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Right Behind Ya

So I’m watching Mars Needs Women on one of those goofily named cable channels in the upper four hundreds and a few minutes into this thing I realize the flaw in the premise.

You're all familiar with this film, correct? Seen it a thousand times no doubt. It begins banally enough: there's a couple playing tennis, a couple out to dinner, then suddenly poof! people start disappearing. And not just any people: women people. What's going on? Where did they go? Who is responsible? (It's 1967, mind, so there's a lot of big hair. Is that a clue?)

As Dop, a medical missionary from the Red Planet, explains it, "A critical recession in the Y chromosomes in our genetics has resulted in a preponderance of male births over female." Hence, Mars needs women. And not just any women: five volunteers, unmarried, in good health, "possessing the common indicators(1) of fertility and reproduction," and, presumably, open to new experiences (this is the sixties after all).

So the whole thing is neatly explained in the first ten minutes of the film.

Except it's not.

Call it an unwarranted assumption on the part of the filmmakers, although, in this case, it may just be a language problem. I don’t know if the Martian word for need possesses all the connotations it enjoys in English. After all, there are different degrees of neediness, depending on context.

I need a hug. I need a lawyer. I need a kidney.

Granted, it is conceivable that someone could need all three if, say, his kidney had been stolen by pirates.

The point is, it's difficult to come to terms with the need for women on Mars before it's explained how women came to be on Mars in the first place. Or men for that matter. Or how Martian men could reproduce with Earth women when Dop and his crew can't even consume human food. And seeing as there's a 100:1 imbalance in the ratio of space men to women, will five Earth women do it? And since it's the male who determines the sex of the child, how is this solving anything? What if all the women give birth to boys who carry the same genetic defect that got Mars in this fix to begin with?

Plus, why Bubbles Cash?

I say all that to say this: explanations that explain nothing are key to deconstructing a film like Left Behind, starring Nicolas Cage and Lea Thompson, which opened in theaters nationwide on Friday.

Why review a Left Behind movie? Isn’t it a bit like shooting fish in a barrel (something I’ve done only once with dubious results)? Isn’t this just an opportunity to snark away at an innocent attempt to bring wholesome faith-based entertainment into the googolplex alongside such acts of degeneracy as Dolphin Tale 2? Who are you to spit your East Coast privilege all over family fare?

What’s with all the questions? Do I come to your place of business and harangue you? Good gravy and a Gucci handbag, calm down.

Before I can explain how I found myself shelling out eleven bucks for a ticket and sixty-five dollars for boxed comestibles, I have to provide some background. This will take a while. Please be patient. Any ignatz can scramble together 750 words and bake an easily digestible review. But I have a process. If I don’t work through my process, I suffer serious emotional and physical distress. My doctor says it’s just acid reflux, but my doctor also has a chart illustrating which parts of the body can be consumed safely if cooked to a core temperature of 180 degrees, so who are you going to believe?

It was a dark and stormy night. I was surfing the cable television when I innocently discovered something bloodcurdling that wasn’t Two Broke Girls or every new show on FX.

I had HBO.

I did not order HBO. I did not want HBO. So I decided to call someone who could hopefully rid me of HBO.

Now I should explain that I grew up in an “ethnic” neighborhood in Queens, New York, in the supposedly bad old days of the melting pot, when first- and second-generation immigrants from different lands lived in relatively close quarters and in relative peace. Now we’re multicultural. And the old ethnic slurs have proved inadequate to truly express the resentments and enmities that our enlightened age has managed to foment in the name of a global community of diverse equals.

Anyway, back in the day, when you talked about a business, you referred to it by the name of the owner. Hey, I’m going to pick up some milk at Dominic’s. Get the bread fresh from Klaus’s. I’m at Mrs. Wu’s—you want anything?

I have carried this quaint custom over into adulthood. When I call customer service, I always ask to speak with, for example, Mr. HellmanMr. Mallomar, Mr. Smith, Mr. Wesson.

Like that.

Sure, people make fun of me, but I make fun of people, so it’s pretty much a wash.

As it happened, Mr. Verizon was “not available.” Neither was Mr. Fios.

So I settled for Kevin.

Kevin: How can I help you today?
Me: I have HBO.
Kevin: Is it not working?
Me: I have HBO.
Kevin: Did you order something else? Showtime…?
Me: I did not order HBO. I do not want HBO.
Kevin: Allow me to review your account. Could I have your date of birth and address for verification purposes?
Me: No.
Kevin: Sir, I can’t access your account without—
Me: You could be one of those Russian hackers I saw on the news trying to give me HBO.
Kevin: Sir, I … I …

This went on for about 15 minutes. He said something, then I said something, then he said something. Next thing I knew I was trapped in one of those newfangled “conversations” that are all the rage with kids these days.

Kevin: It says here you renewed your two-year contract recently. As our way of saying thank you, you now have twelve months of HBO free. It’s a gift.
Me: But I didn’t get you anything.
Kevin: Have you checked out the gritty new original HBO series The Knick, starring Clive Owen?
Me: The Knick is just House set at the turn of the century. House was just Sherlock Holmes set at the turn of another century. In fact, everything is just Sherlock Holmes set somewhere and sometime, except The Ed Show, which is Vampire's Kiss set in a juvenile detention center.
Kevin: You’re free to cancel in just twelve months.
Me: If I wanted to be immersed in savagery, perversion, and nihilism, I would have gone to a state college. I don’t want HBO.

So I have HBO. And lo and behold, there’s this show, The Leftovers. The series follows the denizens of a small town as they react to a Rapture-like event. People just disappear for no rhyme or reason. Who is left behind and who has been “taken” and why are great mysteries. Debates rage. People and dogs act up. There is profanity. It's HBO.

Shortly thereafter, This Is the End, starring the ubiquitous Seth Rogen and James Franco, came on. It’s an apocalyptic comedy starring a bunch of Hollywood types playing themselves trying to figure out where everyone went and what’s going on after, again, another Rapture-like event. There is profanity and hippie humor, and the moral (if you can call it that) is pretty much be less selfish and you too will be whisked off to Paradise where you can party like the Rat Pack’s half-wit nephews.

So you see, the Rapture is sort of in the air. (crickets)

Could this mean something? Should I be preparing? What do I believe about the End?

Hence, seventy-six simoleons to see Left Behind.

For those of you uncertain as to what exactly all this Rapture rap refers to, allow me to present a little background from the Summa of our Digital Age:

The term “Rapture” is used in at least two senses. In the pre-tribulation view, a group of people will be left behind on earth after another group literally leaves “to meet the Lord in the air.” This is now the most common use of the term, especially among fundamentalist Christians and in the United States. The other, older use of the term "Rapture" is simply as a synonym for the final resurrection generally, without a belief that a group of people is left behind on earth for an extended Tribulation period after the events of 1 Thessalonians 4:17. This distinction is important as some types of Christianity never refer to "the Rapture" in religious education, but might use the older and more general sense of the word "rapture" in referring to what happens during the final resurrection.

There are many views among Christians regarding the timing of Christ's return (including whether it will occur in one event or two), and various views regarding the destination of the aerial gathering described in 1 Thessalonians 4. Denominations such as Roman Catholics, Orthodox Christians, Lutheran Christians, and Reformed Christians believe in a rapture only in the sense of a general final resurrection, when Christ returns a single time. They do not believe that a group of people is left behind on earth for an extended Tribulation period after the events of 1 Thessalonians 4:17.

Authors generally maintain that the pre-tribulation Rapture doctrine originated in the eighteenth century, with the Puritan preachers Increase and Cotton Mather, and was then popularized in the 1830s by John Darby. Others, including Grant Jeffrey, maintain that an earlier, 373 A.D. document called Ephraem or Pseudo-Ephraem already supported a pre-tribulation rapture.

Regardless, pre-tribulation rapture theology was popularized extensively in the 1830s by John Nelson Darby and the Plymouth Brethren, and further popularized in the United States in the early 20th century by the wide circulation of the Scofield Reference Bible.

That “Scofield” in the "Scofield Reference Bible" is arguably the most influential American “theologian” of the twentieth century, C.I. Scofield. (Note my arguably.) Those scare quotes around "theologian" are there to protect you (really me) in the event you Google ole C.I. only to discover that his character does not exactly evoke rainbows and kittens, and his theological schooling was of the Draw This Cowboy variety.

As for John Nelson Darby, he is generally regarded as the father of the dispensationalism disseminated by Scofield via his Study Bible. Dispensationalism is defined by one source thus:

Dispensationalism teaches that there have been a variety of dispensations or administrations throughout history. At the heart of the differing dispensations have been different methods or ways that God has dealt with His people. According to Scofield, a dispensation is “a period of time during which man is tested in respect of obedience to some specific revelation of the will of God” ... Scofield listed seven dispensations: Innocence, Conscience, Human Government, Promise, Law, Grace, and the Kingdom.

Dispensationalism’s unique contribution to theology is the belief that God treats or judges people differently in each dispensation. God’s treated people differently during the dispensation of Conscience than He did during the dispensation of Innocence, different during the dispensation of Promise than during Human Government, different during the dispensation of the Grace than the Law. This view is, however, contrary to historic, orthodox Christianity (what has been understood to be historic, orthodox Christianity until the Modern Age, that is).

Predictions as to the exact date of the Rapture picked up speed with the creation of the state of Israel, which many dispensationalists believed started the countdown to Armageddon. Hal Lindsey’s 1970 book-like product The Late Great Planet Earth sold a hundred million billion trillion copies and scared the bejeepers out of a generation, making Lindsey quite wealthy, as scaring people has a habit of doing. Pat Robertson also added to his coffers by threatening Armageddon in the 1980s, with 1988 a key year, given that it was one biblical generation after the modern Jewish state’s founding (see Matthew 24:34 for a reference point).

Needless to say, we’re still here (or at least I’m still here; if you’re gone I may be in bigger trouble than I thought). And so are Lindsey, and John Hagee, and Jack Van Impe, and lots of End Times ministries. There’s no quicker road to big profits than working it as a false prophet.

Speaking of geetis, enter Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins (an evangelist and a novelist, respectively), who in 1995 published Left Behind: A Novel of the Last Days. It sold well enough to spawn 15 sequels and all kinds of merch. Apparently, pew sitters were becoming complacent, and nothing stirs up anxiety about the imminent end of the world than a really bad book climbing up the bestseller lists.

Full disclosure: I have not read a single sentence of any part of the LaHaye/Jenkins oeuvre, so I cannot account for its literary quality. I assume it is just left of Ikea assembly instructions. (Though that may be unfair. For all I know LaHaye and Jenkins display an impressive prose style matched only by Melville’s in his parody of the Jonah story.)

Left Behind film series starring that annoying kid from Growing Pains was produced in the early oughts, and was pretty much relegated to a niche market of fundamentalist(2) Christians and lovers of kitsch. But you can’t keep a good Wrath of God story down, and so producer/screenwriter Paul Lalonde teamed up with none other than Willie Robertson of Duck Dynasty fame to turn the production values up to 11 and give a Big Screen rendering of the Rapture another go.

The film begins in an airport, which is a fine way to begin a movie about being whisked away. Chloe (Cassi Thomson) is coming home from college to celebrate her airline-pilot dad’s birthday. Unfortunately, he won’t be there. Nope, not because of that, but because he would prefer to fly to London than spend any more time than is necessary with his newly Born Again wife (Lea Thompson).

Chloe, too, is none too thrilled with mom’s other-worldly fixation, as evidenced by the terms of endearment she employs when referring to momsy, like “crazy” and “wacko.”

Also in the airport terminal is World Famous Photo-Journalist Buck Williams (Chad Michael Murray), whom Chloe saves from one of those screachy Born Againers, who is trying to convince the intrepid world traveler that all those wars and disasters he captures with his Nikon are signs of impending divine judgment. Chloe puts Miss Confess to Impress in her place with a few unanswerable questions about why 227,898 people died in the 2004 tsunami while others live to spend $13 million on weddings in Venice, and how God, if he really is sovereign, is ultimately responsible for all the awfulness we lay on Adam for his poor food choices.

The World Famous Photo-Journalist, unlike Lou Grant, does not hate spunk and begins to chat Chloe up, when whom should she spy out of the corner of her eye but Pilot Dad (Nicolas Cage), who is obviously hot for a young blonde flight attendant. Chloe’s no dummy and puts two and two together and gets adultery. Dad denies such ickiness, although he explains that he and the wife married young and that people go through “changes.” He also understands that Chloe’s upset with mom’s constant evangelizing but she should cut her some slack, her being an authority figure and all.

But the plane to London is leaving, and Pilot Dad has to split—as does Buck Williams, who is booked on the very same flight.

Chloe, dejected, heads home. Mom is egregiously glad to see her, so glad, in fact, that she proceeds to harangue her daughter about the end of the world, driving Chloe out of the house and to the local mall, little brother Raymie in tow. (It quickly becomes evident that environments where there are lots of different kinds of people mulling about is very important for the full Rapture effect.)

Meanwhile, back in the sky, we are introduced to the passengers of that flight being steered by Pilot Dad. We have an Elderly Couple, the female member of which seems to suffering some kind of dementia; a Nice Muslim; a Mean Dwarf; a Coke Addict; a Workaholic Businessman; the Wife and Daughter of a Famous Football Player; and of course Buck Williams, World Famous Photo-Journalist.

In other words, a Ship of Fools.

And then it happens. As Chloe and her brother are strolling through the mall, suddenly, in a flash, little Raymie, like those those big-haired gals in Mars Needs Women, is poof. The LBMG (Left Behind Movie God) has gone all Penn & Teller on the kid. His clothes are still there, crumbled in a ball at Chloe’s feet. As are the clothes of dozens, no thousands, no millions of people around the world. (What would these movies do without knock-off CNNs playing on TVs lodged in every nook and cranny.)

As expected when people disappear without so much as a howdy-do, cars are suddenly driverless, schoolbuses plunge into ravines, mothers the world over are left distraught and zombie-like. If there is one constant in the identity of who got swooped, it’s that they were kids(3): babies and small children of every race, creed, and color have suddenly vanished, like it’s Italy or something.

As for that plane—oy. Such a ruckus you’ve never heard. That Football Player’s Daughter—poof. The elderly gentleman who was by all lights responsible for his ailing wife’s care—he’s gone. (Now what does that mean?) A couple of obese people, for reasons that are also never made clear. Oh—and the copilot’s gone too.

Wackiness ensues.

Nicolas Cage, he’s still there, of course, lying hound dog that he is. As is his flight-attendant would-be mistress. And, of course, the Mean Dwarf, the Drug Addict, and (interfaith types take note) the Nice Muslim.

As a baffled Chloe races home to find her little brother and check on mom, she is witness to all manner of mayhem on the streets. People are running amok, and if you knew how expensive such an enterprise is, your eyes would be agog right now. Robberies, muggings, shootings, crying, screaming: think New York in the 80s.

Of course, Chloe’s mom, the Crazy Lady, has been sucked into the sky, along with little bro. Slowly something begins to dawn on the teen about what’s going on (hint: she sees Mom’s Bible on a night table, which she tosses through a window—the Bible, not the table).

As for  Pilot Dad, he's having a helluva time keeping everyone calm and getting that big bird back on terra firma without navigational help and no response from the Tower and one wing on fire from a near collision with another pilot-light plane. And the passengers are becoming fried trying to conjure an explanation for what has happened. How do people disappear from a plane in midair? Could this be the work of those darn Martians? Terrorists? Is this an alternate-space-time-dimension thingee? Then, finally, yes—the Drug Addict nails it. It’s the LBMG.

It’s all beginning to make sense.

Only not really.

The rest of this mess plays out like a made-for-TV disaster movie from the 1970s. Not quite Airplane!, to be fair, but not Airport either. Maybe closer to the movie Airplane! was based on, Zero Hour!

Who will be saved? More important, who will be Saved?

I stopped caring about the time my Sno-Caps ran out.

Let’s start with a couple of positives. The performances are professional, even remarkable for their earnestness. I have no doubt that Cassi Thomson will go on to have a robust acting career and shake her head one day when discussing her early work. The first couple of scenes are well executed, with relatively naturalistic dialogue and the perspective of unbelievers emphasized, almost as if the film were being made by someone who should be Left Behind.

But the acting job that manages to keep this exercise in incredulity from flying into a million tiny pieces is that of Nicolas Cage, whom the producers should thank their LBMG for agreeing to take this gig. Cage is as good as you can expect given what he has to work with, which isn’t much. A lot of credible incomprehension, restrained terror, and the shock of recognition. It almost plays like a prequel to Leaving Las Vegas, in which we finally find out why he’s drinking himself to death.

(As for why a star of Cage’s stature would take this role in the first place, money comes to mind. But then I read this: he has a pastor brother.)

But as I argued in my review of Atlas Shrugged III: More Trapezius Movement, regarding the appeal of such a venture, if you’re already a True Believer, it doesn’t matter whether this is The Ten Commandments or The Three Amigos. The fact that it was made, that it made it past the Big Screen gatekeepers, that the fear of imminent divine mayhem is being presented in the same aspect ratio as The Equalizer, is a victory.

But what if you’re not one of the enraptured, at least not in the dispensationalist’s construal of the Christian faith? Does Left Behind at least work as an entertainment, as an edge-of-your seat amusement ride?

Let’s put it this way: as a disaster film, the film is a disaster. It forgot the “thrilling” part of apocalyptic thriller. There is no wit and little imagination (although there are a couple of chuckles courtesy of the Mean Dwarf). And it doesn’t even allow you to approach the ju-ju like you did the Force in Star Wars, which was, let’s face it, a pretty ridiculous film itself. (Don’t look at me like that: it featured a talking garbage can, Sasquatch, Tom Sawyer in hospital whites, Princess Cinnabons, a villain dressed like a nineteenth-century illusionist, and line readings as wooden as any found in recent hearings about IRS corruption.) But at least old Obi Wan managed to expound the immanentist gnosticism that informs the Jedi belief system. In Left Behind, this Christianity to which characters occasionally allude seems terribly vague, demanding only that one be prepubescent or in-your-face obnoxious to get that ticket to ride.

The marketing materials for Left Behind emphasize that the film “will change lives.” I sincerely doubt that. Just as in Mars Needs Women, Left Behind's "explanations," such as they are, explain absolutely nothing. This film assumes way too much about the audience’s familiarity with the theological backstory. And whereas the Force of Star Wars was credible in the context of the world Lucas created, the “God” of Left Behind is, well, it’s never made clear what exactly he is. He's just another kind of force, a vacuum cleaner of sorts who pulls “clean” people out of the dirty shag pile of a sin-stained world. The characters can't even get their story straight about what exactly His character consists of. “The God my mother talked about would never do this!” screams Chloe at one point. But Pilot Dad insists that this is exactly what his wife used to talk about. So go figure. "God" here is treated like just another character, but one that is never fully realized. There is no theological narrative, no Gospel message, no context to any of this doom and broom.

And whose God is this anyway? Remember the Nice Muslim? As everyone on the plane is reaching for the Xanax, he advises that they pray. The Mean Dwarf is having none of it, being a mean empiricist too. Whose God would they be praying to exactly? The Nice Muslim seems to believe there is only one God. But if that’s the case, why is this devout man … oh you know.

In short, Left Behind fails even on its own proselytizing terms. Unless you’re already in the Rapture-ready camp, it’s unclear what exactly you’re being asked to believe. (Chloe’s mom’s pastor got Left Behind because, he says, you have to really believe, whereas he only mouthed words. But again, believe in what is never made clear.) There’s the occasional shot of a Bible, a fanatic spitting out a verse from the Gospel of Matthew — and in an airport, no less, where the Hare Krishna once famously plied their trade. Jesus is mentioned maybe twice. Pilot Dad spies “John 3:16” engraved on his copilot’s watch. He notes the phrase “Bible Study” in someone’s diary.

We’re supposed to understand implicitly that the only way God could "protect" the special ones, the believers, from the chaos to come was by pulling them out of their socks, as opposed to just bringing human history to an inglorious end and chalking it all up to a few really bad millennia—or for that matter using hypnosis on His enemies, which Dop and his Martian comrades find far more effective, and ethical, than gross acts of violence.

You want your movie to preach the Gospel? Then it would be nice if you at least mentioned the Cross. Otherwise, leave the sermon for Sunday and tell a compelling storyLeft Behind does neither.

A lot has been written recently about the perdurance of millennium talk and the Rapture. This isn’t the forum in which to expound 2,000 years’ worth of Christian eschatological speculation. That’s more of a Twitter thing. But suffice it to say that critics, both Christian and non, have argued that the pre-tribulation, pre-millennial system gives Christians little motivation to invest much in the earthly Garden. Clean air, clean water, lower crime rates, higher employment: what do any of these matter when at any moment it could all be left to history's losers—and all the True Believers' troubles will vanish like Kirk Cameron's acting career? Some folks, in fact, have been quite nasty in their critique.

Whether or not the dispensationalists' interpretation of Scripture is correct or incorrect is not what this is about.(4) It's more about how their ideas have seeped into the general culture, and now even small corners of pop culture. And I am fascinated by the implications of technological advancement for this train of thought, which a more thoughtful film—one that relies on sophisticated technology for the dissemination of its ideas—might have addressed.

Great leaps in technological innovation are interpreted here as a sign of Antichrist’s coming reign. And that’s a good thing, actually, because it confirms the whole “knowledge will increase” prediction of Daniel 12:4 and that the End is near. So as the world “advances,” the clock ticks. Fundamentalists don’t have much invested in those advances, but they nevertheless need them, much like Mars needs women.

To say there’s a strange tension here would be an understatement, one that Left Behind has no interest in investigating, because it's clueless about its own internal contradictions.

It is often said that Christians are in the world but not of it. Many a young Christian raised in this theology is not even fully in the world, it would at least appear. She has one foot on a precipice, it seems. But many young fundamentalists regain their footing only by leaving behind these beliefs, unable to resolve or live with the cognitive dissonance of both fearing and craving a scientistic materialism that is harbinger of doom yet utterly necessary and divinely inspired.

Look, I get it that Christians are tired of being mocked (see Saved! or Paul or virtually anything written by Stephen King) and literally demonized as closet Satanists (see the laughably stupid True Detective—hey, Pizzolatto, if you want a real shocker of an ending, don’t haul out the Born Again preacher so early in the series—that’s always the tell).

But despite the recent spate of Christian-friendly alternatives (of widely varying quality), films like Left Behind reduce The Greatest Story Ever Told to little more than Sharknado. 

And I'm thinkin' that's a bad thing.

*************************************************************

(1) This is a family website, so I will leave it to your imagination to discern what such "common indicators" would mean. Only know that one of the women the Martians are seeking out is Yvonne Craig, who played Batgirl in the old Batman TV series, when camp was cool. She does play a scientist, however, one who wrote a book on space genetics, so there's that.

(2) By "fundamentalist," I mean only this: those Christians who affirm the fundamentals, as spelled out in a 12-volume series of books published a hundred or so years ago. They are generally speaking six-day creationists and dispensationalists. Many writers on religion make a distinction between fundamentalists and evangelicals more broadly. To some this is a distinction without a difference. Others beg to differ.

(3) In Arminian theology, the sin of Adam is not imputed to children by nature. In fact, not until they reach "the age of reason" are children held responsible for "sin," as this is understood to be the point at which the demands of the moral law can be truly understood. Thus, all children who die before this nebulous age go straight to heaven. I find this idea extremely compelling. But I also found Joannie Loves Chachi extremely compelling, so I'm almost certainly wrong.  (This doctrine, it should be noted, is nowhere explained in the film.)

(4) As that Wiki excerpt noted, and just to reemphasize, theirs is the minority report in church history. But as we saw in Minority Report, costarring the delightful Samantha Morton, that doesn't necessarily mean they're wrong.

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