The world is ending, billions will die, and hell is, literally, coming to Long Island. But the rebooted Left Behind doesn't want to alarm you.
Fourteen years ago, as a new millennium's arrival failed to extinguish our doggedly persistent universe, the first Left Behind movie introduced a slithery Antichrist — a U.N. official, of course — and the prospect of global war centered on Jerusalem. Just last month, The Remaining treated the fundamentalist-Christian notion of "the rapture" as a horror movie, littered with the corpses of born-againers whose souls had been called to heaven.
The second attempt to create a successful movie franchise from the 16 best-selling Left Behind novels takes a gentler approach. The departed abandon only their clothing, not their carcasses. And no demons are glimpsed in a tale that focuses tightly on the family of airline pilot Ray Steele (Nicolas Cage). As Ray tries to land a disabled jetliner whose co-pilot is now chilling with the man upstairs, his challenges derive less from the Bible (1 Thessalonians 4:17, in particular) than from such moldy disaster flicks as 1969's Airport.
For those who missed this particular end of the world the last time it didn't happen, Left Behind is based on a series of sectarian thrillers by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins. Adapting the books to the screen began in 2000, but the movies didn't click even as straight-to-church-auditorium fare, and stopped at three. The producers of the latest round of adaptations have also promised three, not a full 13.
The revamped but still clunky saga begins as Ray prepares to fly from JFK to London by removing his wedding ring. He's estranged from his wife (Lea Thompson) since she became a rapture-ready Christian, and is hoping to spend some time with a sexy flight attendant once they land. This carnal design has so warped his judgment that he has decided to skip a family reunion with daughter Chloe (Cassie Thomson), who has returned from college just to see him.
Chloe visits her dad briefly at the airport, and while there meets famed daredevil journalist Buck Williams (Chad Michael Murray), who will also be on that flight to London. Then she takes her little brother to the mall, where break dancers bust some moves that are as fluid as the dialogue is stiff. This protracted setup moves about as briskly as the first three hours of Boyhood.
Finally, the righteous vanish and the rest are left to ponder their disappearance. Chloe searches for her sibling and mom, both of whom are no longer in this world; her dad flies the damaged plane while piecing together the religious significance of what just happened.
In first class, Williams deals with unruly fellow travelers selected for their comic-relief value. Among the passengers is a pistol-packing sports-star spouse played by American Idol champ Jordin Sparks, who sings the end-credits ditty, "I Wish We'd All Been Ready." Viewers will wish that director Vic Armstrong and scripters Paul Lalonde and John Patus had been ready, too.
The movie climaxes with Ray's attempt to land the plane, an utterly nontheological struggle. This section of the movie is adequately staged, if not exactly surprising. Its emphasis on real-world rather than supernatural threats is shrewd, but sooner or later the new Left Behind series will have to focus on its source's real agenda. At that point, the potential audience will evaporate faster than Chloe's kid brother.