Are Christian Filmmakers Being Tapped To Direct Future Star Wars Stand-Alone Films?

A long time ago in galaxy close, close by…

The church had abandoned Hollywood. Then, THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST struck box office gold, studios created FAITH-BASED DIVISIONS, and little Christian films made BUCKETS OF MONEY. Now Christian films have earned over a BILLION DOLLARS for investors and studios over the past thirteen years.

With the recent successes of Dr. Strange, directed by Christian filmmaker SCOTT DERRICKSON and Rogue One, the first Star Wars standalone film, are the forces behind Star Wars hopping on the faith-based bandwagon? Are budding Christian filmmakers being considered as the new hope for the venerable space-based franchise?

Only time will tell….

“The Erwin brothers, Harold Cronk, Kirk Cameron, they’ve all been discussed, especially for a movie about Yoda, which would involve all kinds of spiritual mumbo-jumbo,” an anonymous source told us. But this source, who met with us in a nearby Starbucks dressed in a stormtrooper costume and calling himself “TR-3R”, went on to say that the Christian filmmakers who have risen to the top are veteran brother team, Alex and Stephen Kendrick, creators of the Christian film hits Facing the Giants, Courageous, Fireproof, and 2015’s War Room.

tr3r“The big dogs at Lucasfilm like the Kendrick’s grass-roots style of filmmaking, as well as their overt handling of spiritual issues,” TR-3R said. “They think the Kendricks could take a Yoda standalone to some really interesting places, exploring the spiritual aspects of the Force, maybe telling about how Yoda became converted to the light side in the first place. Me? I imagine it happening in a golden field with lots of sunlight. The Kendricks like to do that. It’s their lens flare.”

Considering the Kendrick’s focus on family issues such as parenting and marriage, we asked the source the odds that a Kendrick-directed standalone film would also explore something of Yoda’s homelife.

“They never tell me the odds, but this is something fans have been clamoring for,” TR-3R said enthusiastically, trying unsuccessfully to sip his coffee through his stormtrooper helmet. “They’ve seen Yoda living as a crotchety old single dude, but was he a good husband? A good dad? He helped train all those force-sensitive kids, but what about his own kids? The big dogs think that the Kendricks could really explore a domestic side of Yoda that we haven’t seen before.”

The source went on to say that a successful Kendrick-directed Star Wars film would also open the door for other filmmakers of faith to step in, as the studio hopes to release a new Star Wars film every year from now until the apocalypse.

When we pressed TR-3R for more details, he grew noticeably agitated and began muttering something about seeing the new VT-16. Then, saying he had to get back to the office, TR-3R quickly slid a folded piece of paper across the table and bolted outside without another word. He jumped into a black 1976 Corvette and drove away.

Incidentally, the Corvette’s license plate read THX-1138.

Unfolding the paper, the first thing we noticed was that it was written on Lucasfilm stationary. It had been stamped multiple times with “TOP SECRET” in bright red letters, and the paper had the heading: “Potential Future Faith-Based Star Wars Projects.”

Then, the following items were listed:

forceThe Force’s Not Dead – set between Episode 3 and 4, a young Luke Skywalker attends Mos Eisley Agricultural College only to find that his moisture farming professor doesn’t believe in the Force. Luke stands up to him, determined to prove that the Force is real. The film ends with an extended Figrin D’an and the Modal Newsboys concert in the cantina while the professor gets run over and killed by a landspeeder outside. Potential director: Harold Cronk. Potential producer: David A.R. White. Release date: December 2019.

Ben Hutt – set in the time between Episodes 3 and 4, Ben Kenobi, masquerading as a Hutt prince, is falsely accused of treason by his adopted brother (a clone soldier in the Republic Clone Army). After spending years exiled in space, Ben returns to Tatooine to seek revenge, but ultimately finds redemption. Possible roles for Ewan MacGregor and Morgan Freeman. Potential producers: Mark Burnett and Roma Downey. Release date: May 2020.

I’ve Got A Bad Feeling I’ve Been Left Behind – also set in the time between Episodes 3 and 4, this film would explore the chaos and mayhem resulting when the Jedi vanish in an instant, leaving behind smoking piles of clothes and lightsabers. Possible starring role for Nicolas Cage as a force-sensitive sceptic. Potential director: Paul LaLonde. Release date May 2021.

Droid’s Night Out – set in the time between Episodes 4 and 5, R2D2 decides to take C3PO out on a night on the town, leaving Luke, Han, and Chewie to take on all of the etiquette and protocol responsibilities at the rebel base. Of course, mistaken identities and disastrously hilarious mayhem results. Potential director: The Erwin Brothers. Release Date: December 2022.

Lumpawarrump’s Saving Life Day – set in the time between Episodes 5 and 6, Lumpawarrump is enjoying the annual Life Day extravaganza thrown by his sister until he realizes he needs to help out his visiting father, Chewbacca, who blames himself for Han Solo’s abduction by Boba Fett. Lumpy’s fresh look at Life Day provides Chewbacca the chance to see that the universe is bigger than his little problems, and that he needs to pull up his Wookie panties and go save his friend from the clutches of the vile gangster, Jabba the Hutt. The film ends with an extended wookie dance-off. Potential director: Kirk Cameron. Release Date: Life Day 2023, or perhaps Festivus.

star-war-roomStar War Room – set in the time between Episodes 6 and 7, Han Solo and Princess Leia’s marriage is in trouble, and it will take the efforts of the strange, wizened old Miss Maz to help Leia learn to tap into the force and save her marriage. The film ends with an extended force-enabled jump rope competition. Possible roles for Sadie Robertson as a young Leia and Alden Ehrenreich to continue playing young Han. Potential director: The Kendrick Brothers (if the Yoda movie is a success). Release Date: December 2024.

 

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An End Times Movie in Two Minutes

We Christians just love our end times movies.

We’ve done bunches and bunches of them, from the classic A Thief in the Night trilogy to Kirk Cameron’s Left Behind movies to Nic Cage’s Left Behind movie reboot to movies with subtle names like Final: The Rapture and Tribulation and Revelation Road (1, 2 & 3) and The Apocalypse and The Remaining and Blink of an Eye and Pre-Trib! The Musical

That last one might not be real.

But, if you look at the bulk of Christian-made movies out there, and how many seem to deal with this topic, then you would have to conclude that we Christians must just love our end times movies.

But maybe you’ve never seen one of our end times movies, want to know what the big deal is, but don’t actually want to sit through 90 minutes of a Christian film? Well, Thimblerig comes to the rescue! If you watch this two minute clip from Community’s third season, you’ll get a pretty good idea of what our end-of-days movies are all about. In fact, Dan Harmon pretty well nails it.

Although I must admit that the Community clip does have a bit more nuance, subtlety, and artistry then our usual attempts at showing the end-of-days, but I think you get the picture.

Meanwhile, if you want to see some of my reviews of a couple of end times movies…

Here’s Left Behind, which was awful.

And here’s The Remaining, which was actually pretty good.

Hollywood Finally Notices Success of Christian Films

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

Hollywood has finally noticed the success of Christian films such as last fall’s War Room and 2014’s God’s Not Dead!

Los Angeles, California – Alex Boese of the Spaghetti Harvest Media Marketing Group (SHMMG) of San Bernardino, California announced at a press conference on Monday that his company has decided to take a page from the faith-based handbook. This year, SHMMG will begin encouraging studios to release secular film advertisements with relevant Bible verses.

A Hollywood po

A big Hollywood power lunch meeting from the 1950’s.

“At a recent big Hollywood power lunch meeting at Soho House,” Mr. Boese said, “I convinced some of the town’s biggest players that using the Bible is the best way to attract the elusive faith-based audience, a key rising demographic that has proven to have very deep pockets when they feel they are being serviced.”

Mr. Boese went on to explain that “faith-based” films (also known as “faith and family” films, “family-based and faith-building” films, “faith, family & family, faith” films, and “building family and faith in the faith and family building” films) have gained popularity over the past few years, in large part thanks to the grass roots social media marketing efforts of the small independent studios which produce them.

A key way these studios have utilized social media is by producing images showing key verses from the Bible and a logo of the film that can be easily shared from Christian film fan to Christian film fan. Often the images will also show stills from the films to help drive the Bible verse point home.

“If we want to attract that F&F audience, we have to play by their rules,” Mr. Boese commented. “If that means using the Bible to sell tickets, then so be it. After all, if the Bible is good enough for Christians as a marketing tool, then it’s good enough for us.”

Mr. Boese’s comments were briefly interrupted as a man started shouting about cheapening Scripture by using it to sell products, but he was quickly ushered out by SHMMG employees. The incident was quickly forgotten by those in attendance. [note to editor: consider redacting this paragraph]

Mr. Boese ended his presentation by revealing several different advertisement mockups that SHMMG had developed. He announced that these Bible advertisements would be likely soon begin showing up on each respective film’s social media feeds, pending approval of each film’s marketing department.

“This is a new day of partnership between Hollywood and the faith-and-family-based community,” Mr. Boese said confidently. “And by the way, using the Bible this way should help us to sell a LOT more tickets.”

Time will tell, Mr. Boese. Time will tell.

For more information, read this article.

onlinelogomaker-010516-1942

 

A Commentary on End Times Movies, and a short review of The Remaining

It’s been a good summer – a good time away from the blog.  But now I’m back.

And the first thing I want to say is – I detest Christian-made End Times movies.

Detest. Absolutely detest.

soupIn fact, if I were made King of the Christian Film Industry, my first order of business would be an out-and-out ban on the genre. My second order would be to outlaw cameos in Christian films by Christian celebrities (I’m looking at you, Robertson family…). And third, I would make Kevin Sorbo take a vacation. I mean, seriously? Have you seen the guy’s IMDB page? I like Sorbo, but I literally cannot find another actor – Christian or otherwise – with as many credits to his name for 2015. Take the family to Hawaii for a few weeks and relax, Sorb!

But I digress from the main topic: my detestation of End Times movies.

teaser-poster-final-the-raptureWhy do I feel so strongly negative about the End Times genre? It’s really quite simple. Regardless of the eternal significance the filmmakers might try to pin on these movies, they are ultimately just that – movies. But so often (as is the case in much of the budding Christian filmmaking industry) the ones making these films place so much more importance on them than they deserve. At the end of the day, End Times movies are nothing more than a filmmaker’s fantasy interpretation of some pretty unclear and continually debated passages of Scripture. In my humble blogger’s opinion, when the filmmakers pretend that they are more than that, they wind up doing more harm than good. Just read any secular reviews of the recent Left Behind movie (2% on Rotten Tomatoes) to see the impact they make on the wider world.

In short, I think Jesus meant it when he said “But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.”

Will there be an End Times? I do believe there will be, but I also think we aren’t to spend a lot of time trying to figure it out. If people want to creatively imagine onscreen what the End Times could possibly be, then more power to them. But they should do so with a clear understanding that ultimately they have no idea what will happen at the end, no more idea than anyone else in history has ever had – including Jesus himself, by his own admission.

And yet, people keep making them.

So, when I am forced to watch an End Times movie, I approach it as I might approach an Indiana Jones movie – for the sheer entertainment value, regardless of how much of an IMPORTANT WORK the filmmaker might think he or she is doing.

maxresdefaultWhich brings me to 2014’s The Remaining, a pseudo-found-footage horror film, one of the latest cinematic attempts at depicting the End Times, and a film that – surprisingly – stands out from the rest in many ways, and which I actually found to be quite enjoyable.

The filmmakers may not have gotten Nic Cage to headline their production, but they more than made up for it in with suspenseful moments, effective minimal special effects, and well-written and acted characters who you actually cared about. Taking a page from the J.J. Abrams handbook (Cloverfield), the filmmakers wisely chose to show the impact of the rapture on a small group of friends through a mixture of video footage from the characters and normal film footage. And the conceit, for the most part, makes for some entertaining filmmaking.

First, the trailer.

What I liked about the film

1. The suspense. Without a doubt, the best thing the filmmakers did in this movie was not clearly showing the demons. Keeping the things that are attacking and terrorizing the actors out of sight is one of the most effective tools in a suspense/horror filmmaker’s toolbox. This technique permits the audience’s imagination to fill in the blanks which will usually be far worse than anything that could be put onscreen. And especially when you are a filmmaker working on a limited budget, it helps you not have to resort to showing clunky CGI monsters, or even worse, poorly constructed practically made monsters.

Kudos to director Casey La Scala for respecting the audience enough to let us fill in the blanks.

remaining_rapture-eyes2. The rapture itself. In the first few minutes of The Remaining, people just fall as dead, with milky white eyes remaining open, and that’s the rapture. That was it! It was simple, extremely unsettling, and wonderfully effective – especially for what seemed to be a pretty low budget film.

And so much better cinematically than clothes falling in neatly folded piles, like other unnamed End Times movies have done.

remaining-cry3. The acting. The actors did a wonderful job showing us people who were put into an unlikely and desperate situation, where hope was becoming more and more scarce, and paradoxically for some, more and more abundant. While all the primary actors were great, I was especially impressed with Italia Ricci’s performance as Allison, and it was a joy to watch the character’s arc build to an emotional confession at the end of the film.

What I disliked about the film

1. The unnecessary jump scares. The film did the authentic and real jump scares so well, that the unnecessary ones just cheapened things for me. For example, the scene where the characters evacuate to the church basement, and we watch characters get snatched away in the spooky luminous green of night vision, was extremely effective. But the scene when a panicked patient suddenly tackled a character with apparent superhuman speed? Not so much.

2. The mixture of found footage and regular film. Found footage films are at their best when they are entirely found footage (the aforementioned Cloverfield, Chronicle, The Blair Witch Project). The Remaining‘s filmmakers should have made the choice to be one or the other and stick to it. As it was, it seemed a bit like the film wasn’t sure what it was.

3. The preachiness. Considering this is a film about The Rapture, perhaps this couldn’t be avoided, but it felt like some of the “Christianese” conversations were forced. I would have really appreciated seeing the filmmakers approach the spiritual aspects of this story with the same subtlety and finesse that they approached the suspenseful scenes.

At the same time, considering that this film was aimed squarely at a non-Christian audience, the preachiness also didn’t go far enough. Yes, they had characters talking about the need to choose God, but that’s not nearly enough. Why not go in whole-hog, and have the characters talk about the power in the name of Jesus? Forget the generic “god” talk… talk about the Savior. Oddly enough, I think such specificity could have really worked in this movie – and not come off as preachy. But they blew any sort of missional potential in the film by going too general.

In Conclusion

As far as End Times films go, The Remaining was pretty good. It was a effective suspense/thriller/horror movie, with a few good scares and effective special effects done on the cheap. But – as with all End Times movies – films like this should be watched by Christians and non-Christians alike for the entertainment value, not for the eternal value.

Because at the end of the day, they are what they are.

Movies.

Simply movies.

And all of the filmmakers out there planning End Times movies should thank their lucky stars that I remain on the periphery of Christian filmmaking, and not seated on the throne, because otherwise their projects would be shut down well before they started.

Along with Kevin Sorbo’s next job.

Screen Shot 2015-08-22 at 11.01.25 PMGo to Maui, Sorb.  Take a break and go to Maui, and spend some time relaxing on the waves.  Christian movies will still be there when you get back in 2016.

And so will I.

Thimblerig out!

Day 35 • The 40 Days (and Nights) of Christian Media Challenge

ISS_Expedition_35_PatchFive days left.

I want to start day 35 of the 40 Days (and Nights) of Christian Media Challenge with something positive.

Over the past month I’ve been enjoying reading about the resurgence of Christian artists trying to create things of lasting beauty that engage people’s hearts and minds, rather than just creating media tracts to churn out the four spiritual laws.

In support of this idea, I was referred to this worthwhile article by a friend, and would commend it to my readers here.

Presentational Art vs. Representational Art by Joshua Gibbs

“…the difference between good art and sensual trash is principally seen in the responses any given piece calls forth from us. Sensual trash can only be discussed immediately afterwards, while good art can only be discussed at a much later point.”

On a less sunny note, I had a couple of Facebook posts come across my screen today that made me feel somewhat depressed as I near the end of my Christian media challenge.

Screen Shot 2015-04-23 at 9.30.20 AM

First, let me say that I like the guys at Christiancimema.com.  They were kind enough to offer me access to their library for the duration of my challenge (which I was unable to accept, because of being in China and all), and I think they provide a good and important service, alerting people to news in the world of Christian-made film.

But I was really irritated by this attempt to gain attention for a movie.

I really, really dislike when people use things like “support the troops” and “do you love Jesus?” to try and motivate people to like/buy/use products.  To me, it’s manipulative and takes something of immense worth and transforms it into trite salesmanship.  And it’s something that we Christians do all the time with our pearl of great price.  (See my last post regarding the branding of the faith).

And why does my support of the American military have to be displayed by my supporting a film that I haven’t seen yet?  How do I know that I will agree with this film?  How do I know that it will do anything to encourage the men and women serving in the armed forces?

And yet the post has been liked 570 times and shared 207 times.

Things like this make me understand why Jesus referred to us as sheep.

The second Facebook post I want to mention was this one, from the guys who made the award nominated Nicolas Cage Left Behind film.

11187207_817591968307462_4702332707403086591_o

Let that sink in.  Christians who vote on this sort of thing voted Left Behind as the best action film of 2014.

Left Behind.  This Left Behind.

Left Behind as a better action film than Captain America: Winter Soldier, or Hunger Games: Mockingjay Pt. 1.

I’m thinking of a particular Forrest Gump quote right now that I just won’t quote, but you might be able to guess.

Finally, I’m considering doing something different, and want to get feedback from anyone who is still reading these updates.

I’m thinking of opening myself up these last five days, exposing myself to media that is not made explicitly for the evangelical American Christian audience, but media that has intrinsic Christian value, whether Christian-made or not.  The point of this would be to compare the media that I’ve been consuming, media that is made with an evangelical agenda with media that is made for the sake of exploring the human condition, that communicates the truth of the Gospel message in the process.

Thoughts?  Recommendations?

The Depressingly Low Expectations Of Christian Filmgoers

This morning Darren Doane, the director of Kirk Cameron’s Saving Christmas, posted the following tweet:

https://twitter.com/TheDoane/status/535594602338983937

What’s happening for Doane and Cameron’s movie at Rotten Tomatoes is similar to what you’ll find if you look at many of the recently released so-called faith-based films: extremely low critic ratings and unreasonably high audience ratings. Let’s look at some of the results of other Christian-made films:

Screen Shot 2014-11-21 at 8.58.23 AM Screen Shot 2014-11-21 at 8.59.35 AM Screen Shot 2014-11-21 at 9.00.03 AM Screen Shot 2014-11-21 at 9.00.42 AM Screen Shot 2014-11-21 at 9.02.17 AM

What exactly is going on?

Is there a secular critic bias out there that says if a film is released with a hint of “faith-based”, it will be treated differently than a movie of a different genre?

Even if the movie is brilliant, it will not get a fair shake?

Is there a faith-based audience bias out there that says if a film is released with a hint of “faith-based”, the quality of the movie will be given a free pass as long as it portrays Christians in a good light, talks positively about Jesus, or has Scripture passages used in a semi-appropriate fashion?

Even if the movie is terrible, it will be received positively if it meets the criteria?

Personally, I think there is a bit of both going on.  Yes, there are secular critics who will not approach a Christian film without adding the caveat, “…for a Christian film”.   But one hopes that a critic will be able to separate that particular bias from what they experience on the screen and write a candid review that explores the positives and the negatives of the film.

And yes, there are plenty of Christians who will gladly support anything as long as what they are seeing on the screen reinforces or promotes what they already believe.  Thus you have hundreds of positive reviews on the Left Behind website from ordinary people who make the movie sound like the best film ever made, rather than the enormous cinematic shamble that it was.

But critic bias is by far the less alarming and less surprising issue of the two on the table.  I’m much more disturbed by the way so many Christians will line up around the block to embrace any movie that builds up their worldview – regardless of the film’s quality.  In fact, I’d go so far as to say that many Christians have become so needy to see their points of view on the screen that they’ve become blind to what makes for a quality film at all.  At least that seems to be the case, considering the way we rally behind so many poor filmmaking efforts, treating them like the best thing since the last poor filmmaking effort.

Yep.  Our expectations have grown depressingly low.

There has been a two-pronged effect on Christian-made films that I see as a direct result of the low expectations of the target audience.

First, the low expectations force the filmmakers to sacrifice good storytelling on the alter of hitting all the right beats to please the Christian audience.  I’ve discussed this point before, in my article What’s Wrong With Christian Filmmaking, so I will move on to the second point.

Second, the low expectations damage our potential to be taken seriously by people outside the church, as they see us vehemently defending films that are so badly produced.

Our films are not taken seriously.  

What did George Costanza say about Christian rock on Seinfeld?  “I like Christian rock. It’s very positive. It’s not like those real musicians who think they’re so cool and hip.”

If George were still around today, he might also say, “I like Christian films.  They’re positive.  They’re not like those real films…”

We did it to ourselves with a Christian music industry supported exclusively by the Christian sub-culture, we did it to ourselves with a Christian publishing industry supported exclusively by the Christian sub-culture, and now we’re trying to do it to ourselves again by building a Christian filmmaking industry supported exclusively by the Christian sub-culture.

And it’s a huge mistake.

This “circle the wagons” mentality does little to help with building the kingdom of God, but does much for building up walls between the church and the greater culture.

In his Salon article entitled, Christian right’s vile PR sham: why their bizarre films are backfiring on them, writer Edwin Lyngar says some pretty damning things about what is happening in American culture as a result of this past year’s Christian filmmaking efforts.  Lyngar says:

The people who create and consume Christian film are neither mature nor reflective. They are at their core superstitious, afraid and tribal. They self-identify overwhelmingly Republican and shout about “moochers” while vilifying the poor. They violate the teachings and very essence of their own “savior” while deriving almost sexual pleasure from the fictional suffering of atheists, Muslims, Buddhists, Wiccans, Hindus, and even liberal Christians. To top it all off, the stories they tell themselves are borderline psychotic.

Is this what it means to be salt and light to a dying world, that the followers of Christ come off as ‘neither mature nor reflective’?  That we’re seen as ‘superstitious, afraid and tribal’?  That our stories are viewed as ‘borderine psychotic’?  I realize that this is just one man’s opinion, but I don’t think we Christians can afford to dismiss opinions like his, because I don’t believe that his opinion is so uncommon.

And it all comes back to the depressingly low expectations that we have for the art being produced by us, for us, and in our name.

The irony is that Christians would be the first to stand up and say, “High expectations breed high results, and low expectations breed low results!” with regards to most things in life:

Education?  Aren’t Christians known for homeschooling our kids because we have high expectations for their education?

Employment?  Aren’t Christian employers known for holding employees to higher standards?

Ministry?  Aren’t we disappointed when people in positions of ministerial authority don’t live up to our high expectations?

And yet when it comes to filmmaking – as evidenced by the overwhelming support given to many of the not-so-great faith-based films that were released this past year – our expectation for quality Christian art is shockingly low.

And it just doesn’t make sense.

Meanwhile, not only was the director of Kirk Cameron’s Saving Christmas out this morning stumping on the social media platforms for people to speak out at RT, but the man himself, Kirk Cameron, posted this on his Facebook page:

 

Screen Shot 2014-11-21 at 2.12.32 PM

I can appreciate the grass roots campaigning of Cameron and Doane, and I haven’t had the chance to see Saving Christmas yet to speak to the movie one way or the other, but what about this…

What if – instead of just flocking to a film’s Rotten Tomato page and putting up happy reviews to support the filmmakers – we showed that we have the capability to use our higher order thinking skills, and write critically honest reviews that discuss both the good and the bad about the film?

What if – instead of just flocking to the Facebook pages of filmmakers who believe the way we believe and gushing about how much we love their movies, or flaming about how much we disliked the movies, as the case may be – we do the same thing and give them constructive feedback so that they can improve the next time out?

What if Christians do the really heavy lifting and raise the bar on our expectations for films made in our name, helping our filmmakers by expecting them to make great movies that even the secular critics would have a hard time dismissing?

Folks, unless we start to adjust our expectations, unless we break the model set for us by the music and publishing industry, unless we start doing our best to pursue excellence in the films we are allowing to be produced in our name, we might very well find Mr. Lyngar’s heartbreaking prophecy coming true.

The fundamentalist community will continue to shrink until they start telling themselves—and those they hope to win over—more honest and humane stories… Christian film with its cardboard characters and heavy-handed messages will only drive an increasingly diverse and media-savvy populace away. Failing a profound change of heart, the best this community can hope for are films so bad no one will bother to watch them.

Left Behind • Thimblerig’s Review

For the past couple of weeks, I’ve been following the drama of Left Behind‘s release.  From the initial buzz created with the news of a “faith-based” film featuring Nicolas Cage, to that compelling trailer with the haunting song by Civil Twilight …

…it seemed like this might be the film that would break the mold in faith-based films.  It seemed like this might be the one that would actually play well in and out of the Christian subculture.  After all, everyone loves a good apocalyptic thriller, right?

Yes, I was hopeful.

And then the reviews started coming in.

“A shoo-in to clean up at the next Razzie awards…” from here.

“I am now relatively certain there is a Hell and it is a darkened theater with no doors showing Left Behind on a loop for eternity.”  Ouch. From here.

“…may be one of the most inept films to ever see a wide theatrical release.” Double ouch.  From here.

And if you go take a gander at Rotten Tomatoes, it goes on and on and on and on.

And on.

And on.

Ouch, and ouch, and ouch, and ouch.

The reaction from the crew that made Left Behind?

Screen Shot 2014-10-25 at 9.26.22 AM

Damn the professional critics, full speed ahead!   After all, the ones who get paid to critique movies don’t matter!  All that matters is that the regular folks – John and Sue Christian – absolutely LOVE the movie!

Then, there were the incredibly strange promotional images for Left Behind, including this one from Satan himself:

satan

And then this one, attempting to take advantage of the Ebola scare that has been sweeping the nation:

Screen Shot 2014-10-21 at 12.25.49 AM

It seemed like Lalonde and company were really stretching – trying anything to drum up grass-roots support to make back the $16 million dollar budget.  But with bad reviews (2% on Rotten Tomatoes!?!) working against them, it seemed like a lost cause.

The really interesting thing in all of this has been the amazing amount of fan (read: protestant Evangelical) support – as evidenced by the Left Behind webpage that has been tirelessly documenting audience praise.

So, what’s the real story here?  Should we believe the critics, or the filmmakers and fans?  Should Left Behind be left behind as a movie, or is it actually a brilliant film that has been widely misunderstood and misrepresented?

After having finally seen the movie for myself, I can give you my answer to this question – which I will do later in this article.  For now, for the sake of consistency in my reviews, let me start with the positives of Left Behind.  And there are spoilers ahead.

Positives:

1)  Recognizable Actors

The filmmaker’s big coup had to be getting Nicolas Cage to play Raymond Steele.  According to interviews, he was talked into doing Left Behind by his pastor brother.

Considering the critical reaction to the film, you can’t help but think that Thanksgiving might be pretty uncomfortable in the Coppola household this year.  Or it could be that Cage, who is one of my favorite actors but who has had – at best – an uneven acting career as of late, is impervious to negative criticism and it won’t bother him.

Regardless, the producers of Left Behind managed to score a bunch of other recognizable actors, including Lea Thompson,  American Idol’s Jordan Sparks, The Blind Side’s Quinton Aaron, and Martin Klebba, who I know from Scrubs, but he’s been in a lot of things.

I’m guessing this must have been where the bulk of that $16 million budget went.

2)  The Subject Matter

As I said before, apocalyptic movies are quite popular these days, and making a film from the Christian POV about the last days was theoretically a great idea.

Theoretically.

3)  No Conversions

This might sound odd, but hear me out.  It’s almost obligatory for Christian filmmakers to have a Gospel presentation, and It would have been really, really easy for Left Behind‘s filmmakers to have Nic Cage drop to his knees in the cockpit and cry out to God for forgiveness, but they thankfully avoided the temptation.  I’ve actually heard this as a critique of the film, that it had no overt Gospel presentation, but it was one of the strengths to me.

Just like Jesus made his audience work for it in his parables, we should – from time to time – make our filmgoing audience work to connect the dots.  Or allow the film to be the conversation starter, possibly opening the door for John and Sue Christian to share their faith with Bobby Unbeliever over coffee after the movie.  I’m glad that the filmmakers took this route.

4)  The Changes from the Book

I was also very glad that the filmmakers deviated from the source material and focused so intently on the Raymond’s and Chloe’s story.  As in Signs, which is one of my top ten movies, focusing on one family’s plight created the opportunity of making this global event seem more personal, and it made that last scene of the burning city that much more profound (although I did wonder why Ray and Buck didn’t notice all the fires as they were flying over the city on the way to try and land the plane).

That last scene also created a strange sense in me of wanting to see more – to see what happens next to Ray, Chloe and Buck, which is odd, considering that the four things I listed above were the only things I liked about the movie.

Negatives:

Oh, gosh.  Where to begin.

1)  The SFX

Technically, Christian movies have been getting so much better, but Left Behind took a step backwards.  This is really hard to believe, because the director, Vic Armstrong, has a lifetime of experience in the technical side of filmmaking.  Also, if you go to the film’s cast and crew IMDB page, the people who did the effects have worked on some big FX movies!  This was definitely not SFX amateur hour, but for some reason, the end results appeared to be.   The only thing I can conclude is that the filmmakers spent the bulk of their budget on getting recognizable actors, resulting in effects that were less than spectacular, and that was a shame for a big end-of-the-world movie.

In the old days, we'd have seen the strings on this plane.  As it is now, the CGI was painfully obvious.

In the old days, we’d have seen the strings on this plane. As it is now, the CGI was painfully obvious.

Again, the one really good SFX scene that stuck with me was the burning city in the distance, but it only lasted for half a second. Kudos to the artist(s) who rendered that too-brief scene.

2)  The Script

As I said before, I liked the idea of resetting the Left Behind story as one family’s plight.  And most of the dialogue between Ray and Chloe was believable.  But the rest?  Blech.

For example, I’m not sure whose idea it was to have the vocal Christian woman in the opening approach Buck in the airport to try and witness to him, but it was a cringe-worthy scene.

CRINGE WORTHY.

That woman – by herself – made me think that people would be so grateful to have all the Christians taken away!  She was obnoxious, irritating, and came off as just a touch insane.  And she was one of the only Christian characters from whom we heard anything of substance?  It seemed like she was written and acted the way Christians are mockingly seen by non-Christians, not how we see ourselves.  Wasn’t this supposed to be a Christian-made film?

Screen Shot 2014-10-25 at 10.23.09 PM

Wouldn’t it have been interesting if she had been one of the ones left behind?  We got to see a snippet of Chloe’s church’s pastor, but not much.  I would have really enjoyed if they’d had a person who was very vocal about their faith, and it turns out they were actually not a sheep, but a goat, and we get to watch them deal with not being raptured.

The conversations going on with the passengers in first class were also pretty hackneyed.  From Jordan Spark’s breakdown (which came way out of left field – what ever happened to having set-ups and pay-offs?) to the X-Files uberfan to the little person with the big chip on his shoulder (did the Muslim guy really push him off the plane at the end?  Really?), it seemed to be more of a one-dimensional youth group play (see kids, how non-Christians act?) rather than a carefully crafted feature film.

Frankly, with the exception of the leads, I just really didn’t care about any of the characters who were left behind, just like I didn’t care about the people being eaten by sharks when I watched Sharknado.  In a disaster movie, the audience needs to care about the supporting cast who are also dealing with the disaster, and the poorly written scenes that took place onboard PanCom 257 never made me care.

Some nitpicky things:  Buck was doing his job at the beginning of the emergency, filming what was going on, but then the camera disappears.

Incidentally, I also found the mid-air collision over the Atlantic to be a bit hard to believe, but as I’m not an expert in piloting big airliners, I won’t focus on that.

3)  The Soundtrack

I’m a huge soundtrack fan, and I listen daily to the greats – Hans Zimmer, Thomas Newman, Christophe Beck.  As I was watching Left Behind, I kept getting the feeling that I was watching a movie made for television.  After researching the composer, Jack Lenz, I realized why.  Lenz is an accomplished award-winning composer – having composed for years – for television.

From looking at his IMDB page, it appears that Left Behind was Lenz’s first feature (although it seems he did do some work on Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ, but I couldn’t find what).  Unfortunately, the instrumentation, the moods evoked, all felt like television.  This was a shame, especially considering the big budget feel that the movie was attempting.

But at least they didn’t commission Newsboys to write and perform “Left Behind”, right?

4)  The Rapture and the Response

I didn’t have a problem that Left Behind explored a possible future where the Rapture happens.  It’s a movie, after all, and movies can imagine and explore anything.  It’s not a sermon, not a church, not a pastor – it’s a movie.  That being said, I had several problems with the way this movie executed the Rapture.

First, it took thirty minutes for it to happen.  THIRTY MINUTES.  I realize that the filmmakers were spending time building the world, introducing us to the characters, showing the problems they were facing, but thirty minutes is a third of the way through the film before we get to the inciting incident, and it was too long.  If the point of the movie is to show us what happens when you’re left behind, why make us wait so long to get there?

Second, the way the Rapture happened.  One moment, Chloe is hugging her little brother, there is a flash, and then she’s hugging his empty clothes.  I was making this effect on my home video camera way back in the 1990’s,  and while I felt clever doing it then, it seemed much too small for a big feature apocalyptic movie now.  I didn’t mind that the Rapture happened in the blink of an eye, because it was obvious that the filmmakers were paying homage to 1 Corinthians 15.  However, it felt like it should have been more visually impressive, and this goes back again to special effects.

I wish that the filmmakers had put some money into making the actual Rapture more interesting and memorable.  For example, remember the way people apparated in the Harry Potter movies?  Or the way the Death Eaters would turn into black smoke?  Of course you do (if you saw the films), because it was visually impressive!  Christian filmmakers, if you’re attempting big budget movies, you have to remember that with movies, you have to show us something we haven’t seen before!  Left Behind was completely underwhelming in this regard.

Third, the responses to the people being Raptured.  Yes, if people were to disappear leaving behind piles of clothes, there would be panic.  Especially if children vanished.  But there was something off about the panic scenes in Left Behind.  Something about it looked too choreographed – like people had been told to run from one place to the other, screaming and waving their arms, when the truth is, not everyone would be doing that.  There would be the screamers, there would be the arm-wavers, but there would also be the shell-shocked, there would be those who would react calmly.

CONCLUSION

The whole time I was watching, I felt like this was something that had been made by the Zucker Brothers – an Airplane! for a new generation.  Didn’t it seem like it?  The overly earnest marketing, casting Nic Cage, rumors that Duck Dynasty guys were behind it… I kept waiting for the intentionally funny to happen, but it never did.  What a missed opportunity to poke fun of ourselves, by making a satirical apocalyptic faith-based film!  Now that would have been something I could have enjoyed and promoted among my friends.

In fact, this is my free idea to any risk-taking Christian filmmakers out there – to make a faith-based Scary Movie, and call it Faith Based.  Let’s poke fun at how badly we seem to be doing!  That could be the spark that gets us up to a new level of filmmaking!  Maybe the lads behind Believe Me could make it work.

In Conclusion…

While I love the idea of a big budget disaster film told from a Christian point of view, and while I give the filmmakers props for attempting to go big, I did not love Left Behind.  It was a series of missed opportunities, the biggest being the squandering of an Academy Award winning actor.  It was a reboot of a movie that didn’t need rebooting, and while there were some interesting choices made in the retelling, the execution of those choices underwhelmed.

Here’s my review summary, using the Thimblerig Movie Review Scale, inspired by my article, What’s Wrong with Christian Filmmaking:

Films made by Christians should take risks.  

Nope.  This was a very solidly safe faith-based movie, that didn’t do anything risky.  No golden groundhog.

Films made by Christians should challenge the audience.

Considering that the faith-based audience was the target audience, this movie was not challenging at all.  Oh, they say it was – that it challenges people to share their faith with people before the Rapture happens, but it really didn’t.  Scripture says that iron is supposed to sharpen iron, and this was the typical faith-based back-rubbing.  No golden groundhog.

Art is Art, the Pulpit is the Pulpit

I will give the filmmakers some credit for this.  As I said earlier, they could have made the movie preachy, and the argument can be made that it was subtly didactic, but at least they didn’t have the obligatory salvation of the hero scene at the end.  Half a golden groundhog.

Films made by Christians should raise important questions

While some would say that the film raises the important question, “How can I avoid being left behind?” I would argue against it.  The film just isn’t interesting enough to make anyone ask the question.  This is why the critical reviews are so important, and why the filmmakers make a big mistake just throwing them out the window.  When we make movies that grab the interest of the viewers (regardless of their background or beliefs) then we can earn the right to have them ask the questions we want them to ask.

That being said, for Christians who have developed low standards and expectations for the films made for our subculture, there is the chance that the question would be asked.  For that reason, I reluctantly give the film half a golden groundhog for this.

Christian films should tell good stories

For Left Behind, this is another missed opportunity.  There is a fantastically interesting story to be found in the story of the Rapture, as LaHaye and Jenkins discovered in their first few books, but it was a story that this movie did not find.  It danced around a potentially good story with the focus on Ray and Chloe, but that possibility was overshadowed by the less-than-compelling side stories.  The big actors were underused which had the consequence of making the so-called “big budget” misspent.   No golden groundhog.

Golden Groundhogs Left Behind

Now I’m Really Irritated by the Makers of “Left Behind”

They did this.  They seriously did this.

When Left Behind was being released, they had the nerve to post this picture.

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And then they go and pull the Ebola card?

All in the hope of selling more tickets?  Trying  to freak people out?

I’m sorry, but any hope that I would respect the people who have made and produced “Left Behind” has been left behind.  To take something like Ebola – to publish a picture of a guy in protective clothing WHEN THE PICTURE ISN’T EVEN FROM YOUR MOVIE to try and freak people out and get them to see your movie, is just pathetic.

And I say this as a Christian that is really hoping that Christian filmmaking finds its way – and becomes a cultural force to be reckoned with.

Paul Lalonde, this is not the way.

Either your movie is really good, and actually convinces the critics (look at the reviews for Believe Me) or your movie stinks and the critics call you on it.

You made a big movie, and for that – well done.

But you made a big movie that is universally considered as a dud.  For that – do better next time.

Rather than pulling the Ebola card, and the persecution card, just MAKE BETTER MOVIES.

Just make better movies.

Please.

 

Left Behind gets a plug from Satan. *FACEPALM*

While sloshing my way through the expected terrible reviews for the Left Behind reboot, I came across this promotional shot that the Left Behind marketing people apparently thought to be a clever way to advertise their film – a campaign that hasn’t gone un-mocked by secular reviewers.

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First, allow me to let Nic Cage himself respond.

you dont say

Now I want to try and figure out what’s going on here.

Either this was (1) an earnest but misguided attempt by some Christian marketers to encourage Christian filmgoers to bring their non-Christian friends to Left Behind, or this was (2) a blatantly vulgar attempt by some secular marketers to pump up the hoped-for evangelical Christian audience, and try to sell more tickets as they encourage Christian filmgoers to bring their non-Christian friends to Left Behind.

Either way, this brings me to a few messages I’d like to put out there.  To the non-Christians who read my blog, to the Christians who read my blog, and to the filmmakers who made Left Behind.

First, to the people who aren’t Christians:  if you are one of those non-Christian friends dragged to this movie by your well-meaning Christian friends or family members, let me apologize on behalf of all Christiandom.  Most of us are slightly repulsed by the idea that this movie has been made, and many of us recognize the enormous amount of patience that you show every time our brothers and sisters force you to sit and watch one of the films coming from our subculture.  Please forgive us.

Second, if you are a Christian and you think that taking a non-Christian film to a movie like Left Behind is going to somehow help you “plant seeds” or make some headway witnessing to your neighbors, understand this:  you are torturing them by taking them, to this and to most so-called “Christian” films.  They are only going with you because they love you, or they respect you, or they like you – not because they enjoy the films.  There may have been some exceptions to this rule (Mom’s Night Out and Believe Me were pretty good in different ways), but for the most part – if it carries the label “faith-based”, go see it with your church group, but please your non-believing friends out of the mix.

Third, if you are one of the producers or writers of Left Behind (and other schlocky faith-based films), stop it.  Just stop it!  Please, for the love of God (and I mean that in the sincere way, not the cliched way), just stop it!

Don’t you guys know that you are digging a deep, deep grave for filmmaking by Christians in the eyes of the world, and you are doing more harm than good by continuing to produce schlock like this?  Don’t you care that nobody outside our subculture has the least amount of respect for what you are doing?  It doesn’t bother you that as of the writing of this blog post, Left Behind has a Rotten Tomato rating of 2%, which is only slightly higher than this summer’s Persecuted, which has an amazingly low score of 0%.  (I’ll be watching and reviewing Persecuted this weekend.  The things I do for my readers…)

And the big question:  Don’t you think that our faith deserves better?

Please do us all a big favor and read my blog post, “What’s Wrong with Christian Filmmaking“, and follow my five tips before you produce or write your next film.  Trust me.  It can’t make things worse, and it might actually make things better.

And to the marketers, I think this might be a better, more appropriate (and yet slightly inappropriate) poster for Left Behind, and most of our tepid faith-based film projects:

do not bring anyone

Feel free to use it as you see fit.

By the way, be sure to read “I Hope I Get Left Behind,” an interesting analysis of the problems of Left Behind‘s eschatology.

And also, if you are looking for a good end-times movie, give this old Demi Moore movie a try, and you can even invite your non-Christian friends to watch with you!