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The 1970s were an era of spiritual awakening. Even hippie weed smokers got in on the Jesus action. LSD seemed to fan their consciousness to new agape love and peace-making qualities. There were public baptisms at places like Woodstock and the Monterey Pop Festival. Clergy were involved in ending the war and flashing peace signs.
Tim LaHaye received international superstardom after publishing the Left Behind series, which is about the gospel prophecy of the rapture. The rapture is the pre-tribulation belief, loosely stated in the Book of Matthew, that ardent Christian believers will be suddenly removed from the earth right before God’s judgment is unleashed on the planet. The tribulation is the final seven years of suffering on Earth that will test human spirituality. It will involve pestilence, famine, epidemic diseases, multiple earthquakes, and other worldwide disasters. There will be a Beast, or anti-Christ, a devilish leader who will lead the world astray with his magnetism and dictate purchases through the use of a number, like a credit card. Civil authority will be arrested and government authority will not be able to control the people. The world will be in economic and spiritual chaos.
When I was cajoled by a colleague into going to this movie, I had reminiscences of my youth pastor in the mid-’70s telling us about the rapture and pre-Armageddon. I did not know what to expect entering the movie theater, but I figured it would be a cheesy version of End Times prophecy. I was pleasantly surprised when I saw Nicolas Cage in the top billing. Lea Thompson plays his wife. Nicolas Cage has been through some pre-rapture trials. Lisa Marie Presley made him sell his beloved baseball collection when she was briefly married to him. Although he was born with a silver spoon, being the nephew of Francis Ford Coppola, he has carved his way onto the industry A-list with challenging roles.
Cage states in a recent interview about “Left Behind,” “I was very taken by the family dynamic that plays out in this script and that’s what drew me to the project; that and an opportunity to work again with Vic Armstrong. I had a good rapport with him on another movie (Season of the Witch), so I felt that I could get to where I wanted to go with Captain Steele. This is a person who is in an extraordinary situation and realizes what his values are through a catharsis during the experience of this flight that he’s on.”
He states about the core of the movie, “If there’s anything for me, I want that to come across, yeah, we all make mistakes, but in a moment of crisis what we really want to go back to is the love we have for our families. That’s what pulled me into this project. I’ve always been attracted to movies that aren’t afraid to venture into the unknown.”
Cage was not aware that there is a television series called “The Leftovers” in which other people picked up on the End Times prophecy and dramatized it. He was just focused on the character. He states, “I think someone invented a steam train in one part of the world and another person was inventing the same thing and they had never talked. So I mean, there are times when you can tap into something subconsciously. But that wasn’t on my mind, I wasn’t aware of any of it. I just felt that the script was a challenge and it gave me a chance to really try to make the extraordinary believable and to do something authentic.” He was referring to the worldwide awareness of End Times scripture.
Another strong actor in the film was Cassi Thomson, who challenges the beliefs of her born-again mother and the fidelity of her father, a pilot about to embark to England to have a weekend tryst with his lover/flight attendant, Hattie Durham, played by Nicky Whelan. Thomson, who played the daughter, Chloe Steele, was entirely focused on her worldly college pursuits and opposed to her mother’s obsession with Christianity, to which she had recently converted. Rayford Steele (Nicolas Cage) explains to Chloe, “If your mother is going to leave me for another man, it might as well be Jesus.”
As Rayford Steele, the pilot, ascends across the Atlantic with his flight crew and about 50 passengers, Chloe discovers right after lift-off that her dad is going to a U2 concert with black market tickets with the sexy flight attendant. She sulks, realizing her father lied to her when she came home to surprise him on his birthday weekend. She heads home in her dad’s car after meeting him at the airport briefly to wish him a happy birthday.
When she gets home, she is greeted by her Bible-banging mother, who immediately opens up a conversation about salvation. Chloe says, “I just got off a plane. Save it for later.” Her bespectacled brother shadows the conversation in the hallway, then begs his sister to take him to the mall with her. They go to the mall and the rapture takes place there. Her brother disappears along with hundreds of other people. A car crashes into the mall area.
Simultaneously, people disappear off the plane into thin air. A mother played by Jordin Sparks of American Idol panics and blames the flight crew for her daughter disappearing. She thinks it’s a conspiracy by her husband. A midget yells at a Muslim when the Muslim says, “Let’s all pray together.” The midget replies, “Whose God are we going to pray for?” Jordin Spark’s character panics and somehow gets ahold of a gun from the cockpit and points it toward everyone.
There are monumental moments of truth in the film, but as an audience member, I didn’t feel bombarded by religious quotes or scriptural warning. It was normal dialogue for people in a crisis situation. A British woman on the plane who went to Bible camp recalls the prophecy of the rapture and tells the passengers that this was the incident her camp counselors warned her about in sixth grade. An event would take place causing the body of Christ to be taken suddenly from the earth. Some people seem to digest what she is saying.
Nicolas Cage asks his would-be lover to go collect the belongings of the flight attendant who disappeared. While in the cockpit he finds her calendar book, which states she was attending a Bible study on a Thursday night. Pilot Steele concludes his assumption: all the people who disappeared were Christian believers, including his wife he cannot reach.
Meanwhile, Chloe’s car gets wrecked by a driverless bus in the mall parking lot. She treks home only to find the obvious. Her mother has disappeared to be with Christ. She walks silently around the house, looking at the plaques and Christian symbols her mother has placed in almost every room. She visits the family pastor at the church, actually finding him there. She asks him why he didn’t go up with the rest. He says, “I recited the words, but that didn’t make me a believer.” Chloe is still in a cynical stage. She realizes she made a mistake, though, by not giving her mother the time of day.
The movie ends in a secular way when Chloe finally reunites with her father, who turns around in the Atlantic and heads back to the States. This gives both remaining family members hope. Chloe is about to jump off a bridge when her father reaches her. Rayford Steele is unable to land at La Guardia or JFK, so Chloe enables them to land in a construction zone with a long runway. Everyone lands safely. The flight attendant who was taken aback by Pilot Steele’s biblical revelations midway through the film makes peace with her betrayed lover when he asks her to pitch in and keep the passengers calm. She does a tremendous job, and they congratulate each other for a safe landing.
This movie could be classified as action. Although it falls under the category of apocalyptic fiction, the message is in the action itself. “The rapture is the calling card of those who are dragging their feet to commitment,” says Jon Yoder, a youth pastor in Santa Monica. There is no Bible-beating of scriptures or attempt to prove the possibility of the prophecy mentioned in the one of the four gospels. The movie has realistic dialogue, would appeal to a secular audience based on the acting alone, and has an unusual chain of events. Nicolas Cage rose to the occasion and pulled off the reality of a near-flight disaster and being professional during one. His co-stars enabled the production to successfully take and land its course while only mildly rattling the audience conscience. Grade: A-