Sunday, September 4, 2016

Worst Films of 2014

Ohh, I see. I get it. This is what you were really looking for wasn't it you sick sons of bitches? Is this what you wanted to say? Forget all the analysis I did about the genuine art of moviemaking over the past year or the countless hours spent absorbing the very best cinematic experiences 2014 had to offer. Never mind all the gold, I say, gold I gave you in your search for quality film to view when you watch Netflix during a date. No. You want to see the crap-de-la crap. Well fine then.

Lord knows when Ryan Downs suffers an injustice, people hear about it, and this is no different. There is one important deviation this time, though. In the past I went easy. Past lists, as I'm sure you noticed, would usually consist of several movies I actually liked. At first I would list movies (like The Hobbit) that may have even been good, just not that good. The "ten worst" movies of the year would invariably include movies that weren't even that bad, they were just the worst I had to offer. I wouldn't get to movies that were actually bad until about the halfway point.

Well fret no more. The fact that I actually put in more work than, well, ever really ,as a film critic for no less than three different publications, plus my own short-lived vlog (you should just watch my sister's instead) meant I saw some real shit. I mean like "they made me go watch Age of Extinction instead of End of Tomorrow" shit. So, rest assured, there's probably not a movie on here that I actually like in any way. Hell, for the first time there was some overflow (Noah and Divergent can consider themselves lucky). Well you know what impoverished sewer-divers in India say!

I don't really know. Probably whatever helps them deal with the fact that they're about to jump literally headfirst into shit.

10. Horrible Bosses 2

WB/New Line Cinema

I have to get something off my chest: I'm not a huge fan of the first Horrible Bosses. I think it's a lazy, under-plotted mess that's not entirely that funny. I've also never been a huge fan of The Three Stooges, the concept of which this movie is pretty clearly going for. After the first movie, where our titular heroes manage to foil their, shall-we-say, Unpleasant Employers (including a murderer, a drug addict, and a rapist), they learn the value of working alone. That movie worked, for a lot of people that do not include me, because of a pretty simple casting premise; the employees are all television comedians and the villains are all A-list actors. Then there's the always-entertaining, even here, Jamie Foxx, who is both. Admittedly, Kevin Spacey acting opposite Jason Bateman and Charlie Day is a pretty fun sell. Aww, look at me, waxing nostalgic about old movies I don't like.

Anyway, this time around, our main trio (also including Jason Sudeikis as the Larry to Jason Bateman's Moe and Charlie Day's, well, Charlie Day) is forced to accept the realities of self-employment, and that starting a business is hard. After an appearance on a daytime talk-show where the group tries to sell a device whose only function is to make gay jokes for an awkward ten minutes, they decide that they need an investor. Of course, the irony in being self-employed is that you then have to find someone to work for. They find one in Christoph Waltz, who screws their company over in the hopes of buying it again at a lower price. In order to get back at him, they plan to kidnap his son, Chris Pine (I don't know the character's names and who cares); a spoiled, psychotic brat who is so game for the idea it isn't long before the three start to feel like they're the ones being held hostage. Jamie Fox and Jennifer Aniston, now going to therapy for sex addiction, show up as well.

Although most of the jokes are very hit-or-miss, this is, for the most part, a much funnier movie than the first one. Aniston is always fun, and Chris Pine is clearly having the time of his life. As is commonplace with comedies now, a lot of the film seems improvised. However, just being kind of funny is not enough to really sell a movie. Most of the gags are incredibly dumb and juvenile, and while Pine's character offers a humorous twist in the "kidnapping" plot, the rest is pretty predictable. Not an awful movie, it's the kind you could put on Netflix when you're washing the dishes or trying to make moves on someone on your couch.

9. Sin City: A Dame to Kill For

Dimension Films/Troublemaker Studios

It's a genuine testament to this list that this movie is at the number nine spot. If you told me when I walked out of the theater that I would find eight worse movies over the course of the year, I think I would have stopped watching movies altogether. Hell, I'm already halfway through 2015 and I haven't seen a movie this disappointing. I'm making it sound worse than it is, probably, but it's not good, and it's a movie I was looking forward to. In order to understand it's failings, you have to understand a now eleven-year-old movie called Sin City.

Sin City was something miraculous when it came out. A nearly three-hour long, impeccably stylish action opera that featured three (well, four if you count Josh Hartnett's cameo) stories taking place in Frank Miller's brutal, black-white-and-red, noirish hellhole, where everybody is a grizzled, angry badass with a gun. A brutal, pulpy, lingerie-and-trenchcoat anthology featuring an enormous ensemble cast centered around Clive Owen, Mickey Rourke, Rosario Dawson, Jessica Alba, Elijah Wood, and (of course) Bruce Willis. If there's one thing you should take away from this diatribe, it's that you should watch Sin City.

So, when I heard there was a possibility I would get to return to this vibrant world, I was excited. What I got was an anthology of three more stories: one featuring Josh Brolin as Clive Owen's character from the first movie, the second featuring Joseph Gordon Levitt as a gambler whose dream is to take on Sin City's biggest mob boss, the third features Jessica Alba returning as the gold-hearted stripper from the first movie, desperate for revenge against said mob boss.

Of these three, two are original stories written specifically for the film by Frank Miller. The first, starring Joe Levitt, is the best by far, eschewing Miller's typical thugs and whores for an intriguing little short. The other, final story in the film, which features Jessica Alba on a vengeful spree, watched silently and sadly by the ghost of Bruce Willis (in what has to be the most confusing and useless casting in a movie this year), is terrible. That leaves the hour-plus story focusing on Brolin, which pretty well sums up the entire movie (as well as Frank Miller's other adaptation this year): stylish, sexy, kind of predictable, boring, and completely stolen by (a mostly nude) Eva Green. Brolin is solid, as usual, but why is he Clive Owen? There's even a scene where he gets plastic surgery to change his face, and he's still Josh Brolin? What was the point?

Violence without any threat, style without any substance, and, at several points, sadly missing Michael Clarke Duncan, is there anything good about this wasted opportunity? Well, Mickey Rourke's Marv is a pretty consistent presence through the movie, so that's pretty good.

8. A Million Ways to Die in the West

Fuzzy Door Productions/Universal

Seth MacFarlane is a lot of things. Good looking, funny, creative, a hardworking innovator, a clever writer, a hell of a singer, and a very good director. Don't be surprised if I delete this entire entry if I ever try to find substantial work in the entertainment industry, but with this movie, I'm now convinced you can cross "leading man" off the list. As well as the words "very good" coming before director.

Seth's follow-up to Ted is a comedy set in the old west, where he plays Albert Stark, an intelligent and affable, but violence-shy, sheep farmer who loses his girlfriend (Amanda Seyfried) when it becomes apparent he's too cowardly to hold his own in a gunfight. However, when Anna, the begrudging wife of local outlaw Clinch Leatherwood (Liam Neeson) decides to teach him how to be a better shot, they wind up falling in love and then the movie ends after some stuff happens. I can appreciate A Million Ways as if a friend or family member made it, in the sense that I appreciate the attempt, and I can see the artistic voice of somebody I really do respect. There are good performances here and there and some funny scenes, particularly involving Neil Patrick Harris and a stoner Native American played by Wes Studi.

Unfortunately, McFarlane's "gag" oriented humor, which I normally appreciate, wears pretty thin here. The humor never really comes from the story or situations, but more from just one-off jokes and references the characters make.  I realize I am not even close to the first person to make this criticism of his work, and normally I'm kind of okay with it, but in an old-western where he's deliberately cut-off (for the most part) from the social satire and pop-cultural references that dot Family Guy, he doesn't have much else to go on. It's pretty hit-or-miss, and the hits are the sort of jokes you laugh at and then forget a second later. And while both he and Theron have a charming screen presence on their own, there's no chemistry here. Better luck next time.

7.  Age of Extinction

Paramount Pictures/Hasbro

Oh look, a snarky asshole critic on the internet watched a Transformers movie! How original! Now before you start, I'm not the biggest Transformer-hater on the internet. I really liked the first one, the now-legendary second one did not bug me that much, and I don't remember the third one. But this one broke me.

After the war in Chicago that ended that last one, the US Government has made it against the law to be an alien robot, and has begun to track down the ones that turn into cars, Autobots and Decepticons alike. That makes this the fourth movie where the evil US Government fucks everything up by not being able to tell the difference between the good robots and the bad ones, something everyone who grew up in the eighties can do, considering that, even with their legendary shapeshifting abilities, they're never able to carry the opposing teams decal. But there's more to it than that, it turns out Evil Government Man (Kelsey Grammer) is in league with an evil Lamborghini that's secretly a towering intergalactic bounty hunter with a sniper rifle for a face. The Lamborghini has orders to draw out our hero, Optimus Prime, and bring him to the "creators", who long ago assaulted Earth with tiny little bombs that turned everything into robots, killing the dinosaurs and turning them into robots. These are not the dinosaur robots that turn up on the poster though, those are different, because this movie makes no fucking sense.

Evil Government Man is going along with this plan because he is a xenophobic right-winger who thinks alien robots take American jobs and wants to replace them with man-made robots. You see, a local engineering company run by Stanley Tucci (scene-stealing, as usual) has discovered the metal that the Transformers (the first movie where that word is actually used) are made of ("transformium"), and, after some egregious product placement, has decided to make some robots of their very own. However, after creating a new robot named Galvatron (points for the reference), they discover that it's been possessed by Megatron's mind. Meanwhile, a poor, failed Texan inventor named Cade Yeager (Mark Wahlberg, still with a Boston accident) discovers a broken down semi and attempts to restore it, only to discover that it is, in fact, Optimus Prime. When the government comes to their house, they team up with Yeager's hot daughter (TM), her hot foreign boyfriend (TM),  and what remains of the Autobots (TM), including two racist caricatures, a fat guy, and Bumblebee to do a lot of fighting. At one point, Optimus rides a robot T-Rex.

I don't even see the need for a review at this point, because every reason not to see the movie (and several reasons to see it) are pretty well outlined in that plot. On the one hand, the special effects are top-notch as usual, there's some cool fighting, and Mark Wahlberg does his best to share the leading-man role with a gigantic robot. These are silly, occasionally fun movies that will probably be looked at as weird cult icons in the decades to come. But for whatever joy you get out of Transformers, be it genuine or ironic, you're going to lose it here. This movie is, for the most part, a hollow, self-serious affair that replaces any charm the series had at all with shooting and yelling and stabbing. Even the once-noble Optimus has been reduced to a sword-swinging psycho who just yells about how much he wants to kill everyone. Which sucks, because in the first couple minutes we actually get a good reminder of what made the first film work when Mark Wahlberg tries to put together an old truck that turns out to be alive. I'm going to come right out and say it; this movie is sorely missing Shia LaBeouf, and I do sincerely mean that.

But hey, if you want to wait two-and-a-half-hours just to see Optimus ride a fire-breathing robot T-Rex for all of five minutes, be my guest.

6. As Above, So Below

Legendary Pictures/Universal

Fuck, what was this one about?

Oh, yeah. So, like, these kids from America or whatever go to France to explore the catacombs, a dark and spooky series of tunnels that go all underneath France where dead people were buried. And before you ask, no I did not visit them during my trip to Europe. I did not get to go to France, unfortunately. I know there were catacombs in Coventry, which were not so much haunted tunnels decorated with rotting skulls as they just these old walls and benches from the medieval era that they built coffee shops on top of. Like you had to go get a key from the local museum or whatever and then talk to the people in the coffee shop and tell them you wanted to see the benches, and then you'd get to like open the door to the basement and go in and look around, but like, not for too long because they didn't want homeless people to get in.

What were we talking about? Oh yeah, this thing. Yeah so these Americans decided to go into the catacombs. One of them is like this girl whose looking for the Philosopher's Stone and she thinks it's in the catacombs. She gets her friends to go with her, including this one guy with a camera, and yeah before you ask this whole thing's one of those found footage movies. I remember thinking she as a cool, strong character, but all her friends are boring and have no discernible qualities. Then they go into the catacombs and there's like a cave and they wind up in a portal to hell, which is apparently as easy to get into as it is to get out of. And is filled with, like, people with cloaks walking around. Like it's not really that scary.

I don't know. There's some claustrophobia horror and some nifty jump scares. It's a B-horror movie, good for putting on when you and your friends want to get drunk. It tries, and it's not unbelievably insulting, it's just not entirely worth the money.

5. The Expendables 3

Millenium Films/Lionsgate

The Expendables 3, on the other hand, is unbelievably insulting. And I had to watch it because I was a film critic for a little while, before I was fired for being too negative.

First of all, look at that picture. look at them laughing. They're laughing at you. For actually paying money to see this drivel, which I can assure you you didn't, because it was not terribly successful. I did though, because it was my job. So, they're laughing at me, I guess.

I realize Sylvester Stallone's The Expendables was always the Grown-Ups of action movies; a bunch of actors who haven't been relevant in years come up with a movie as a means of going on vacation and getting paid for it, but now they're not even trying to hide it. The poster is literally just the actors smiling at you, letting you know what a great time they had playing dress-up. Like, it's not the characters, I know that because the characters are all grim and grumpy mercenaries. Hell, even the villain, the somewhat wonderfully named "Conrad Stonebanks" (Mel Gibson) is in the poster grinning along with everyone else. Why? Because that's not the villain, that's just Mel Gibson!

For those who haven't followed these movies, which is a list of people that includes those who watch them, I'm sure, the idea behind the first Expendables was to bring together the top action stars from the eighties in one movie, a notion which was only fully realized in the second movie. That film was a gleefully R-rated, over-the-top, blood mess where Stallone, Schwarzeneggar, and Willis, among others, all team up to take down Jean Claude Van-Damme, playing a villain who was literally named "Vilain." It was hilarious how far writer and star Stallone was from giving anything resembling a flying shit.

But it's not funny anymore, and not just because the new movie is rated PG-13. After breaking Wesley Snipes out of prison (get it?), Barney Ross (Stallone) decides something we all decided a long time ago; that his super-mercenary team is officially too old and he needs a new one with younger operatives if he's serious about fighting Stonebanks. The new recruites include Ronda Rousey, Victor Ortiz, and Glen Powell, all of whom, unlike the old Expendables, can actually kick ass in real life. However, they are like the old Expendables in that they can't act very well. Mel Gibson can though, and he's by far the best thing about the movie. Harrison Ford and Antonio Banderas show up as well.

The problem with the Expendables 3 is not that it's stupid, but that it's lazy and boring. It's like the Avengers, only instead of watching for the crossover of characters, you're watching for the crossover of actors. Only the actors are all people you don't care about. And also you're not watching anyway.

Fuck, what was this one about?

Oh, yeah. So, like, these kids from America or whatever go to France to explore the catacombs, a dark and spooky series of tunnels that go all underneath France where dead people were buried. ANd before you ask, no I did not visit them during my trip to Europe. I did not get to go to France, unfortunately. I know there were catacombs in Coventry, which were not so much haunted teunnels decorated with rotting skulls as they just these old walls and benches from the medieval era that they built coffee shops on top of. Like you had to go get a key from the local museum or whatever and then talk to the people in the coffee shop and tell them you wanted to see the benches, and then you'd get to like open the door to the basement and go in and look around, but like, not for too long because they didn't want homeless people to get in.

What were we talking about? Oh yeah, this thing. Yeah so these Americans decided to go into the catacombs. One of them is like this girl whose looking for the Philosopher's Stone and she thinks it's in the catacombs. She gets her friends to go with her, including this one guy with a camera, and yeah before you ask this whole thing's one of those found footage movies. I remember thinking she as a cool, strong character, but all her friends are boring and have no discernible qualities. Then they go into the catacombs and there's like a cave and they wind up in a portal to hell, which is apparently as easy to get into as it is to get out of. And is filled with, like, people with cloaks walking around. Like it's not really that scary.

I don't know. There's some claustrophobia horror and some nifty jump scares. It's a B-horror movie, good for putting on when you and your friends want to get drunk. It tries, and it's not unbelievably insulting, it's just not entirely worth the money.

4. The Giver

Walden/The Weinstein Company

You can split a lot of the movies I disliked during the year into ones that tried and ones that did not. I can forgive a movie for a lot (more of that in a moment) but few things irk me as much as cynicism. Well, like, not cynicism about the state of humanity or the world; that’s good, and it usually makes for good movies.  But cynicism in the sense that a movie expects people will go and see it just because. 

The Giver is  another adaptation of a young adult novel, a genre which surpasses even superhero movies in terms of media domination and blunt, flimsy social criticism. I didn’t read The Giver in high school like you did, and I certainly didn’t know it counted as young adult fiction, because it had a gross old man on the cover, whereas the film poster was smart to emphasize the attractive young people in the movie. As is the case with a lot of young-adult sci-fi, The Giver rips off Fahrenheit 451 by taking place in a supposedly idyllic, but secretly totalitarian, society where people have been engineered to live in certain communities and have certain careers that help the overall tribe. However, in order to ensure that the citizens live out their purpose without complication, emotion has been phased out of their biological makeup, and there are no historical records of most of human history.

If this all sounds familiar, that’s probably because the “totalitarian future where everybody is in separated communities and X is illegal because of some messy apocalypse in the past, and now some attractive white teenagers want to fight against it” is a pretty common trope in young adult fiction, but this is an old book, so whose ripping off whom is beyond me. Come to think of it, it’s starting to sound a lot like Divergent, another dystopian YA movie that almost made it onto this list, until my friend made me watch Horrible Bosses 2. And I know Divergent came later and is probably considered the true appropriation by YA purists, but at least it made me care a little about its world.

It gets better though. It turns out our main character, Sexy McTeenMan, is meant to be a “Giver”. The  current Giver (Jeff Bridges) is a guy who holds the collective memories of every person that’s ever existed, and, as a result, experiences their emotion as well, so that someone can advise the Chief Elder (Meryl Streep) with knowledge of history.

There’s not a lot of snark to be said about this one. There’s a nice premise, some good acting, and one of the best living actors in the role of villain, which should counterbalance an appearance by Taylor Swift. It’s shot in an interesting way, so I liked that. So how could a movie this competently made, with Meryl Streep no less, wind up this far down the list? The problem is the movie fails to make you really care about it’s characters or its world that much. There’s not much of a conflict until all of a sudden the main character has to rescue a baby or something from the police. It’s kind of just a couple hours of dull nonsense until it leads up to one of the dumbest and most confusing endings I’ve ever seen in a movie. I didn’t hate it, I just don’t see the point.

3. Step Up: All In

Summit Entertainment/Lionsgate

I do, however, see the point in Step Up: All In, a movie that tries its god damn heart out. The point, of course, being to watch unbelievably sexy people do a little dance on screen in front of you. I almost feel bad putting the movie this low; it genuinely, and I mean this without irony, has among the most impressive dance choreography I think I’ve ever seen in a movie. There were scenes that blew me away with their creativity, their complexity, and their showcasing of the lead actress’s midriff. So how did a movie like that wind up third on my most stuffed “worst of” list ever? Probably because the acting and dialogue and plot and, you know, all the things that make a movie a movie, and not just a music video, are hilariously bad. I mean if you took all the scenes that did not involve dancing and edited them together, it would be Asylum-level quality. Every second somebody isn’t doing confusing things with their body is a second I couldn’t believe I was in the theater watching this movie, having paid money to see it. And I once saw Birdemic in a theater.

The plot, as it was explained to me by a good friend who likes these movies, involves the main characters from the last three Step Up movies (not the first one though, because Channing Tatum is expensive now) all coming together in an Avengers-style crossover to compete in a dance competition together. Sounds cool enough, except these movies are not built on story, they’re built on dance, bitch. Every conflict in this movie is solved with dancing, and over the course of like five minutes. A character cheats on another character? They dance it out. A guy is conflicted about competing against his friends? Dancing. Someone doesn’t want to dance? Everybody dance! I know that sounds hypocritical coming from a guy who watches movies where conflicts are solved with punching all the time, but there’s something about super-choreographed dancing that makes it obvious there’s no emotion or plot driving it; its just what looks cool.
And as great as that is, I don’t think people are quite as willing to sit through it. I could be wrong, of course, but it seems to me like over an hour of dance scenes, no matter how cool, with only the most insulting idea of a plot to string it together, doesn’t really seem worth it. It’s one thing if the dancing is treated like action scenes like in most historical musicals, woven into the plot and infused with theme and tension; but all of that is gone when the reason the characters are dancing is because they’re practicing for a competition. I’d say this is great for fans of the franchise, but even my friend was underwhelmed, and I honestly can’t buy that the average viewer will enjoy most of this.
Great for putting on at a party and fast-forwarding to the good bits, but probably not something you’d ever want to sit all the way through.

2. God's Not Dead

Pure Flix Entertainment

And now we get to the most legendarily bad movie of the year. A movie that has already gained notoriety as one of the worst movies ever made. The crown jewel atop the shit-cake of low-budget Christian propaganda that has made such an unfortunate comeback in the last couple years: God’s Not Dead. Oh god, what can a snarky blogger say that hasn’t already been said?

Chances are, you already know the plot: Josh Wheaton (some guy) is a young, Christian, college student who enrolls in a philosophy class, only to come across a major problem: the teacher (Kevin Sorbo, the only actor this year who actually should have starred in a Hercules movie), Professor Radisson, is an evil, conniving atheist who requires his students to all write the words “God is Dead” on a sheet of paper or risk failing the class, because in the dystopian future this movie takes place in, atheist teachers are allowed to judge the entire class’s grade on one assignment that’s deliberately created to persecute Christians. In order to pass, Josh is then supposed to take up as much of the film’s runtime and use as many tired, bullshit apologetics as he can think of to convince Professor Radisson that god exists. Or, more appropriately, that god is not dead, because the film is apparently under the assumption that atheists actually literally believe that god was alive at one point but is no longer.

I wanted to devote an entire post to this when I first saw it, but, as I outlined in the creationist museum article, I don’t really want to turn my blog into yet another “smartass talks about religion” blog, not necessarily because those offend me (as you may have noticed, this is already a “smartass talks about Bond movies various things blog), but more because there’s not a whole lot about this kind of ridiculous propaganda I can say that someone fatter and beardier than me has probably said better and funnier and more pointedly. As a result, much has already been made about how ridiculous it is somebody actually made a movie out of paranoid Christian e-mail copypasta (it’s the most egregious example since The Adventures of Nigerian Prince and Return of the Ghost That Eats You if You Don’t Copy this Status Three Times). So what else can I say about it?

Well, a few things. Like how there’s more disconnected subplots than a Roland Emmerich disaster film. Altogether, you’d think they’d communicate a theme like “god is real” or “god is good”, or, hell, even “god is not dead.” But the only thing all these subplots have in common is some variation on the theme “people who aren’t Christian are bad, miserable people.” The sole exception being a subplot in which Reverend Dave’s (David R. White) faith undergoes frustration when his failing car spoils his attempts to take his visiting friend to Disney World. His friend sees providence in their misfortune, perhaps because he has faith that god puts people through trying times for a reason, like reminding two reverends on their way to Disney World that they are, in fact, grown-ass men. Then there’s a young Asian man whose overbearing father does not want him to be a Christian because it might hurt his grades, a young muslim woman whose overbearing father does not want her to be a Christian because he might hurt her face, and a young, liberal, ACLU, vegan liberal atheist who contracts cancer shortly after an interview where she rudely admonishes “Duck Dynasty” star Willie Robertson, in a scene that was shockingly shot and filmed by real people at one point. Her boyfriend, also an atheist, is dismissive of this fact, because the movie cannot make up its mind about whether atheists are selfish sociopaths or bleeding-heart types who yell at reality stars for killing ducks.

The weird thing is, the movie has moments of clarity. We find out that Professor Radisson has a Christian girlfriend at home that he is in a loving, (mostly) functional relationship with. There’s another equally interesting (if short-lived) scene where the Muslim father reminds his daughter that the people who live in Christian society (or more honestly, secular society) are “unhappy” and she is better off staying in her religion; an accusation the film seems to be levying against atheists. Like the creator’s of Skynet, I am forced to wonder if what I am viewing has become self-aware. But alas, it is not. Radisson and his girlfriend are incompatible, as are the young Muslim woman and her father upon his discovery that she has been listening to audiotracks of Christian sermons; because atheists are assholes and Muslims are violent. All these plotlines inevitably converge at what I’m convinced is one of the most insulting endings to a movie I’ve ever seen.

In the end, the strawman atheist teacher is revealed to have not been an atheist, not in the literal sense, but a former Christian who gave up his faith after a tragic occurrence. Sorbo, by far the best thing about the film, runs with it. This is not a man who has difficulty believing the claims of a religion he is not longer a part of, but a sad and hurt person who has been unable to spiritually or psychologically move past an event that happened to him as a child. While this rather insultingly gives the impression that only tragedy, greed, or smugness would push a man to atheism; it at least gives Sorbo the chance to infuse his character with more humanity than the script does. But the rest is propaganda so inexcusable, it’s no wonder the movie’s found the fame it has.

1. Left Behind
Entertainment One/Freestyle Releasing

So what could possible be worse than the most infamous and egregious example of Christian propaganda in years? Well imagine that Christian propaganda had a chaste marriage with a disaster flick from the SyFy channel, and that’s how you get Left Behind.

If you’ve heard of the novel series by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins, or the subsequent film adaptations starring Kirk Cameron, you probably know the gist; the rapture occurs, and we are Left Behind with those who did not ascend. In this adaptation (I don’t know how faithful it is), we are introduced to Chloe Steele, a young woman returning from college to surprise her father, Rayford Steele (Nicholas Cage, who seems too big an actor for this project until you think about it) for his birthday. She becomes upset to discover that he will not be present, as he is instead flying to England that weekend. Granted, he’s an airline pilot, so he has to fly to another country for work, and he had no idea she would be visiting that weekend, but this story needs conflict, and it stems from Chloe’s discomfort at being left alone with her mother, Irene (Lea Thompson), a loving but religious woman who tends to bring up her faith around her daughter more often than Chloe is comfortable with.  Worse, Chloe’s issues with her father are validated when we see clues that he has the intention of having an affair with one of his stewardesses in England.

The movie wants us to feel like Irene is being treated unfairly by her family for being a good Christian, but it becomes apparent that her newfound dedication to her faith is not shared by her husband or daughter and is tearing the family apart. However, she is vindicated in the end when she, along with a large portion of humanity, including Ray’s copilot, suddenly disappears from the face of the earth. This leaves Chloe in the unfortunate position of trying to find her missing brother in a mall and Ray in the more unfortunate position of trying to pilot a plane full of panicking and unlikeable characters during a global catastrophe. Naturally, there is a fuel shortage at one point. Among the cast of misfits aboard Ray’s plane is journalist Buck Williams, a role formerly played by 90s sitcom star Kirk Cameron but here played by puppy-faced aughties CW star Chad Michael Murray. There’s also a muslim, a senile old woman, one of the crewmen from the Black Pearl, and Jordin Sparks.

Any questions about why so much of the film is on an airplane are answered when we turn to the subplot about Chloe trying to survive in a world that’s turned to anarchy and chaos, which the film chooses to represent as “lots of extras running around parking lots”. Looting, murder and school bus crashes abound. I’m going to give the movie the benefit of the doubt and assume that this is all the movie’s awkward way of trying to show the human chaos that occurs during a disaster, and not an implication that everybody would murder each other all the time if there were no Christians around.

Except, that’s still sort of the problem. For what it’s worth, Left Behind is probably far less of a work of Christian propaganda than God’s Not Dead is. We even get a Muslim character whose not a tired stereotype. There’s an interesting catch-22 with the genre of rapture fiction; it’s Christian propaganda that, by it’s nature, asks you to sympathize with non-Christians, or at least Christians who aren’t Christian enough. It’s still propaganda, mind you; the moral of the story is “hardcore Christians are right and you should listen to them”, and it’s not like the cast is exactly full of atheists. The heroes are all Christians who have committed the sin of not taking the Bible’s hokey doomsday predictions seriously. Still, aside from Ray’s implied affair, they’re not demonized in the way they are in other faith-based movies.

So, why is this movie worse than God’s Not Dead? Pretty simple: while Left Behind is less blatantly insulting, it is still pretty fucking bad. Give GND credit, at least it knows what kind of movie it is. It’s a small story set in a small town and filmed with a small budget. Left Behind has a similarly small budget, but tries to make you think it’s an epic film about global catastrophe, with utterly disastrous results. The first twenty minutes are eye rolling, the next half-hour is hilarious, and the hour after that is just fucking boring as hell. The movie’s version of a world gone mad seems to be mostly relegated to brightly-lit sunny days filled with screaming extras running around public malls. Occasionally, someone will try to rob someone else, or a driverless vehicle will crash into something (one memorable scene has Chloe scream in horror as a completely empty schoolbus falls off a cliff). That’s not the end of the world, that’s just a normal day in Oakland. I know I’m focusing too much on this, but a true disaster artist like Stephen Soderbergh will tell you the importance of lighting and the color of a shot. If you’re trying to show us the end of days by having an attractive, untouched actress wander aimlessly around what looks like a perfectly beautiful day in Texas, it doesn’t come off as scary, it comes off as fucking hilarious.

And that’s unfortunate, because maybe with a better budget, they could have done more with the story. I know there are Left Behind novels that deal with the Antichrist taking over the world and people fighting in World War 3 and stuff, but we got stuck with a story that’s primarily set in Nicholas Cage’s cockpit, and apparently the movie could barely even afford that. Cage is, believe it or not, a bright spot in the movie, reserved as he is. Hyperbole aside, he is an actual actor and he’s more talented than the rest of the cast, and this is still far from the most ridiculous movie he’s appeared in. However, it may very well be the worst.

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