Friday, April 16, 2004

Left Behind: the Movie, the Phenomenon, the Way of Life... and Christian Hotties

The biggest difference between Left Behind and The Omega Code is probably reducible to a single word: Rapture. Even though Hal Lindsay believes in the Rapture, there's no rapture in The Omega Code. Just as well – given the other elements of the plot, it would have only complicated matters unnecessarily.

What is the rapture, you may be asking? Certain varieties of fundamentalism hold, in addition to the standard stories about every person taking the Mark of the Beast, the Anti-Christ taking over and rebuilding the Solomon's Temple, and the like, that faithful Christians (and often children) will all be raptured. For Christians, the notion of “rapture ” is a relatively new one, first surfacing in the wake of the Protestant Reformation. It's never explicitly stated in the New Testament, but based on interpretations of 1 Corinthians 15:51-52, 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18, and Philippians 3:20-21, the idea is that after a failed Russian attempt to invade Israel, the End Times will begin in earnest when all faithful Christians and children literally disappear. God snatches them all up, body and soul, leaving behind their clothes and personal affects. In this way, believers are literally reunited with Jesus in the sky, while the rest of us will face the End Times on our own. That's when the whole rise of the Anti-Christ thing happens, and by the end of seven years, the Battle of Armageddon begins.

(A thought here: wouldn't it be embarrassing if, perhaps, to be a good Christian having godly sex with your lawfully wedded spouse, and the rapture happened right then? Yes, I'm being somewhat flippant, but I should note in passing that this was one of the main justifications for Shakerism, a well-known and influential religious movement in America during the 19th Century).

Since I have too little time to read books like the Left Behind series (it's, you know, kind of big, and I've been wanting to catch up on Dostoyevsky instead...), I can't comment about how much the movie departs from the book. The movie opens with Kirk Cameron, a well-known reporter for a CNN-like news network, reporting on the agricultural breakthroughs of an Israeli scientist named Chaim Rosenzweig. Rosenzweig's discoveries will allow for more food to be grown than ever before, even in the most arid of climates. But as Kirk interviews Rosenzweig, the sky darkens, and the fakest looking fleet of aircraft seen in film since Plan 9 From Outer Space's paper plates appears, bombing the holy heck out of Rosenzweig's crops and everything else in sight. But just as mysterious as the planes themselves, somehow the attack is thwarted, and the movie more or less claims later that it was God who halted the attack, saving the Israeli Air Force the trouble. (You know a movie is going to be bad when you have a Deus Ex Machina in the first five minutes!). The movie never explains what fallout occurs from this attack, and I only know that the attackers were Russian because I've read reviews of the books. (Indeed, the movie implausibly insinuates that the attackers were Arabs, and we're shown footage of fake airplanes flying over Iraq. Maybe Saddam gave the WMD to the Russians to use against Israel some day?) The negative consequences for Russia, or why they even attacked, is never explained. What role did the Arabs or Palestinians play? The movie immediately moves on, as if it was sort of duty-bound to present this little story along the way as character-development or back story or something.

Then we're introduced to a Chicago-based pilot named Rayford Steele, played by former Marlboro Man Brad Johnson. Steele is growing unhappy in his marriage, and is contemplating an affair with stewardess named Hattie. (Another trivia point – the actress playing Hattie starred on “Growing Pains” with Kirk Cameron. In real life, she's his wife, and an older woman, by six years.) Instead of sticking around for his son's birthday and his wife's nagging, he happily agrees to an extra flight to London. It's during this flight that the Rapture occurs, and turns the world upside down.

On the plane, like half the people on board vanish, leaving their clothes, glasses, dentures, and pacemakers. (This strikes me as so odd: if God has to take their physical bodies too, why not just take their clothes while He's at it? Why be so, no pun-intended, cheeky so as to nab them in the nude? Is He just trying to save people on funeral costs? That's awfully nice of Him, but I think if I were raptured, I'd either want my clothes or to just leave my body behind. There are other metaphysical oddities about this – Heaven, I would have thought, would be a purely spiritual place, so these physical bodies are kind of unnecessary. A physical heaven would be more like Mormonism's Planet Kolob, a far more physicalist conception than traditional varieties of Christianity. If Heaven is a physical place, why don't all people, Rapture or no Rapture, just have their bodies vanish when they die, like Yoda and Obi-Won Kenobi in Star Wars?).

Chloe Steele, played by Janaya Stephens, is supposed to be a 20-year-old college student, but she's actually 30. However old she is, she's a hottie.

Before the Rapture, Kirk Cameron seems to be a c)-type non-believer. We're never given any indication that Steele ever explicitly rejected faith, so he's an e)-type non-believer. Hattie is, I think, also an e)-type, though it's never really said what she thinks about religion. (Though dark clouds are on her horizon; somehow, she moves from her job as a stewardess to working for the United Nations, directly under Carpathia as he becomes Secretary-General.) We're also introduced to Steele's hottie, college-aged daughter Chloe. Oddly, it's her who chided him for not spending enough time with the family, though when the Rapture hits, she's left behind too. I'm guessing she's a c)-type non-believer; I'm guessing that, as a college-student, some Darwinian and atheist professors got to her. Maybe she also has shades of e)-type, because she's young, and college-aged students are supposed to be rebellious. Again, the book is probably more clear about this; books have a much easier time revealing motivations and internal thoughts than movies. Rosenzweig is obviously a d)-type non-believer, though as with Hattie, we don't get a clearer idea of what his motivations are.

The plane erupts in a panic as half the people on board vanish, and it's all Steele and Hattie can do to keep everyone seated and calm. Highway accidents and plane crashes occur world-wide as people vanish. It's never said whether the President was raptured, only that Air Force One crashed when its pilots crash. By the time Steele returns his home in Chicago (he decides to return the plane rather than continue to London), he finds his son and wife are gone. The country is placed under martial law. Kirk, who was on Steele's plane, can't make it to New York or London, so he is stranded at Steele's place as news reports pile up. Kirk Cameron has inside information about Carpathia that he suspects might have something to do with the disappearances.

Carpathia, with Kirk Cameron at his side, before he kills the crooked bankers: “No, really, I am the Anti-Christ! See how threatening I look? My vaguely Eastern European accent makes me extra creepy, no?”

About Carpathia. He's very young, in his early 30's, I think. (I seem to remember him being referred to as 33 – the age of Jesus at his crucifixion). He's kind of charismatic, I guess, but it's not explained how he acquires such a public stature so soon. Carpathia does have a cabal of bankers behind him, but compare this to the Omega Code's Michael York. York is a tycoon and philanthropist, and he's much older, in his 50's or 60's. You could see him as a Michael Bloomburg-type, or perhaps someone in the model of Rupert Murdoch, or more likely, Ted Turner. Carpathia, in contrast, just comes from out of obscurity. He's a popular political leader in Romania, we know this much. But shortly after the Rapture, he comes out with this ludicrous theory of radiation from nuclear weapons causing the mass disappearances. All the more reason, he says, that we have to get rid of our nukes now, and usher in a new era of world peace. No wonder Creationism remains popular in so many quarters! If fundamentalists think modern science is like this, I guess I can't blame them for their own crackpot ideas. But even crazier, Carpathia's popularity skyrockets, and he's named Secretary-General. (As in the Omega Code, the emblem of the United Nations is altered a bit here, and it looks more like a pentagram. Hmm... )

But if Carpathia's popularity is unexplained, as a villain, the movie at least doesn't make it obvious he's the Anti-Christ. At least, not at first. You know almost from the moment you see him that Michael York is the villain of the OC. I only knew Carpathia was the Anti-Christ because I've glanced at the books of this series. The movie initially gives you the idea that Carpathia is an utter tool, used by this cabal of bankers who have this conspiracy to gain control of the world's food supply. When Carpathia figures it out, he kills the two main guys behind it all in cold blood, in front of 10 of the world's top leaders, plus Rosenzweig, Hattie and Kirk Cameron. (Carpathia has some power of hypnotic suggestion – only Kirk Cameron, who just asked Jesus into his life, remembers the killing, but everyone else remembers what Carpathia told them to remember: that the two men killed each other after Kirk Cameron revealed the conspiracy.)

Rosenzweig and Kirk Cameron: “I'm not a Jew, but I play one on TV. And in good form, I work for the Anti-Christ!”

And that's really about it. Steele meets up with his preacher (who was left behind because he didn't really have faith – he does now), who explains that it was God who took everyone. Given the heavy literature on the rapture, I would've thought it'd be obvious. As Kirk Cameron finally finds a way to return to New York for the fateful meeting with Carpathia, he and pilot speculate on what all the people taken had in common – or what those who were left behind had in common. Look, I don't think it would've taken a rocket scientist to observe that 90% of Alabama vanished, while the populations of Europe, China, India and the Middle East were left mostly intact. Wouldn't the fact that every adult taken was a faithful Christian be, you know, just a small clue?

I realized there's actually a paradox at the heart, not only of this movie, but in the heart of Rapture eschatology. What happened to the fetuses? The movie does not say. The children are gone. But were the fetuses raptured as well? If they were left behind, this would be a devastating outcome for pro-life Christians, as the fetuses therefore wouldn't have souls. If they don't have souls that required salvation, then the doctrine of ensoulment at conception is bunk, and abortion would apparently be completely morally acceptable. If the fetuses were raptured, that would still be weird, though possibly a little easier to explain. But it would still be odd. Wouldn't that make God guilty of artificially interrupting pregnancies? In other words, wouldn't that make God an... abortionist? Or guilty of the new federal Violence Against Fetuses Act? It wouldn't be the first time that God played by a different set of rules than what he lays down for us. There's the Kierkegaard point about Abraham, so perhaps this is simply part of that same playbook. But more problematic might be the question of how much of the fetus God snatches. Does God take the zygotes? Does He also take the placentas and umbilical cords? What about fertilized eggs frozen in vitro? Are those taken too? And do these pregnant women just wake up non-pregnant? Or do their bodies still experience the hormones and other oddities of pregnancy as they would after an abortion?

As it happens, I do know what the book says about this: the fetuses do, in fact, disappear. As I explained above, this only increases the oddity of it all, and creates the real dilemma that God is an abortionist. (So would abortion be okay if he was...?) You could say, I suppose, that it's not abortion anymore than the Rapture murders the faithful Christians who were snatched up. The thing is, I recall Andrea Yates saying something strikingly similar. The world had grown sinful, she said, so she killed her five children that they may return to Heaven and not face the temptations of this corrupt world. And no Christians that I know of went on a limb to defend her actions as logical or moral. But if God does this, it's okay? In any event, God did bring an end to the life of every person on Earth, and ended the unborn lives of the fetuses. This would, I contend, make God the biggest mass murderer in history. Even if you want to argue that he was merely saving them all from a horrible fate of life under this dorky Romanian and his United Nations, he did end their lives on Earth. Perhaps God is a Benthamite Utilitarian, after all. Or since they all have immortal souls, maybe God didn't “kill” them all, strictly speaking. That would still make God guilty of mass kidnapping, at least of the children, who didn't have the option of choosing God's protection from the End Times.

Final Verdict

All in all, this is a delightfully bad movie, that is worth your time. Caveats: 1) Schmaltzy Christian rock, rap, and r'n'b. I cringed like few movies outside of Red Zone Cuba have been able to make me cringe when that came on. Keep to the standard movie orchestration, people! 2) Speaking of schmaltz, have you people ever heard of subtlety? The scenes where people gave themselves to Christ were so over the top that they made “Seventh Heaven” look like David Lynch. Contrast this with Tolkien. Christians trip over themselves to heap praise on Lord of the Rings for its supposedly Christian values and all, but note that not a single character prays or makes reference to deities of any kind. Left Behind would've benefited from that lesson.

And this isn't as bad as Michelle Greenberg at Salon makes it look. First, she overestimates how seriously this may be taken by the “right wing” – perhaps good chunks of the Religious Right, but the right wing includes a fair number of secular folks too. And Catholics, Jews, and a good number of sane Protestants too. She poisons the well to make it look like if they take the pro-Israel position on foreign policy, for example, they do for reasons laid out in these books.

So. See it. Enjoy the schmaltz, if you can bear it.