unfortunates to endure the agonies foretold by biblical prophecy. Instead, the movie offers substandard computer effects; drab, expository writing; and flat acting from a C-list cast. Johnson, a bar-coded leading-man type, isn't bad, but Cameron's blank earnestness would actually work better for the Antichrist. Unfortunately, that wouldn't fit the role as conceived: a sinister Central European peacenik named Nicolae Carpathia, whose mustache-twirling name is about as subtle as the movie gets. And the director, Victor Sarin, is the kind of filmmaker who puts computer-generated datelines on the screen to register each new locale. If he were filming the crucifixion, he'd slap on a label reading, "Calvary, 2:30 p.m."

Despite the cornball right-wing sermonizing about demon humanitarians, the story could make a great movie. I kept imagining a director like David Lynch or John Carpenter imposing style and vision on unsettling images of cars left driverless and seats filled with empty suits. But the empty suits behind this movie treat Christian audiences as if they've never seen a movie before, and should therefore be thankful for what they get. If those audiences turn out in droves for this second-rate straight-to-video mush, they'll have only themselves to blame for not getting any more Ben-Hurs.

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