An apocalypse lurches out of Hollywood about twice a month. The Apocalypse, though, is a rarer beast. “Left Behind,” the first in what promises to be a number of films adapted from the popular series of evangelical Christian novels about the end times, might be an attempt by the producers to spread the Good News to the unwashed before it’s too late. It might also be an attempt to hook a good portion of the world’s 2 billion Christians for $12.50 plus a bucket of popcorn. (The books have sold upwards of 65 million copies and the early-2000s direct-to-video adaptations starring Kirk Cameron haven’t done so badly either.) Probably—surely—it is both.
The story, spun out of a few pregnant verses of the New Testament, centers on "the Rapture," the first event of the world's end according to a popular interpretation of the Bible. For those who don't know, during the Rapture, God will allegedly snap up all of the world's truly believing Christians "in the twinkling of an eye" (1 Corinthians 15:52) to live with him "in the clouds" (1 Thessalonians 4:17) while the rest of the world literally goes to hell. Those transported to paradise include (spoiler alert, I guess) our protagonist Chloe Steele's born-again mother, Irene, and little brother, Raymie. Above the strong objections of Dante, Calvin, and James Dobson, the writers have allowed virtually all children, baptized or not, early admission to heaven.
Those left behind include Chloe's father, Ray Steele (Nicholas Cage), Ray's sort-of girlfriend Nicky Whelan (Hattie Durham), and of course, Chloe herself (Cassi Thomson).
As this might suggest, the Steele family is a bit of a mess. Chloe's mother has recently found Jesus, opening a rift between her and the rest of the family and leading Ray, an airline pilot, to pursue an affair with Nicky, a flight attendant. When Chloe flies home from college, hoping to heal the rift, she finds that her father and Nicky are off to a U2 concert in London. Luckily—but then providential universes and Hollywood scripts both defy coincidence—Chloe and Ray meet in the airport to exposit the whole soap opera. And Chloe finds time in this same 20 minutes to meet Cameron "Buck" Williams (Chad Michael Murray), a celebrity investigative journalist who swoops her up with Rapture-like suddenness. Buck, having secured the digits, also happens to be on Ray's flight. So ends the exposition.
Soon comes the Rapture, throwing the whole world, both up in the air and here below, into chaos. Piles of clothing mark the departure points of the devout. Sinful mothers bewail their vanished babies. The cars and planes of the blessed turn to shrapnel. Calm and courageous unbelievers, including Ray, Buck, and Nicky, attempt to stem off panic. The confused and despairing, including Chloe, contemplate ending it all. (You'd think that such a strong proof of the Abrahamic God's existence would discourage suicide.)
That this is a movie is almost beside the point. It might be judged on script, cinematography, and acting. The writing is (pardon) holey, particularly at the outset; some scenes, particularly the parent-child ruptures and reunions, can't help but be affecting; and the enigma Nicholas Cage, lone practitioner of the American kabuki method, marches on. But what makes this film important is that for many Americans it isn't fiction at all. Christians are unlikely to treat this film, as many did Mel Gibson's "Passion," as truth-on-celluloid. After all, "ye know neither the day nor the hour wherein the Son of man cometh" (Matthew 25:13). But as anyone who has seen an "in case of rapture this car will be unmanned" bumper sticker can attest, many will view this film as a fictional rendering of a future fact. Here imagination and reality, which we are so often encouraged to strictly distinguish, are unusually intimate.
What does this say about our moment? It is a good time to acknowledge that, as much as we fear apocalypse, many of us (perhaps, deep down, most of us) also desire it. This is as true of secularists as of believers. Perhaps we think the end is inevitable—best to get it over with. Perhaps we romanticize a return to nature, a sloughing off of our technological and vehicular dependences. (Any "Naked and Afraid" fans out there?) Perhaps we think life on earth is better off without us. During the last extended financial crisis in America, movies reflected a common fantasy of ease and wealth. Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers dream-danced in immaculate tails and heels. Now we dream of apocalypse. Both are revealing escapes. It's not enough to say that the former was an era of hopes, this of fears. Apocalypse too is a hope. And given how things are going, this hope is, in its way, quite reasonable.