Thimblerig’s Ark Podcast – Ep. 3, A Thief in the Night (1972)

A-THIEF-IN-THE-NIGHT

Could there be a connection between the first end-times Christploitation film and Monty Python and the Holy Grail?

Is it true that A Thief in the Night might never have been made if not for the 1958 horror sci-fi classic, The Blob?

Listen to episode 3 of the Thimblerig’s Ark Film Review Podcast to find out the answers to these questions and many more regarding the Christian-made film that obsessed Marilyn Manson, and is surprisingly listed as a seminal influence on many fans of the horror genre.

To listen, just follow this link: Thimblerig’s Ark Podcast Episode 3

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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.

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?

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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:

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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?

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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