Hey, everyone. "Moriarty" here with some Rumblings From The Lab.
What more could I contribute to a report as complete and clear as this? Miss DuPont... take it away.
I. PREAMBLE: FEARS ADDRESSED, PLUS A QUOTE
It's with some trepidation that I approach "Left Behind." In case you hadn't heard, it's the movie adaptation (directed by cinematographer and TV helmer Vic Sarrin) of this mega-selling Christian novel set during the Apocalypse; it's opening nationwide this Friday after trying to build "buzz" on home video.
Why the nervousness? Well, for one thing, I'm no shill for the faith. (Used to be; lapsed in college.) That said, I CERTAINLY don't want to write yet another tiresome rant against Christians. Seriously: Those who fashionably rail against any and all persons of faith as closed-minded bigots make about as much sense as people who argue that gun-rights advocates should be shot.
So I guess I'll approach "Left Behind" as a piece of genre fiction -- specifically, as "Apocalyptic Speculative Fiction," now a booming field in Christian publishing. In a recent essay in SCIENCE magazine, David Foster Wallace addressed "the problem of reviewing 'genre fiction'":
".... [It's] a type of narrative it's usually fair to call 'the sort of thing someone who likes this sort of thing is apt to like'.... [Still,] many successful books, from Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land to Ellroy's L. A. Confidential, use sort of perfunctory genre-conventions as scaffolding for what are really complex and essentially human dramas (i.e., for literature)."
So does "Left Behind" transcend its genre, becoming a "complex human drama"? Not really, no -- but for some reason I'm loath to dismiss it utterly. Read on and you'll see why.
II. THE UPSHOT
I'm both happy and sad to report that "Left Behind" plays like the first installment of a Sci-Fi Channel TV miniseries in which the heroes find religion.
I'm "happy" because, believe it or not, that piddling level of movie quality stands head and shoulders above most American Christian pop-culture products, which in my experience are almost uniformly shoddy. (I grew up on "contemporary Christian music," dear readers; I should know.) I'm also "happy" because Christians who can temper their expectations and handle a little violence will probably enjoy "Left Behind." It's semi-competent entertainment made expressly for them, you know?
Which leads me to why I'm "sad": To be blunt, Christians had the market on good art cornered just a few hundred years ago -- and now I have to be GLAD that they've finally made a movie that's RISEN to a Sci-Fi Channel level, with all the inherent logic flaws that implies? THIS from the people who brought you St. Peter's Cathedral!
I mean the following as constructive criticism: Christian filmmakers should be ashamed of themselves that their quality "ascent" has been this slow -- and that they have so far to go in terms of craft before they pull up alongside the "pagan" filmmakers they so roundly criticize. I'm not losing sleep over it or anything. I'm just saying to Christian filmmakers: Put up or shut up, you know?
III. WHY YOU MIGHT BE INTERESTED IN "APOCALYPTIC SPECULATIVE FICTION"
Because, pun intended, the Book of Revelations provides some hellacious source material for any mayhem-loving filmmaker. It's the Apocalypse, baby! It's got people flying into the clouds! Flaming mountains falling from the sky! Plagues! The weeping and gnashing of teeth! Weird, multi-eyed creatures! The Antichrist! God smiting the unwashed left and right!
(BTW, "Left Behind" only features the "people flying into the clouds" bit, and that's mostly implied. There's also some mild mayhem, and only a preliminary dash of Antichrist. There are like a dozen books to go in this series. Also, the budget seems to have been quite tiny.)
IV. ANYWAY, HERE'S THE STORY
The Rapture occurs -- in other words, something like 135 million Christians vanish into thin air, which plays hell with traffic. (Mostly off-camera) catastrophe ensues.
Parenthetical note on the Rapture: It's based on an interpretation of Biblical prophecy (but not the only interpretation, according to one Yale-educated pastor I know) that says God will take his Chosen to Heaven before a seven-year "Tribulation" kicks in.
The romance-novelishly named journalist Buck Williams (Kirk Cameron), the romance-novelishly named pilot Rayford Steele (Brad Johnson), a faithless pastor (Clarence Gilyard Jr.) and the rest of the world's population are "left behind" to scratch their heads and suffer. (Apparently, in the "Left Behind" universe, the "Left Behind" book and movie weren't released to tell them what happened.) Meanwhile, in a sort of evangelical "X-Files" subplot, Buck investigates an Art Bell-worthy conspiracy involving the UN, the world's food supply, two scheming bankers and a charismatic protÃ©gÃ© (Gordon Currie) who may not be what he seems. Naturally, everything ends up sort of tying together, and most of the protagonists are converted to Christianity by film's end.
VI. WHAT'S GOOD?
DISCLAIMER: I want to make it absolutely clear that these "props" are offered in context -- i.e., they're offered relative to the pap that's come before in this genre, which includes such reputed stinkers as "The Omega Code." To be perfectly blunt, I doubt that a sophisticated fantasy/sci-fi consumer would get much out of "Left Behind."
Still, it must be written: The performances are relatively subtle here. Say what you will about "Growing Pains" refugee Kirk Cameron, but he's aged well, exudes an earnest charm, and doesn't oversell a single line. (That said, he lacks a certain *gravitas* that I think a journalist requires, but hey -- he's a TV journalist.) And Brad Johnson (remember him from "Always"?) is solid within his limited range, particularly in conveying annoyance with his overtly Christian wife and grief over not taking her seriously until half his family vanishes. Also, Janaya Stephens is sort of adorable as Rayford Steele's nose-pierced daughter Chloe Steele (sorry, but I just love writing out all those ridiculous romance-novelish character names).
Which leads me to another "prop": The heroes of this Christian film have pieced noses, kiss women who aren't their wives, throw Bibles in disgust and knock over crucifixes. Also, characters are killed onscreen. I'm not saying that Christians need this sort of "prurience" in their fiction: I'm just saying it humanizes "Left Behind"'s characters and makes for a more charged drama. (It's always surprised me that, given the flawed characters and intense violence in the Bible, modern American Christians can't stand to put much of either in their pulp fiction. Read the Book of Judges sometime; it's like a Tarantino Biblical epic, I swear.)
Also, as with many Sci-Fi Channel TV movies, there are a couple of moments that bear watching: the sight of hundreds of fighter jets exploding and dropping out of the night sky over Jerusalem; an actually fairly creepy and sustained sequence in which the Antichrist reveals himself, then hypnotizes an entire room to cover his tracks.
VII. WHAT'S NOT SO GOOD?
Well, to torture the Sci-Fi-Channel-TV-movie metaphor a little more: As with those films, there's a certain illogical lightweightness to the proceedings that's genuinely frustrating -- especially given how far "Left Behind" otherwise elevates the pathetic Christian-thriller genre.
For example: Remember that planes-exploding-over-Jerusalem bit? Well, here's what happens around it, in deliriously short order: Buck Williams is filming a story on a new "miracle crop"; he and his interview subject see the fighter jets approaching Jerusalem; they take cover in a shack that, for reasons unexplained, houses a giant military ops center that looks like something out of "WarGames"; planes start blowing up for no reason; Buck Williams runs back outside with his camera and dish to film the mayhem; and, instantly, a room full of news-office techies are watching Buck's broadcast unfold on dozens of identical stacked screens.
Is this some sort of Israeli Air Force-funded "miracle crop"? Are cable-news personnel always sitting around in front of dozens of redundant screens, drinking coffee and waiting for unannounced live feeds? I could go on and on. It's just that sort of rapidly mounting absurdity that brings out one's inner nitpicker; MST3K would've had a field day with parts of this movie. If "Left Behind" is successful -- which is conceivable, given its widespread grass-roots support and the fact that it's actually kind of diverting -- I urge the filmmakers to caulk up those sorts of plot holes in the sequel.
I also urge them to avoid letting their protagonists become cardboard cutouts of virtue once they're "born again." I understand that one of the conventions of Christian films is that the protagonists must become Christians at the end -- it's the fundamental rule of the genre, actually -- but that's NEVER an excuse to make your characters dull. This problem particularly afflicts Brad Johnson's character.
Also, and I have to write it: The Christian pop on this soundtrack -- good heavens! It sounds like it was written by Georgio Moroder in 1985! Seriously: Remember those insipid "Titan AE" songs that overtly commented on whatever was onscreen at the moment? Same problem here.
VIII. O-KAY, THEN. HOW ABOUT SOME "FUN LINKS," ALEXANDRA?
(1) First up: To rather abruptly change gears, here's a link to the idiosyncratic Internet comic "Bruno." Its title character is a bisexual, bipolar young woman who falls into needlessly complicated relationships. There’s nothing like it online or in print. Currently, the cartoon's in the middle of an extended, deeply weird dream sequence (Bruno got hit by a car, you see), so you might want to scroll back through the archives to get an idea of what the strip's usually like.
P.S. I met "Bruno" author Christopher Baldwin once, and he told me a deeply instructive story about having his strip optioned for a movie by Jeremiah "The Avengers" Chechik.
(2) Second, Moriarty fave author Dave Eggers just finished a delightful four-part online conversation with Jonathan Lethem on the subject of "Unimpressed Persons" -- i.e., people who spend all their time dismissing other artists -- and how boring and sad and counterproductive they are. It's a bit of a read, but it's also thought-provoking and ultimately inspiring.
And yes, it rips apart exactly the sort of person I fear I am.
Oh, and P.P.S.: I need to make a correction: My five-page comix tale "The End of Oddity" will be appearing mid-February in the back of ODDJOB #7 -- not issue #6, as previously reported. Thank you.