Retrospective: Left Behind – Rise of the Antichrist (2023)

Welcome back to the Left Behind retrospective! We have finally reached the most recent entry in the franchise, Left Behind: Rise of the Antichrist. After the critical and financial failure of the Left Behind reboot and the embarrassing, putrid mess that was Vanished, surely Left Behind couldn’t get any worse, right? Well… Kevin Sorbo’s here and he’s gonna do his damnest to make sure this Retrospective ends with a long, wet fart sound. Will I be able to keep my sanity if I watch one more Left Behind movie? Read on to find out…

Side-note: I would find it funny if some evangelical boomer tried to watch this movie and accidentally exposed themselves to Lars von Trier’s Antichrist instead. If anyone has any stories about this happening, please share in the comments.

Once again we have another “trendy for its release date, but extremely-overdone” kind of poster. Not awful, but extremely boring. (Although, that said, what the fuck is wrong with Chloe’s hair/head…?)

Production

Despite the financial failure of the Left Behind reboot, Cloud Ten were undaunted in wanting to move forward with a sequel. However, due to not making back their money on that movie when it was in theaters, they had to resort to an Indiegogo campaign to try to raise funds. The goal for this campaign was set at $500,000, but they only ended up raising $80,699… however, because this campaign was set with a flexible funding goal, they ended up keeping all the money anyway! Backers were then left with a very, very long wait for any news on the movie. After nearly three years of nothing, they surely must have felt that they had gotten swindled.

However, the silence would eventually be broken in 2017 when Paul Lalonde announced that he had officially acquired the rights to adapt all the Left Behind books – as mentioned previously, until now they had only had the rights to the first two books. This would now mean that they could adapt the entire series going forward, and planned to do so over the course of at least five more movies. During this time, a script for a sequel to Left Behind had been written, once again by Paul Lalonde and John Patus (although this time they would also share writing credits with newcomer Jessica Parker). Kevin Sorbo was approached for a role in the movie at this time. Given this information, it seems likely that, even at this time, Nicolas Cage was out of the movie. Either Cloud Ten had not secured his commitment to potential sequels, or they could no longer afford him (reportedly, his salary for Left Behind was $3.5 million, which would end up being the entire budget for this second film). According to Kevin Sorbo, due to the close proximity of Left Behind and God’s Not Dead, Cloud Ten became inundated with questions about why Nic Cage was cast a Rayford Steele rather than Kevin Sorbo, which may have also contributed to the attempt to recast. Whatever the case may be, Sorbo actually passed on the sequel initially, leaving the film without a lead.

Despite having a script ready to go in 2017, Rise of the Antichrist wouldn’t actually enter production for several more years. I wasn’t able to find confirmation about why exactly it took so long to actually enter the pipeline (I searched through years of Facebook updates from the official page and the sort of shit they were posting there not only didn’t clarify things, it actively made my brain want to melt out of my ears), but if I have to speculate, I would imagine that they had difficulty finding funding. However, this may have been a blessing in disguise for Cloud Ten, because 2020 brought with it the COVID-19 pandemic and a massive wave of conservatives rallying against public safety measures. In the midst of this environment, Paul Lalonde and John Patus updated their script to better reflect “current events” and, as the film finally went into full production, Kevin Sorbo accepted roles as the star and director of Rise of the Antichrist.

If you are unfamiliar with him, Sorbo is definitely worth exploring a bit to understand what sort of energy he was bringing to Left Behind. The man was in a career resurgence (of sorts) off the back of God’s Not Dead, which had type-cast him as the “recognizable has-been who will star in any Capital-C Christian movie” guy. He would soon appear regularly in these sorts of films, including Joseph & Mary, Let There Be Light, and The Girl Who Believes in Miracles. Sorbo would claim that Hollywood “blacklisted” him for being a Christian, but it seems like he was getting steady work, just no “massive” roles. That said, we’d be remiss to not mention the real reason he wasn’t getting big roles starting in the early 2010s, and that is because he is a massive, outspoken, conservative dickhead. Like, don’t take that wrong – I don’t mean that people hated him because he was conservative, but more the way which social conservative beliefs made him into an insufferable prick and social media troll (with such highlights as saying that The Passion of the Christ wasn’t anti-Semitic, because the Jews did kill Jesus, or calling black people “animals” during the Ferguson riots).

Sorbo’s entry into the Christian media landscape marked a change in how these movies tend to be made. As I mentioned in my reviews of the God’s Not Dead movies, God is almost entirely absent in these movies – their actual focus is clearly on conservative politics and culture war bullshit. They aren’t trying to change minds, they’re made to rile up a conservative audience and disparage their ideological enemies. That’s why I expressed surprise in my reviews of Left Behind and Vanished that these two movies weren’t leaning into these contemporary trends, but instead were focused on a more traditional Christian movie approach of trying to actually appeal to non-Christian audiences. Sorbo’s post-God’s Not Dead films tend to be moreso conservative than they are Christian, so his involvement in this film definitely painted the picture that this new Left Behind might hew more in that direction for the first time in the franchise’s history.

Chad Michael Murray, Cassi Thomson and Nicky Whelen were originally contracted to reprise their roles as Buck, Chloe, and Hattie, respectively, but given how much time had passed since the last film, they were unable to fit the film into their schedules. As a result, Rise of the Antichrist had to be fully-recast (like some other crowd-funded sequels I can think of). Sorbo aside, the new cast included Greg Parrow (of… nothing fame) as Buck Williams, Sarah Fisher (of Degrassi: The Next Generation fame) as Chloe Steele, Sam Sorbo (Kevin’s wife) as Amanda White, Charles Andrew Payne (also not particularly famous despite being in lots of small roles over the years) as Bruce Barnes, Corbin Bernsen (known for lots of things, among them the Major League movies) as Steve Plank, and Bailey Chase (who has an extensive history of pretty prominent TV credits) as Nicolae Carpathia. The other big name in the cast was Neal McDonough. It’s worth noting that, by this time, Neal McDonough has kind of earned a reputation for being the best, lowest-rent villain actor available, after turns in garbage such as Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li, Resident Evil: Welcome to Raccoon City, and Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2. I definitely thought that he was going to be cast as Nicolae Carpathia, which would have legitimately been pretty spot-on casting, but instead they cast him as… Jonathan Stonagal!? This is baffling enough, but it makes me realize that they absolutely missed an opportunity by casting Nicolas Cage as Rayford Steele – can you imagine if they had cast him as Nicolae Carpathia instead!? That sort of move could single-handedly buoy any Left Behind movie to greatness if they had the balls to do it.

Filming would get underway in Calgary in late 2021 and wrap up after 19 days of shooting. Kevin Sorbo and Paul Lalonde would go on press tours to promote the film, which only furthered my concerns about a potential new direction for Left Behind. Sorbo and Lalonde both said in interviews that they truly believed that the Rapture is imminent (funny side-note: in the aforementioned Facebook page posts, Lalonde would get very angry at people who suggested that the Rapture might occur after the Tribulation; for the record, this is the same sort of nerd energy you’d get watching someone getting frothing mad about a fanfic shipping two characters they don’t like). Lalonde would confirm that the 2014 Left Behind reboot was top-down intended to preach to a broad audience, whereas this film was intended to “wake up” Christians about the state of the world. He also added that “I think it may be our last real opportunity to ride a wave before [end times prophecy] all comes to pass”. On a completely unrelated note, those people who were saying the same thing in the midst of truly apocalyptic events like World War II, World War I, and the Black Death must have been a bunch of self-centered losers, eh?

Anyway… Rise of the Antichrist would release in theaters January 26, 2023 and grossed at least $3.6 million. It was successful enough that Kevin Sorbo has confirmed that a sequel has been greenlit and that he will be returning to direct it. He had claimed that it was going to start filming by the end of 2023, but I have seen no updates since then, so we’ll see when, and if, that happens…

Plot Synopsis

Rise of the Antichrist picks up six months after Left Behind. Buck is skeptical about the “official” stats about the vanishings and causes a stir at GWN when he grills a UN representative who suggests that a second wave of vanishings is imminent. When this predicted event does occur, Buck becomes suspicious that this latest event is being faked in order to keep people scared and compliant, since no one seems to actually know anyone who has disappeared this time. Despite threats from his boss, Steve Plank, Buck begins looking into this theory with his hacker friend, Dirk Burton.

Meanwhile, the Steele household is still reeling from the events of the vanishings. Chloe is traumatized about her mother and brother’s disappearance, is lacking direction, and is unconvinced that the Rapture was the cause of the disappearances. Rayford, on the other hand, is seeking answers, which brings him to the vandalized remnants of New Hope Village Church, where he finds Bruce Barnes. Rayford’s earnest searching is enough to pull Bruce out of his depression and they endeavour to begin preaching the word to the lost.

Jonathan Stonagal announces that the world financial system is on the brink of collapse in the face of the most recent wave of vanishings, and moves to complete the consolidation of all currencies into a single, unified currency through his social media platform, Eden. In response to this, an anonymous contact provides Dirk Burton with access to Eden’s servers, where he discovers that Stonagal is going to use Eden to enforce unprecedented control over all people and all nations. He informs Buck about this and the pair begin preparing to gather more evidence to expose the truth. Steve gets wind of this and fires Buck on the spot. However, Buck still has some access to the building and tries to make one last broadcast with Dirk, but before he can, Dirk is killed in a car bombing. Buck manages to escape and then sneaks into Dirk’s apartment to steal his laptop, and the evidence on it, before the assassins can discover its location.

While this has been happening, Rayford and Bruce manage to convince Chloe that the Rapture is the cause of the vanishings. She tries to share this with Buck and warn him about prophecies associated with the Antichrist, but Buck is dismissive. He needs to get the evidence to Nicolae Carpathia, the UN Secretary General, to help him Stonagal before it’s too late. When he gets there, he hears about plans which line up with the prophecies Chloe had just been telling him and realizes that she was right. He converts right before the UN delegates meet with Nicolae, Stonagal, and Todd-Cothran. Nicolae shoots Stonagal and Todd-Cothran to usurp their power and then mind-controls everyone (except for Buck) into believing that the pair were killed by assassins instead. However, Buck leaves the room and immediately hacks into GWN’s broadcast to declare that Nicolae is a liar and that Jesus is Lord. He is pursued by the assassins, but manages to escape on a private plane with Rayford, Chloe, and Bruce, and they fly over the city to drop leaflets about the Rapture.

Review

I really hoped that I’d get to use the Kevin Sorbo “DIS-AP-POINTED!” meme in this review… but, honestly, I can’t really justify it being used organically. I watched a Kevin Sorbo Left Behind movie, and I got a Kevin Sorbo Left Behind movie. Don’t take that as me going into this biased and looking for reasons to hate it. I had heard that this movie actually wasn’t bad, so I was legitimately going into this with an open mind to see if that was true. Plus, I had just watched Vanished, so I was absolutely primed to be far nicer to this movie than I might otherwise have been. However, after years of dealing with culture war bullshit on social media, I’m just so exhausted when I encounter that kind of content. That’s what the experience of watching Rise of the Antichrist is like – like reading some fuckin’ conservative grifter’s post on X and just feeling all the energy drain out of you at the thought of having to make a response to this shit yet again. Rise of the Antichrist makes me want to not waste time thinking or writing about it, but… well, here we are. I did this to myself, after all…

We’ll get the good stuff out of the way first: Rise of the Antichrist is easily the second-best looking Left Behind movie, second only to the 2014 reboot. However, that movie also had a budget that was almost five times greater than this one, so the fact that it looks comparable is pretty impressive. It also absolutely puts the reported budgets of Left Behind: The Movie and Tribulation Force to shame (again, if you assume that those reported budgets were accurate, which I absolutely do not). Sorbo’s direction is very workman-like, but it’s still miles ahead of what we’ve seen from most movies in this series. In fact, after this entry I’d be willing to bestow upon the Left Behind franchise the prestigious distinction that they have now achieved the quality level of “theatrically-released evangelical movie”. That doesn’t sound impressive, but hey, it took them 22 years to get to that point.

And, uh, that’s about the nicest thing I can say about this movie. Suit up, we’re about to wade into the sewage…

Predictably, the big differentiation between Rise of the Antichrist and all the Left Behind projects that came before it is that this movie’s political message is overwhelming. If you agree with the fundamentally American, Republican party politics that this movie presents, then you’re probably going to have an easier time enjoying it, as it incessantly jerks you off from start to finish. If you do not agree with these politics, then they’re going to be a constant annoyance that makes engaging with the film on any other level an exhausting affair. This becomes apparent right off the bat, as the film opens with Buck interviewing a psychologist from the UN who claims that there is data to suggest that another wave of vanishings are coming. Buck spends this whole scene incredulous, asking her where she got her data from, and then where the people who got her the data got it from. Like, I get that he’s a reporter doing an interview, but what is he actually doing here? Dunking on this woman for not being able to personally verify the source of the information she has on live TV? She’s reporting the data that experts have apparently vetted. He has no actual reason to be skeptical of this data, he just is immediately hostile to the whole thing. It’s clearly intended to be a dig at “Trust the science” types, but there’s a certain point where you kind of have to accept what the majority of accredited experts are saying. You simply can’t look into everything yourself and can’t be educated enough for every important topic, so at a certain point you have to put trust in the community or you’ll drive yourself nuts. I’m not even saying to just blindly accept everything, or even to kowtow to what news media says. If there’s legitimate dissent, then there will be a sizeable counter-narrative which can be examined to see if it is accurate. However, if the vast majority of the people with knowledge on a subject are saying one thing, then there’s a pretty good chance that they’re right. Goddammit, the movie’s barely started and I’m already getting exhausted.

Anyway, this scene ends with Buck telling the audience “Don’t accept what the so-called experts tell you” and “Don’t sign up for a vanishings vaccine”…

Of course, we soon find that, “Oh my God!”, there has indeed been a second wave of vanishings! People’s phones start alerting them and they all head home in a panic. However, Buck soon discovers that this “second wave” was entirely fabricated and all of the people who were reported to have vanished never existed. I don’t even need to state explicitly that there’s a COVID-19 allegory here, do I? Hell, I have personally met people who believed that the pandemic was “fake”. Again, this is exhausting to even talk about – what good even is it for me to say that I personally knew a guy who died from the disease, that a lady at my church died of it, that several public figures were confirmed to have died of it, that the OG Rayford Steele freaking died of it? They can just go “Oh, those ones may or may not be legitimate, but the numbers are exaggerated.” Or they can pivot to the direction this film goes, that they’re manipulating the stats to control the public. Todd-Cothran’s role in this film is to manipulate the UN’s data to say whatever they want it to. Stonagal, on the other hand, has bought up media conglomerates and social media to push whatever narrative he wants, which will be backed up by Todd-Cothran’s data to seem convincing. Steve Plank, as head of GWN, goes along with this, saying that scared people will stay in their homes and be easier to control as a result. Hell, they call out “The Great Reset” in the movie by name multiple times as this sinister initiative to allow Stonagal to control the world. The funniest part about all of this is that Stonagal’s closest analogue in real life, the richest man alive who bought up a social media app with the intent of making an “everything app”, is goddamn Elon Musk – a man whose dick could not be further down Kevin Sorbo’s throat. Of course, this is because there is no principled stand going on here, it’s just Kevin’s political grift in action. Who would have thought that the man famous for celebrating January 6 while it was happening and then immediately saying that Antifa did it when it failed would be a man who just kowtows to whatever the popular conservative narrative is right now?

As you can expect, Rise of the Antichrist continues like this throughout its entire runtime. I don’t have the energy to try to address every single point, nor would it really be worth anyone’s time for me to do so. The important thing to note is that this movie does to Left Behind exactly what you’d fear a Kevin Sorbo Left Behind movie would do. Gone are the sincere attempts to change hearts and minds, instead replaced with masturbatory screeds of “Wow, can you believe how stupid those other people are?!”

In a lot of ways, the religious aspects of Rise of the Antichrist are comparable to previous Left Behind films – there’s still lots of altar calls, attempts to convince people that this was actually the Rapture and Jesus loves them, etc. For most of these prior films, it’s an element I barely feel the need to address (unless there’s some particular noteworthy fuck-up, like Ray Comfort’s awful evangelism tactics in Tribulation Force); usually, you either agree with what they’re saying, or you don’t and it completely falls flat. However, the confrontational tone that Rise of the Antichrist takes riles me up enough that it compels me to be more critical of the religious aspects than I otherwise would be: both for this film, and for Left Behind as a media franchise.

We’ll start with this film’s not-so-subtle message that real, true Christians (and the conservative Republican sorts who fall into that category) are the moral fabric of society. Buck’s opening monologue goes on about how, six months after the Rapture, the rates of murder, suicide, rape, robbery, vandalism, etc have skyrocketed by hundreds of percent each. This is supplemented by the assertion that America’s law enforcement and military have been “decimated” due to the Rapture (sorry, I can hear the intended audience making that wanking sound again). Nevermind that civilian vanishings should proportionately lessen the number of people to deal with for the police and military left behind – realistic speculation isn’t the point. The point, obviously, is to assert the common belief amongst fundamentalist types that you can’t be moral without being religious, a belief which has (unsurprisingly) been found to be false. When you remember that this film is intended to be turning its attention inward to preach to Christians, it’s really hard to deny that this film is doing anything other than fellating its audience. Like, I know I keep repeating this in such graphic terms, but it’s so annoying to me how, since God’s Not Dead, we’ve gotten this same routine over and over again, where so-called “faith-based” movies reinforce Christian prejudices in such a fawning, ham-fisted manner and encourage scorn of non-Christians.

So what is the actual sermon that this particular Left Behind movie is preaching to its audience? Basically, it boils down to “You can’t trust science and government to be arbiters of the truth. You can only trust The Bible for truth.” Kind of a standard evangelical sermon, but it’s particularly sinister in Rise of the Antichrist. Why, you may ask? Because this movie inadvertently shows the flaws in this lesson through the very premise they’re preaching. Let me explain: there are multiple scenes in this movie where some character will say “Oh yeah these events are terrible, but they were predicted right here in the Bible. And here’s what’s going to happen next, the Bible laid it all out for us!”

Here’s the thing: the Rapture isn’t real. The “Biblical prophecy” that these people claim is “right there in The Bible” is cobbled together from hundreds of verses across dozens of books of the Bible, stripped of their context and recontextualized into a new, unified narrative. Like, at one point in Rise of the Antichrist, Bruce Barnes saysThe Bible told us a one-world currency and government were coming.” Okay, but did it though? The “one world currency” idea comes from Revelation 13:16-17, where the Mark of the Beast is described: “It also forced all people, great and small, rich and poor, free and slave, to receive a mark on their right hands or on their foreheads, so that no one can buy or sell unless he has the mark, that is, the name of the beast or the number of its name.” That’s it, that’s the entire basis of this inevitable one-world currency that they say is clearly stated in The Bible. As for the one-world government, there are lots of verses about figures who will conquer the world, but Daniel 7 is one of the main ones. Go ahead, read it and then tell me how clearly it is telling you about a coming one-world government. Now, tell me which of these readings makes more sense:

  • That the Book of Daniel is intended to be a story to the Jewish people, who had been conquered and subjugated by multiple empires at the time, and remind them that, in the end, God would deliver them to freedom.
  • That the Book of Daniel is of no value to the places and times in which it was written. It’s actually a story for future people about the end of the world, an event so well-laid out by God that we didn’t even interpret it this way until the 1800s.

Shit like this is prevalent through Rise of the Antichrist. At one point, Rayford is trying to search his Bible app for information about “The Rapture” and “vanishings” and gets frustrated because they’ve been censored so he can’t find this information! How awful! Oh, what’s this? The Rapture isn’t even in The Bible, so he wouldn’t have been able to find it anyway? The movie even directly addresses this, when Chloe asks Bruce “What about all the people who claim the Rapture isn’t even in the Bible. Can you show me where it is?” Bruce responds with 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17: “For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever.” Again, this is ignoring the context around the verses – this is describing the final return of Christ, not some event where the unrighteous get left behind. It’s not the irrefutable “proof” of the Rapture that they seem to think it is and it only really exists so Chloe and Buck can go dig up grandma to find that her corpse also got Raptured, WHAT THE ACTUAL FUCK!?!!!?! I actually find this theologically offensive – are you telling me that her corpse is the vessel for her soul and she couldn’t go to heaven until Jesus took her body? Has grandma’s soul just been chilling down here all this time waiting for Jesus to get his ass in gear and return? I’m serious, this scene legitimately offended me and it’s about as Biblical as any other shit they spew in this movie.

This brings us to my issues with Left Behind and the prophecy industry as a whole. It’s founded upon beliefs which didn’t even exist until a couple hundred years ago. Hell, most denominations and sects of Christianity don’t even believe in The Rapture or the codified end-times theology Left Behind spews. However, because evangelicals have a virtual monopoly on the popular Christian media industry, it has become something which simply gets described as “Biblical prophecy” with zero pushback. Let me be clear – Left Behind is no more Biblical than Dante’s Inferno. You know what this sort of attitude actually is? Trusting the opinions of “experts”. End-times theology as we know it isn’t “right there” in the Bible for us all to see, we only believe it because people who subscribe to it have been preaching it for decades, to the point where evangelicals just kind of assume that it’s true now by default.

Furthermore, every single one of these movies has a big “She was right!” revelation, which causes the characters to turn to God. However, these moments always ring hollow for me. Tim LaHaye, Jerry B. Jenkins, Peter & Paul Lalonde, etc act like “She was right!” proves God’s love for the characters, to the point where they are always left crying at the revelation. Simply put: it doesn’t. I’ve said plenty of times throughout this Retrospective that, in the face of the Rapture, you could quickly accept that this was God’s doing. People aren’t so stubborn that seeing literal, unexplainable miracles wouldn’t cause them to second-guess their position as an atheist. I just went on a tirade against end-times theology, but if the Rapture happened tomorrow and I got left behind, I’d reconsider my position on these beliefs and try to convince others to do the same. However, I wouldn’t be trying to save people because I’ve been convinced of God’s love and mercy. I’d be doing it because I now know that He’s real and that He’s about to go on a seven-year tantrum where He’s going to send people to hell for eternity. Legitimately, the world of Left Behind paints a reality where I am more righteous than God and His followers are a bunch of cultists suckered into believing He is good, in spite of all evidence to the contrary. And people wonder why some people absolutely hate Left Behind

Also, there’s a scene in this movie with white boy dream-Jesus where it looks like he’s about to announce that “IT’S MORBIN’ TIME!”

That’s a whole lot of words dedicated to politics and theology in this movie. You could look at all that and go “Oh, you didn’t like this movie because you’re biased against it!”, but I wrote all of that because the politics and theology are easily the most interesting aspects of the movie to dig into. For the most part, Rise of the Antichrist is a rather dull movie where little of consequence actually happens. The cast are mostly wasted here. Kevin Sorbo himself could maybe be an alright Rayford Steele, but he’s sleepwalking through this movie, even moreso than Nic Cage was. Neal McDonough could make for an entertaining villain, if he had more than like two minutes of screentime. His higher-profile within the cast is not even an effective red-herring either, since Nicolae is such an iconic villain in his own right, and because Nicolae’s presence in the narrative is completely superfluous unless he is the “twist” villain. For that matter, Bailey Chase gets barely any time to make an impression as Nicolae, isn’t even trying to sound Romanian, and is very dry in the role. Worst of all though is Greg Parrow’s Buck Williams. It’s not a bad performance per se, but it is insufferable. Parrow plays Buck as relentlessly smug, constantly talking down to people, combative, and dismissive of those he disagrees with. He comes across less like a relentless truth-seeker and more as a massive, know-it-all tool.

While Sorbo’s direction here is fairly competent for the most part, there are still some weird and downright bad decisions which drag the film down. First of all, why the hell is this movie two hours long!? This movie is the exact same content which formed the last hour of Left Behind: The Movie, which means that they’ve effectively stretched it out to double the runtime. Remember how I said that Left Behind: The Movie largely succeeded because it was really well-paced, which kept the conspiracy plotline interesting? Well, now imagine what happens to that pacing when you double the time in which it has to be told. Suffice to say, Rise of the Antichrist absolutely drags and is a far more boring adaptation for it. The most illustrative comparison would be the titular “rise of the Antichrist” scene, where Nicolae reveals his powers to the UN. In Left Behind: The Movie, this scene was easily the best in the entire movie: it was tense, surprising, and it effectively established just how sinister and threatening Nicolae was. In Rise of the Antichrist, we’ve barely even seen Nicolae before. There is no threat to his words or actions. I don’t give a shit about Buck, because he’s a tool. There is no sense that he’s in any danger. It is such a limp version of this scene that it single-handedly begs the question of why we even got this movie to begin with when it is so inferior to what came before.

In terms of bad filmmaking choices though, there is absolutely nothing that holds a candle to this film’s goddamn voiceover. For some ungodly reason, they decided that this movie needed to have Bruce Barnes narrating everything. On the one hand, they probably felt like they needed to find an efficient way to get the audience up to speed, since it had been seven years since the last movie was released and they had recast everyone. On the other hand, does it make any sense for the narrator to introduce us to Jonathan Stonagal and describe his motivations and character in the opening speech of the movie? Every time a major new character gets introduced, Bruce has to give us some sort of description of them. It also intrudes into scenes that should be tense and completely ruins them. The most egregious example would be when Buck is trying to sneak into Dirk’s apartment to get his laptop. For some reason Bruce has to chime in about how Buck couldn’t mourn his friend’s death. WHY THE HELL DO WE NEED YOUR OPINION ON THIS, BRUCE?! It’s the very definition of the unwritten rule that you’re supposed to avoid in film: “tell, don’t show”.

This movie also has a funny hallmark of any bad movie, and that’s that no one knows how to pronounce the name “Stonagal”. I’m not kidding in the slightest, Bruce’s opening narration pronounces it like “Stona-gall”, and then, not even five seconds later, Todd-Cothran calls him “Ston-a-gal”. And then Buck, Haim, and several other characters call him “Stone-a-gal”… and then, at the end, Nicolae starts calling him “Stone-a-gall”! It’s kind of hilarious that no one had any fucking clue how to pronounce this guy’s name and the director didn’t even seem to care either, because if he did he would have made sure everyone was on the same page.

In addition, there are some narrative choices which are pretty questionable. For one thing, this movie (conveniently) forgets that Rayford, Buck, Chloe, and Bruce had all ended the first Left Behind movie accepting that the Rapture had occurred. Here, they’re having to completely relearn this, which adds probably an hour of bloat to the runtime. Another choice which really rubs me the wrong way is that Kevin Sorbo has made his own character, Rayford Steele, more “important”. In the books and all the other adaptations, Bruce Barnes immediately realizes what happened when he was left behind and immediately sets about preaching the gospel. He’s the spiritual center and leader of the Tribulation Force, which makes his death in Tribulation Force so impactful. However, in Rise of the Antichrist, he has apparently just been fucking around for six months, until Rayford Steele comes around and, in Bruce’s own words, saves him. Like, you could argue that he’s depressed about losing his whole congregation and being wrong for not believing, but having Rayford be the one to motivate and lead Bruce back to Christ fundamentally alters these two characters. This feeling really got cemented for me towards the end of the film. When the group are speculating that Jonathan Stonagal could be the Antichrist, Rayford pipes up “What about Nicolae?” Despite having absolutely no reason to even suggest Nicolae as an option, of course you’re going to make your character be the one who was right, Kevin. Bloody hell…

All this said, there is one really big narrative change which is… bold, to say the least. As we saw in Left Behind: The Movie, when Nicolae reveals himself as the Antichrist, Buck keeps his head down out of fear that Nicolae might realize that he was unaffected by his mind-control and therefore knows that Nicolae is the Antichrist. In subsequent books, he then takes advantage of his relationship to Nicolae to gather intelligence and undermine the Antichrist’s efforts against Christians. In Rise of the Antichrist, Buck immediately makes a broadcast announcing to the world that Nicolae is a liar and the Antichrist. I’m of two minds about this. On the plus side, making this announcement actually makes Buck look like a better journalist since his response to this event is to make the most important breaking news story of all time. On the more mixed side of things, this completely fucks up the narrative trajectory of the next several Left Behind books. Considering how bad these books can be, this may not be that bad of a thing, but I’m also not convinced that Cloud Ten will do them any better either. On the more negative side of things though, this change just isn’t worth it in my opinion. For one thing, I prefer the more subtle, intrigue-filled storyline where Buck has to be careful not to blow his cover while getting close to the Antichrist, while also constantly wondering whether Nicolae has any suspicions about Buck. It’s a much richer narrative territory than immediately having him be on the run and pursued by Nicolae’s forces. Secondly, this undermines everything they had tried to establish with Nicolae, immediately clowning on him the moment he’s introduced. He’s a lot less sinister and terrifying if you can just openly defy him without facing any consequences. Thirdly, it’s not like Buck keeps this information to himself, it gets spread throughout the Christian community and becomes common knowledge pretty quickly.

I complained a lot about the politics of this movie, but ultimately Rise of the Antichrist isn’t very good, whether you agree with the politics or not. Very little of interest actually happens in it across its painfully-long runtime. You are far better off just watching Left Behind: The Movie, which is a considerably more watchable and better-executed version of this story overall.

3/10

So what’s next for Left Behind? Well, like I said, Kevin Sorbo has threatened to direct another sequel, so if that is on-schedule we should be hearing about that any time now. Given how demoralizing this movie was for me, I can’t say I’m looking forward to it, and it just makes me even sadder that the Kirk Cameron movies didn’t get the opportunity to continue. Like, as bad as those movies could be, there was at least an earnestness to them which shines through when you compare them to the last three “efforts” we’ve gotten.

Here’s how I’d rank the series overall:

  1. Left Behind: The Movie – 5/10
  2. Left Behind (2014) – 3.5/10
  3. Left Behind III: World at War – 3/10
  4. Left Behind: Rise of the Antichrist – 3/10
  5. Left Behind II: Tribulation Force – 2.5/10
  6. Vanished: Left Behind – The Next Generation – 2/10

Thanks for sticking with me for another Retrospective! This was a lot of work for the past month, taking up a lot of my free time during the week. I’m not sure when/if I’ll do another one of these, but I am intending on starting a new Love/Hate series and resuming the looks at the Resident Evil games soon. Stay tuned for these in the near future!

Retrospective: Vanished: Left Behind – The Next Generation (2016)

Welcome back to the Left Behind retrospective! In this entry we’ll be going over the fifth film in the franchise, Vanished: Left Behind – The Next Generation… and, guys, I’ve been stoked for this one. Storytime: I was already interested in reviving the Retrospectives series here for Left Behind and thought I already knew of every movie in the franchise, but when I was looking up information about these movies, I stumbled across this off-beat entry that I had never heard of. Is this… Left Behind meets The Hunger Games!? My mind raced with the possibilities that this bizarre entry could be holding and that was the point that I decided that I was definitely going to do this Retrospective.

A bit more background here is also worth mentioning: Left Behind: The Kids was (for better or worse) my introduction to Left Behind as a franchise. As a kid, I would peruse my church’s children’s library and check out the edgier, more exciting stuff, so there was no way I was going to miss this series about mass death and the end of the world. I got hooked on The Kids books and eventually moved up to the full Left Behind novels from there. It’s been more than twenty years since I last read them, but I recall them being far more exciting, well-paced, and well-written than the main series (although Jerry B. Jenkins was hammering several The Kids books out per year, alongside full Left Behind novels, so there are apparently major continuity issues in these books that I didn’t notice as an 11 year old). As I alluded to in the World at War retrospective, the main Left Behind novels make the somewhat bone-headed decision of having its two principle expies, er, I mean characters be incredibly important figures (one, a world-renowned journalist personally working under Nicolae, and the other, Carpathia’s personal pilot). As a result, they’re rarely caught up in any of the major disasters and these events kind of just pass us by. However, the Left Behind: The Kids books are what they say on the tin – it’s a bunch of normal kids and teens just trying to survive and who absolutely get swept up trying to survive in whatever massive disaster is afflicting the world this week. Look, I don’t recommend reading Left Behind, but if you really want to experience it yourself, The Kids books might be the most palatable way to do it.

Anyways, all that said, I’ve been itching to get to this entry ever since we started. What could a young adult Left Behind movie do to stand out from its various failed predecessors? Read on to find out…

Oh great, another really boring poster that communicates absolutely nothing about what this movie is about… that said, it absolutely nails the YA aesthetic, so it’s doing something correctly. The second I saw this I knew exactly what this movie was trying to be, even if there’s nothing “Left Behind” about this poster.

Production

Vanished would be the first Left Behind movie to be produced without the involvement of Cloud Ten Pictures. Information about how this happened isn’t clear, but I can see two possibilities for how this happened. Remember how a big part of the Tim LaHaye v Cloud Ten Pictures lawsuit revolved around control of the rights to Left Behind: The Kids? Well, either the settlement which was reached in 2008 granted these rights to Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins, or Namesake retained these rights and chose to license them to a different studio. Whatever the case, Vanished seems to have been the brainchild of Randy LaHaye, grandson of Tim LaHaye. Randy had grown up hearing his grandfather bitching about how much he hated the Cloud Ten movies (for the record, this is not a joke), and promised him that, someday, he’d make an adaptation that could make him proud. Around 2013, Randy was watching Twilight and realized that a YA film could be a great way to introduce a new generation to Left Behind. As he saw it, kids were fascinated with dystopian fiction (The Hunger Games, Divergent, Maze Runner, etc), so they could slide very easily into the dystopian world of Left Behind.

Vanished would be very loosely based on the first Left Behind: The Kids book, The Vanishings – basically just adapting the premise of the Rapture and it being told from a YA perspective. Leaning into contemporary YA tropes, a love triangle was also made into a central aspect of the narrative in order to appeal more to a wide audience. Directing duties would go to Larry A. McLean, a veteran, workman TV director.

For the cast, the lead role of Gabby would go to Amber Frank, who was probably best known for The Haunted Hathaways at the time. Her hunky best friend (or maybe something more?) Josh would be played by Mason Dye, probably the most recognizable member of the cast, because he put in a fantastic performance as Jason Carver (the psycho jock) in the fourth season of Stranger Things. The other male lead, the brooding and mysterious Flynn, would be played by Dylan Sprayberry, who you might recognize from Teen Wolf or for playing young Clark Kent in Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel. Rounding out the main cast was Keely Wilson as Gabby’s younger sister, Claire. The film would also feature Tom Everett Scott as the megalomaniacal Damon, and Randy LaHaye himself as… Nicolae Carpathia!?! Yeah, you read that right, in one of the most insane (and possibly appropriate?) casting decisions ever, Tim LaHaye’s own grandson portrays super-Hitler. Maybe it’s for the best though – he was originally going to play a race-swapped version of Bruce Barnes, which would have been weird at best… not that Bruce’s race has been written to actually matter in the slightest in these stories, so it’s not like he needs to be African-American in that regard. However, he’s also one of the few prominent black characters in the franchise, so removing that aspect of the character would not be a good look at all. Anyway, Randy LaHaye said that he wanted to give Nicolae a bit more nuance, to make him less of a cartoonish villain, someone that people could actually look at and see why people would become deceived by him. So, in the spirit of this idea, he based his character’s big speech to deceive the world on… Obama’s speech to the UN… Oh shit, nevermind, we’re back to the really unfortunate racial optics.

GOD dammit Randy!!!

As for production of the film, there are actually some pretty interesting stories to be told here. First of all, the movie has an executive producer credit for goddamn Rick Santorum. Secondly, the production companies for this movie are kind of fascinating. On the one hand, we have Triple Horse Studios, whose website boasts that they are “a Content Creation Company with extensive technical capabilities”. Wow, such an artful description of your work, I’m inspired to the core. Kidding aside, they are responsible for The Case For Christ, which is, by most estimates, one of the best “capital-C Christian” films ever made. On the other hand, we have Salt Entertainment Group, which seems to have immediately gone defunct as soon as this film was made. And then, most intriguingly, there’s Faith Capital Group. “Oh cool,” you say to yourself, “is this just a conglomerate of evangelicals pooling money together to fund Christian projects they like?” That’s what I assumed, but… okay, I can’t find a definitive confirmation, but I think they’re actually an Arab company based out of Kuwait, throwing money around at various projects. Definitely take that with a lot of salt, because I wasn’t able to get a direct confirmation that this is the same Faith Capital, but it’s such a fascinating possibility that I had to mention it.

Filming would take place in Savannah, Georgia on a budget reported to be around $2 million… by far the lowest of any film in the franchise. Tim LaHaye would manage to see a rough cut of the film and gave it his enthusiastic endorsement before his death in the summer of 2016. Randy LaHaye had hopes to adapt seven films total, with hopes of having the first sequel underway in 2017, depending on the reception of Vanished. The film would get a limited, one-day theatrical release on September 28, 2016, but it failed to make an impact and the proposed sequels fizzled away into nothingness…

Plot Synopsis

Gabby Harlow is living with her mother and younger sister, Claire, when suddenly a billion people vanish in the blink of an eye and the world is plunged into chaos. When Gabby’s mother disappears, she, along with her neighbour and best friend, Josh, try to find Claire. They find her at a local restaurant, but she is being chased for unknown reasons. The pair catch up to her and find that she’s being protected by a local homeless teen, Flynn. They take shelter from the looting going on outside at a local church, where pastor Bruce Barnes gives them USB sticks explaining what is behind the vanishings. Before they can hear more, the church literally explodes and they flee. Gabby decides that they need to find her father, who lives outside the city. She calls him and he answers, but gets into a car crash and the line goes dead. Gabby, Claire, Josh, and Flynn all decide to head out to try to find him.

They eventually make their way to Gabby’s father’s home, but find that he is not there. Instead, the house is being occupied by a trio of bandits, who attack the teens. They flee, but Claire is wounded in the process. They find a farm compound nearby called “Sanctuary” which is owned by a man named Damon and his sister, Sarah. Sarah has studied medicine, and is able to stitch up Claire’s wounds, while Damon takes the boys on a tour of his facility. He has been preparing for societal collapse his whole life and so many of the people in the surrounding area have been coming to Sanctuary for aid. However, he advises that such help does not come for free, so they will have to work to pay for his help.

With Sam’s help, Claire’s injuries are healed. Josh watches the USB video Pastor Barnes had provided, which explains that the vanishings are due to the Rapture, and Josh shares this theory with the others. While working the next morning, Gabby and Flynn sneak into the woods to try to figure out their next steps and end up making out with each other. They then accidentally stumble on a secret compound where Gabby finds that her father has been taken prisoner as retaliation for trying to escape. Damon’s armed thugs realize that she has witnessed this, and Damon confronts Gabby, Flynn, Josh, and Claire to threaten them. However, Sam intervenes and promises to punish them herself… and then immediately sets them free. Predictably, Gabby and the others then go to free her father. Damon realizes what has happened almost immediately and sends his thugs out to kill them to prevent anyone from discovering that he is basically turning Sanctuary into an organization engaged in debt slavery. In the pursuit, Gabby’s father is shot and killed.

In honour of her father’s dying wish, Gabby, Flynn, and Josh decide to try to free the people trapped in Sanctuary. They succeed in the attempt, driving Damon into a rage as he pursues them and tries to shoot them. The group flee into an abandoned factory, where Damon corners them, but then falls through an unstable floorboard and dies. The group, having come to realize that Pastor Barnes was right, then return back to the city to try to spread this message to their friends. As they arrive, they see that the chaos has subsided and people have gathered to watch a video proclamation from Nicolae Carpathia, promising a new era of peace arising from the ashes of his chaos. They watch in fear, realizing that he is not the hope that he portrays himself to be…

Review

So, how is Vanished? Well, let me put it this way: as I was watching it, I was finding myself coming up with nice things to say about Tribulation Force. Like, as bad as that movie is, at least the cast is pretty good and there’s some actual ambition on display, even if they lack the budget, script, or talent to execute it well. I’ve said it plenty of times, but if I find myself coming up with excuses about why a movie I hate isn’t as bad as the movie I’m watching, that’s when I know that I’m watching something truly awful. Vanished is easily one of the worst movies I’ve ever seen, approaching The Room or Atlas Shrugged: Part III in terms of how poorly made it is. Maybe it’s “shame on me” for expecting this to at least be on-par with the other Left Behind movies in terms of quality, but I was honestly not expecting something this bad.

First of all, the YA elements are implemented in such a transparently cynical manner. Even at the start of the 2010s YA boom, the love triangle trope was already seen as a nothing more than a cynical marketing move to appeal to the Twilight crowd, so having a movie that’s blatantly ripping off the cynical copies makes Vanished feel even more painfully forced. First off, we have Josh, Gabby’s goody-good best friend/neighbour who clearly has been developing some simmering tension with her. They’re kind of cute, playful dorks together, setting him as the “good” option. Then we have Flynn, who is clearly the “dark”, “mysterious”, and “edgy” option. He’s literally homeless, having been abandoned by his addict parents. Despite barely knowing him, Gabby inexplicably has the most sexual tension with him, with the pair engaging in a rather passionate (for an evangelical movie) make-out session. Unfortunately, the love triangle isn’t really developed at all, it just kind of happens when it wants to and we’re left to assume that Gabby’s conflicted, when she clearly doesn’t even care outside of scenes where she’s supposed to. Like, we get a scene where Josh and Gabby have a cute dance together since the Rapture caused them to miss homecoming, and then the next day Gabby’s off in the woods making out with Flynn after zero build-up. We don’t really get any conflict or indecision from Gabby over her feelings for these boys. It’s just assumed that this is a YA movie, so she has to pick between them and boy would it be dramatic if she flip-flops in every scene! Actually, it’s even funnier than that, because the climactic scene of the movie involves the bad guy literally saying he’s going to shoot one of the boys and Gabby has to pick which one lives. Hilariously, to this she yells “I CAN’T DECIDE!”

The love triangle isn’t the only cynical trope lifted from the YA scene wholesale though, because Vanished makes the baffling decision of being a dystopian apocalypse movie. This may have been riffing on The Hunger Games, Divergent, or The Maze Runner, but it ends up making Vanished feel more like The Walking Dead than any of its YA contemporaries. I’m not even exaggerating here – in this movie, as soon as the Rapture happens, apparently society completely collapses. We’ve got people attacking cops, roving bandits, food and medical scarcity, and wannabe-kings rising out of the ashes. It’s an incredibly weird choice for the adaptation for multiple reasons. For one thing, it’s completely different than all other Left Behind media, where the Rapture causes life to get disrupted for a few days, but more-or-less keeps going as normally. Based on this expectation, it took a while to “get” that they were going for something completely different here (and even then, I really “got” it when I realized “oh, they’re just ripping off all the dystopian YA movies). Secondly, it doesn’t really make sense that society would completely fall apart in a single day due to the Rapture. Maybe this is just because we have since lived through COVID-19, but I’d expect major supply chain issues and months of collective trauma rather than the complete breakdown of society. Government and law enforcement are still going to be intact. Communication infrastructure is still functioning. There’s no reason to believe that people would start eating each other in an instant. Again, it’s clear that this was done to shove in another YA trope in hopes of appealing to “the youths“.

That said, at least Vanished took a look at the hundreds of millions Raptured estimates from the previous films and said “Those are rookie numbers”. Apparently the number of people Raptured this time is around one billion… Forgive me for going on a tangent here, but these numbers still feel insanely low. First off, there are approximately two billion Christians world-wide. Of course, we know that the authours of Left Behind definitely do not believe that this number is representative of the number of “true” Christians, which would go some way to explainly why their numbers are far lower. However, what it does not account for is the children – in Left Behind, there is explicitly an “age of accountability” where God does not consider you morally culpable to your actions, and therefore “Christian” by default as far as the Rapture is concerned. Vanished makes the incredibly bold decision of setting this cut-off at eleven (if I’m remembering correctly, I believe that this cut-off is around thirteen in the books). In 2016, approximately 25% of the world’s population were under the age of fifteen, out of a total global population of 7.5 billion… so, if we assume that the age of accountability cut-off is ten and only account for two thirds of that percentage, then we’re still looking at approximately 1.2 billion children alone, without even factoring in a single Christian. I shouldn’t be surprised that evangelicals are bad at math, but here we are.

I present this screen cap without context. Have fun speculating over what you’re looking at.

Tying into the limp and cynical usage of YA tropes, the writing in Vanished is just plain bad. I think that the cast here probably have talent, but you’d never know it with this script. Gabby is a complete personality-void, stumbling from scene to scene as the script requires her. Meanwhile, my descriptions of Josh and Flynn as the “good boy” and the “bad boy” describe their YA tropes, but are also pretty much the extent of their characterization. And Claire’s here as little more than a burden that they have to babysit. There’s no character development at all, other than the obligatory “come to Jesus” moments that every Christian movie has to have… which, honestly, is a trope unto itself, so if not for the writers being slaves to every trope possible, I doubt there’d even be that much development. Meanwhile, the villain is a complete psycho for no good reason, although at least Tom Everett Scott gets to ham it up towards the end (although he is absolutely no Gordon Currie).

Then we’ve got overly-convenient writing which is so transparent as to be absurd. For example, all the kids are assembled at Bruce Barnes’ church. How can we get them out of here quickly so they don’t know anything about the Rapture yet? Oh, I dunno, how about a gas leak that gets introduced and then happens in the span of like five seconds? It’s kind of hilarious, because if you sneezed at the wrong moment, you could literally miss the entire “gas leak and then church explosion” – it’s introduced and over that quickly. Oh, and then there’s the part where Damon’s so mad about Gabby and Flynn snooping around at his penal facility that he’s threatening to shoot them. His sister, Sarah, says she’ll deal with the kids… despite explicitly saying that she doesn’t know anything about Damon’s nefarious activities, so why would he even trust her with punishing them…? In any case, Sarah immediately lets the kids leave, causing them to immediately cause even more trouble for Damon. The movie proclaimed him as a full-on “genius” in his introduction and he doesn’t even think to follow-up with her to confirm what she did? It just makes him look like a complete idiot. It’s also pretty baffling that a movie about the Rapture spends about 80% of its runtime dealing with a completely unrelated, relatively low-stakes problem where some random asshole has taken Gabby’s father captive for… “reasons”.

Beyond all that though, Vanished‘s writing just makes absolutely no sense. For a very basic example, the Rapture happens and then a few hours later Gabby calls her dad. We find out later that this conversation happened as he was escaping from Sanctuary… so you’re telling me that, in a matter of hours, society instantly collapsed when the Rapture happened, he went to Sanctuary for help, tried to rebel against them, and escaped…? For that matter, who exactly is Damon worried will find out about Sanctuary? He seems to believe that the government has collapsed and that communication systems were wiped out world-wide by an EMP, who exactly does he think is going to stop him…? Like, literally no one would even care what he’s doing if he wasn’t beating up and trying to kill people for leaving, it’s such a brain-dead “plan”.

Going hand-in-hand with the abysmal writing, the filmmaking on display here is incredibly shoddy, on the level of a bad student film. I’ll give it this at least – the filmmakers at least have heard of lighting, so in that regard it gets a leg-up compared to the first two Left Behinds. However, in pretty much every other regard, this movie looks positively amateurish. Probably the most notable element that this movie is lacking is music. At one point, I was watching the film and was wondering why so many scenes that should be important, exciting, and intense ended up feeling “dead”, until it hit me that there is no soundtrack whatsoever. Check out this clip from the film, which is a perfect encapsulation of just how badly made this film is, and how much it suffers for having no music:

Ahh, the heroic sacrifice and emotional death scene, a classic story moment that has been captured on film tens of thousands of times over the years. However, between the awful direction, editing, and lack of music, Vanished can’t even pull this off well. The whole scene falls flat and was honestly the most I laughed in the whole movie. Vanished is amateurish to the point where we get a shot of military drones flying over a bus near the end of the film and I’m convinced that they forgot to put in any sound effects for them. For any other film, maybe I could be convinced that they just couldn’t be heard because the bus was drowning out the noise, but I give Vanished absolutely zero charity, because it does not deserve it.

All this said, I’ve got yet another hot take for this Retrospective series: Vanished has possibly the most fascinating turn of any Left Behind movie. As soon as the cast arrive at Sanctuary, the movie pivots hard from a weird, crappy, Christian version of The Walking Dead with only one zombie, to a movie about conservatives fighting each other. This isn’t a joke – Vanished‘s second and third acts become a story about conservative evangelicals pouring shit on conservative libertarians; it’s like stumbling across two baboons having a knife fight. Remember, this movie came out the same year that evangelical movies were fellating audiences by demonizing liberals and atheists, so seeing a movie where they turned inwards and had a purity war is fascinating to witness.

Damon is immediately introduced as a bit of an asshole who has been building up a life that is off-grid, self-sustaining, and away from government surveillance and who disdains certifications from formal education institutions. He also is up-front that he doesn’t “give any handouts”, so any help he offers is going to need to be paid back. He’s clearly meant to be an embodiment of libertarian ideals, but there’s a clear distaste for him in his introduction. We soon find that all of his neighbours have been coming to him for help. Since society has collapsed and he was the only one around who was prepared for this, he’s been using them to work the land to pay their debts. However, we soon discover that Damon is a hypocrite – he preaches libertarian ideals, but only because he can use them to put everyone around him into debt slavery for his own enrichment and empowerment. Everyone who pushes back and tries to leave sanctuary is beaten into submission or imprisoned, and when Gabby and her father try to escape in response to these punishments, Damon orders them all to be executed. There’s a clear undercurrent here that Damon is an evil asshole – people are coming to him for help, and he’s disproportionately exploiting that desperation instead of being a good, Christian neighbour. The climax of the film revolves around Gabby, Josh, and Flynn returning to Sanctuary to liberate the debt slaves, so it’s clearly being emphasized that this guy’s a complete piece of shit, while our Christian heroes are morally righteous. I can’t believe I’m saying this, but it’s a shockingly based message for a Left Behind movie of all things, and the funny part is that it basically comes down to a spat between different varieties of conservatives. Unfortunately, despite having the best politics of any Left Behind movie, it’s also by far the worst one – just chalk that up as another example that my political biases don’t disproportionately affect my evaluations of these movies. Sometimes they just suck on their own merits.

Vanished is a brutally amateurish film, one that manages to make Cloud Ten Pictures look like master filmmakers… and, guys, how bad do you have to be to make me come to Peter and Paul Lalonde’s defense like this? Seriously? It doesn’t even have the courtesy of being entertainingly bad either, it’s mostly just terrible filmmaking combined with lazy, uninspired, uncreative rehashing of tropes ripped off of far superior films… and that “superior films” distinction includes every Twilight movie (yes, even New Moon and Breaking Dawn). Goddammit, you’re making me do it again, Vanished, why do you have to be so much worse than all these movies? And Rise of the Antichrist is next up for me! If you make me look at a Kevin Sorbo movie with more-lenient eyes, I’ll never forgive you…

2/10

Be sure to tune in again soon when we look at the most recent entry in this series, Left Behind: Rise of the Antichrist!

Retrospective: Left Behind (2014)

Welcome back to the Left Behind retrospective! In this entry we’ll be going over the fourth film in the franchise, the Left Behind reboot. This was the last of the Left Behind films that I had seen prior to starting this retrospective series, and I remembered it having a very different feel compared to the original series. Could a bigger budget and more famous cast allow Left Behind to succeed on its second attempt? Read on to find out…

That’s about as boring a poster as you could expect from a 2014 Left Behind movie… Also, if you’ve actually seen the movie and, like me, have no idea who Jordin Sparks (the person on the left) is, then her inclusion on this poster is insane. I had to look her up after seeing this to realize that she was stunt casting.

Production

Remember that lawsuit Tim LaHaye had been harrassing Cloud Ten over since before the very first Left Behind movie even released? Well, around the time that World at War released, LaHaye managed to appeal the suit dismissal, and once again the movie series was on hold as the parties fought back-and-forth over the rights to the franchise. Well, in 2008, Namesake Entertainment, Cloud Ten Pictures, and Tim LaHaye finally reached a settlement, with LaHaye dropping all his claims in exchange for a two-year window to create his own adaptation of the books. Wow, after all that, Tim LaHaye finally got what he wanted – an opportunity to see his work brought to life the way he always wanted! What an incredible victory for him!

…in 2010, no adaptation had been made and the rights reverted back to Cloud Ten Pictures.

What. The. Fuck.

Yeah, that’s really how this legal drama we’ve been covering for four movies now ended. Tim LaHaye was either the biggest troll alive, or he was completely unable to find anyone who wanted to produce this movie to his standards. What an absolute waste of the time and money of everyone involved, holy shit.

In any case, by this time it was now five years since the last Left Behind movie had released and Peter and Paul Lalonde, presumably, felt that continuing the existing franchise was no longer viable and that it would be a good opportunity to reboot the property instead. Furthermore, Paul Lalonde would reveal years later that, despite owning the series’ film rights, they actually only had the rights to make movies based on the first two books… which is right where World at War ended, so the only way to milk the franchise further at this point without making further agreements with LaHaye would be to reboot. To further cement the fresh start, Paul Lalonde founded a new production company, Stoney Lake Entertainment, and aimed to make this reboot with a wider audience in mind, closer to LaHaye’s original vision of a blockbuster adaptation.

In line with this ambition, the Left Behind reboot landed Nicolas Cage as its Rayford Steele in late 2012. Nicolas Cage’s brother, Marc Coppola, who is a pastor, actor and DJ, was a fan of the novel and was the one who pushed him to accept the role in the film. While definitely a big “get”, it’s worth explaining some context here for those of us living in 2024 when Nicolas Cage is cool again – in 2014, Nic Cage was at the peak of his “weird guy slumming it in every role he gets offered because he can’t stop buying t-rex skeletons” phase. Sure, he’d show up in a Kick-Ass every once in a while and absolutely kill it, but these bright spots were vastly outweighed by unhinged performances in The Wicker Man, Season of the Witch, Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance, etc, so there was a worry (or, for some film connoisseurs, hope) that he’d be running around on a plane screaming “WHY DID THEY DISAPPEAR!?!”

After Cage, the rest of the cast fell into place. Chad Michael Murray (best known for One Tree Hill and a fuckload of Hallmark Christmas movies) would be cast as Buck Williams. Ashley Tisdale (of Disney channel fame, including The Suite Life of Zach and Cody and multiple High School Musicals) was originally cast as Chloe Steele, but would drop out due to scheduling conflicts. The producers kept the role open for her to return as long as they could, but at the last minute they had no choice but to recast her with Cassi Thomson (best known for TV series Big Love and Switched at Birth). Jordin Sparks, winner of the sixth season of American Idol, would be cast as well in a fairly minor role, but due to her fame, she ended up getting one of the top-billing roles anyway. Nicky Whelan (probably best-known for the Australian soap opera, Neighbours) was cast as Hattie Durham. Rounding out the main cast, Lea Thompson (of Back to the Future fame) was cast as Irene Steele. Also in a small role, goddamn Martin Klebba is in this movie… he doesn’t get any billing, but I guarantee you’ve seen him before – he’s the little person in all the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, and he also punches that piece of shit Costa in the dick in Project X. Honestly, he’s more famous than anyone else in this cast, aside from Nic Cage and Lea Thomson, why the hell is he not getting top billing, cowards?

This time, directing duties would go to Hollywood legend Vic Armstrong. Mostly known for his work as a stuntman, Vic doubled for Roger Moore in Live and Let Die, freaking Christopher Reeve in Superman, and (most famously) had doubled for Harrison Ford in Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Last Crusade, Blade Runner, Return of the Jedi, and Patriot Games. This is an incredible record, but in terms of directing, he had mostly done some episodes of the Young Indiana Jones Chronicles and a Dolph Lundgren B-movie up until this point.

The budget for this reboot was set around $16 million (somehow even lower than the budget of the original movie, assuming that that film’s numbers weren’t inflated… which, having seen this movie, I’m even more convinced that the reported $17.4 million budget for Left Behind: The Movie was complete bullshit). The script would be written by Paul Lalonde and John Patus, who had written the scripts for the previous Left Behind movies as well. Also, as a series first, filming did not take place in and around Toronto! Instead, the film was shot in Baton Rouge, Louisiana in August of 2013. A private screening would be held for Jerry B. Jenkins and Tim LaHaye and, this time, they were extremely pleased with the results (although it has been implied by family that Tim LaHaye’s endorsement was mostly done to drum up good publicity for the film).

Critics, however, would be extremely harsh. The movie has a freaking 0% Rotten Tomatoes score. And it wasn’t just the secular critics who hated it – Christian reviewers decried its production values, while… well, I’m gonna post Wikipedia’s excerpt from Christianity Today‘s review, because it is scathing:

Left Behind is not a Christian movie, whatever ‘Christian Movie’ could even possibly mean. In fact, most Christians within the world of the movie—whether the street-preacher lady at the airport or Rayford Steele’s wife—are portrayed as insistent, crazy, delusional, or at the very least just really annoying. They want churches to book whole theaters and take their congregations, want it to be a Youth Group event, want magazines like this one to publish Discussion Questions at the end of their reviews—want the system to churn away, all the while netting them cash, without ever having to have cared a shred about actual Christian belief. They want to trick you into caring about the movie. Don’t.” They also stated that they “tried to give the film zero stars, but our tech system won’t allow it.”

My God, I’ve never seen such a damning indictment of the Christian media marketing cycle, but there’s Christianity Today laying it bare and shooting it in the back of the head. Just brutal… Perhaps because of this vitriolic response, Left Behind would bomb at the box office, making just over $20 million (which, after marketing, would not have broken even). This was, by the way, occurring during a banner year for faith-based films, with such successes as Son of God, Noah, Exodus: Gods and Kings (to be fair, this one was a bit of a bomb, but it was undeniably a very prominent, expensive, religious blockbuster), Heaven is For Real, and, oh I dunno, God is Not Dead.

Oh, and for the record: Stoney Lake Entertainment haven’t released another movie since Left Behind.

Plot Synopsis

Chloe Steele returns home from college to surprise her father, Rayford, for his birthday, but discovers that he won’t be home – he has unexpectedly taken a shift flying a passenger plane to London. While waiting to see him at the airport, Chloe meets television journalist Buck Williams and the pair hit it off, venting to each other their issues with hypocritical Christians after an unpleasant encounter with a woman in the airport. Chloe soon finds Rayford and realizes that he has taken this flight because he is engaging in an affair with flight attendant Hattie Durham, having grown frustrated with his wife, Irene, after she converted to Christianity. Disappointed, she returns home alone, while Buck boards Rayford’s flight to London and they depart.

Irene tries to plead to Chloe to understand her desire to see her come to Jesus, but Chloe rebuffs her and leaves to spend time with Raymie. However, while they are at the mall together, the Rapture occurs and suddenly hundreds of millions of people across the world disappear. The event causes mass panic, as in addition to several adults, every child disappears as well, including Raymie. Planes and cars crash as their drivers disappear and chaos erupts as people begin looting to take advantage of the situation. Chloe is caught up in the middle of all of this and tries desperately to find her family as the world goes to hell around her.

Meanwhile, up in the air, Rayford, Buck, and Hattie try to maintain order as several passengers are Raptured. After a near mid-air collision with a plane whose pilots were Raptured, Rayford’s plane is left crippled and leaking fuel. He turns back to New York to land and slowly comes to the realization that the Raptured passengers were Christians – his wife was right all along. Chloe comes to realize this as well as she finds that her mother has also disappeared.

As Rayford approaches New York, he is informed that there is no landing strip open for him, there are crashed planes at airports all over, so he needs to go further inland. With their fuel situation, this is impossible and Rayford tries to find an alternate solution. Buck manages to contact Chloe and he, Rayford, and Chloe concoct a plan to land the plane on an open stretch of highway under construction. Chloe manages to guide them in and Rayford barely manages to land the plane safely. As everyone looked out on the chaos which has enveloped the world, they muse that this isn’t the end of the world – it’s just the beginning of the end…

Review

Okay, so I’ve got another hot take: the Left Behind reboot isn’t that bad. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not good either, but it’s better and more entertaining than you’d expect considering the universal critical drubbing it got. Like, as of the time of writing this, Madame Web has a 12% Tomatometer and 57% audience score, whereas Left Behind has a 0% Tomatometer and 21% audience score. That just doesn’t feel fair to me considering the movie we actually got here. Maybe I’m being generous because I just watched two significantly worse Left Behind movies, but it’s arguably the most watchable entry in the franchise that we’ve covered so far (other than maybe the original movie). A lot of this comes down to the intent to refocus the franchise from a straight adaptation of the books and into more of a conventional disaster movie. This has its pros and cons, but it’s hard to be too harsh during the moments when you’ve got people dodging careening cars and airplanes, Nic Cage having to limp his crippled plane in for an emergency landing, or just soaking up the general chaos as the world goes to shit in an instant. Sure, these parts could be executed better, but they’re entertaining enough on a base level that you should find something to keep you interested.

That said, I had mentioned in my review of Left Behind: The Movie that that film managed to stay interesting because of its conspiracy theory plotline in the second half. This causes the Rapture to not outstay its welcome and keeps the pace snappy. However, this reboot excises the conspiracy aspects of the book entirely, meaning that the film needs to find a way to mine a lot of content out of the Rapture premise instead. Oh, and have I mentioned that this film is nearly two hours long? That’s a full ten minutes longer than the original despite featuring half as much narrative! As you might imagine, Left Behind is pretty slow and really stretches to fill that runtime. To give you an idea of how slow paced this movie is, it takes twenty minutes for the plane to even take off and the Rapture doesn’t happen until nearly forty-five minutes in. For comparison, Left Behind: The Movie gets Ray on the plane in about twenty minutes (despite also dedicating most of that opening runtime to the conspiracy plot we don’t have here), and then the Rapture happens five minutes later.

Now, to be fair, they do use this additional runtime to flesh out some aspects which are not very well established in the source material. In particular: we get a lot more insight into Chloe’s character, we get to see how Irene’s conversion has put strain on her marriage and her children, and we get insight into why exactly Chloe, Buck, and Rayford are so hostile to religion. However, this gets weighed down by several scenes with passengers who are little more than caricatures: we’ve got the quirky Alzheimer’s couple, greedy businessman, conspiracy theorist, Muslim dude (not to be crass, but that’s about the extent of his characterization), drug addict heiress, cute kid, angry little person, paranoid woman on the run from her husband, etc. Establishing the passengers is actually a pretty great idea. If we’re worried about these people being in peril, it should give the disaster sequences higher stakes. The problem is that they barely register as characters and you could easily cut out every scene they’re in and all it would do is make the pacing better.

Of course, once the Rapture does happen, a lot of that runtime is then taken up by utter chaos. I had completely forgotten that this movie makes the Rapture occur in broad daylight. I definitely prefer how, in the original movie, the Rapture happens subtly, resulting in this slow, creeping realization that something horrible and unexplainable has occurred, which soon develops into full-blown panic. That said, this change was clearly done to maximize the drama and chaos, because the second it happens, this film just explodes in a mass of screaming and running that would put a Black Friday news report to shame. It quickly gets to a point that is silly. This is best typified by Chloe’s storyline for most of this film, which can only be described as “Chloe and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day”. Not only did her plan to surprise her dad on his birthday get ruined by him, but then she finds out he’s cheating on her mom, she gets in a fight over religion with her mom, then her brother gets Raptured while she’s hugging him… and then she dodges a driverless car which careens through the mall doors, and then a fixed-wing airplane falls out of the sky and plows into her car, and then some hoodlums steal her brother’s backpack, and then a bus somehow nearly falls on top of her like thirty minutes after the Rapture happened, AND THEN she almost becomes collateral damage when a looter gets shot and gets a shotgun pointed in her own face, AND THEN her dad nearly lands a plane on top of her. It very quickly crosses the line from believable into ridiculous, and that’s just the shit that happens to Chloe.

Ray also has a bunch of insane things to deal with: not only does he have a bunch of passengers disappearing on his hands, but then the plane immediately hits violent turbulence (I guess they’re hitting all the souls on their way up?), his co-pilot gets Raptured while at the controls (hey, shout-out to Chris, Paul Lalonde wants to see you go to heaven more than Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins ever did!), they get into a near mid-air collision with a plane whose pilots were Raptured and damage the electronics and fuel lines in the process, the wing catches fire, they run out of fuel, and they can’t land anywhere. It gets exhausting how relentlessly they wring out every single potential bit of drama they can, but then they just keep going further and further, to the point where it’s practically comedic. I almost wonder how much of this comedy was intentional, because at the very end of Nic Cage’s makeshift runway, there’s a fuel truck that they come within inches of hitting, and it’s honestly a pretty great visual joke to punctuate how much shit they’ve been through during the film.

You may have noticed that I keep saying “dramatically”, and that’s possibly my biggest issue with this film – it is melodramatic as all hell. Your mileage will vary on how much you can stand this, but I found this incredibly grating and every time some “dramatic” moment happened I just got more and more annoyed. Like, a good chunk of those opening twenty minutes before the flight are just Chloe coming across more and more obvious evidence that her dad is cheating – seeing him flirting with Hattie, hearing his unconvincing denials, finding his wedding ring in the car, and being asked to pass him tickets for a U2 concert he’s going to see in London with Hattie (oh man, that show’s gonna have to be canceled since Bono got Raptured, right?). Oh, and we can’t just have the Rapture happen, that’s not dramatic enough – we have to make sure it happens at the very second that Chloe’s hugging her younger brother and telling him that she loves him. Or later, when she heads to the hospital, she wanders into the maternity ward for no real reason, other than to give us more melodrama when they reveal that every baby has been killed by God… er, I mean, Raptured away. Or how about how every single phone and radio call cuts out dramatically at the worst possible moment. I’m not kidding either, this happens at least five times that I counted.

However, it wouldn’t be a melodrama without a couple dramatic suicide attempts! In the one scene where she actually does anything, Jordin Sparks’ character steals a gun from a Raptured air marshal and goes into a paranoid delusion where she believes that everyone on the plane is involved in an elaborate plot to kidnap her daughter and demands that they give her back. This is ridiculous enough, but then Buck tells her to point the gun at him because he’s such a big hero, while Jordin is basically screaming “I’M NOT CRAZY, YOU’RE CRAZY!!!” And then, all that talking her down does is cause her to turn the gun on herself. They do manage to talk her out of it, but my God, this scene is kind of illustrative of why always putting the foot on the gas with the drama gets ridiculous at a certain point and robs scenes that deserve emphasis of their power. Case in point: Chloe also contemplates suicide by climbing to the top of a bridge to scream at God. It definitely seems to be implied that she’s going to end it, until Buck and dad call her at the last moment. Melodrama! Oh, also, it’s not the movie’s fault for this, but I need to mention that this scene has “Dancing in the Sky” playing in the background, so TikTok memes have turned this scene into an inadvertent joke in 2024.

You might have also noticed that I’m talking about Chloe a lot during this review and that’s because, honestly, she’s got most of the interesting material in this film. Nic Cage has top billing, but his performance is disappointingly subdued, to the point where he’s basically sleepwalking through the film. For those of us who were hoping he’d bring some entertainingly mad energy to the film, it makes his segments rather bland. And, unfortunately, Chad Michael Murray’s Buck Williams has basically nothing to do, other than help Ray and Hattie keep order on the plane and suddenly (and unconvincingly) fall in love with Chloe after only meeting once for a couple hours at the airport. He’s alright in the role, but has so little to work with that I can’t even really judge the performance. So everything kind of has to fall on Cassi Thomson’s shoulders, and thankfully she is probably the brightest spot in the film. It’s worth noting that Chloe feels like an actual important character in this iteration, not just a burden or a love interest like she is in the books or the previous movies. Hell, they even managed to give her a key role to play in saving the day, so clearly there’s been some conscious effort put in to elevate her to equal importance in the main cast.

We’ve waded through a lot of negativity through this review so far, but I want to address perhaps the most interesting aspect of Left Behind, and that’s how it portrays Christians. Upfront, this film is hostile to Christians, and I don’t mean that the characters are disparaging to them – I mean that Christians themselves are straight-up portrayed negatively. When we get introduced to Buck, he’s getting pestered by an evangelical who is trying to preach to him. Chloe intervenes to dunk on her with facts and logic, and the woman is unable to respond. This woman is clearly being portrayed as the asshole in this situation, and the crazy part is that they are right to do so. She is being an asshole, and this is probably how this situation would play out in real life. It’s a level of introspection and self-flagellation which is kind of insane, especially considering that God is Not Dead came out this same year, and… well, that film did not have anywhere near the same level of self-awareness. After this encounter with the evangelical woman, Chloe tells Buck about how her mother says that major disasters are a good thing, because they’re a sign from God, which is a nakedly ghoulish way to look at the world. Later, Chloe gets into an argument with her mother about God and how disappointed she is that her father isn’t home. Instead of trying to empathize with Chloe, Irene says that God brought her home for a purpose, to which Chloe snaps back: “God did not bring me home. […] God is the reason dad is not here right now.” This stings because it is absolutely true. Ray confides to Chloe that people change as they get older and this can cause them to grow apart, and it’s clear that Irene is the one who has put a major strain on her relationship with her family. She wants to share her new faith with her family, but however she is doing it, it is not succeeding and that is entirely on her. Looking at all this, I can see why Christianity Today had such scathing things to say about Left Behind – on its surface, this movie is absolutely shitting on Christians at every turn.

Here’s the thing though – I believe that this is entirely a ploy by Paul Lalonde and John Patus in order to draw in a secular audience. Shit on the Christians in the first act, tell the audience “Look, we agree that we suck too!”, and they’re more likely to stick around until you can get to the point where you can pull the rug out from under them. The film completely pivots once we get to the obligatory “She was right” moment of realization for Rayford and Chloe. After shitting on Christians throughout the first act, and then spending a good chunk of the second act on disaster melodrama, it suddenly drops the sermon on you without warning and starts getting far more blunt with its intent. Early in the film, Buck and Chloe are speaking about a story he had covered, where a woman had her entire family die in a tsunami, except for one child. She thanked God for saving her and her baby, but then refused to evacuate and they both died in a mudslide. It’s pretty clear from this story that that person’s outlook was, at best, incredibly strange, if not foolish – it seems perfectly justified for her to be mad at God in this situation. However, when the Rapture occurs and suddenly our characters are in their own disaster, it became pretty obvious what this film’s theme is: “People come together during a disaster and learn to trust in God”. All the stuff the film was shitting on earlier becomes vindicated, and this isn’t just subtext either: Rayford says how it was his fault that he didn’t listen to Irene. However, I disagree entirely – she is the one who changed and created the divide. Rayford didn’t have to change with her and clearly was not convinced to do so. People change and sometimes that creates an irreconcilable difference. It sucks, but it happens. Oh, also, I find it really funny how Ray starts talking about how God caused the people to disappear, which causes Hattie to say “What has happened to you? Why are you talking like this? You’ve never spoken about God before. Where’s this coming from?” I dunno bitch, maybe a little thing called THE RAPTURE happened and changed my viewpoint. Fucking hell, even the unbeliever dialogue starts getting dumb at this point…

Ultimately, I find this interesting, because we’ve seen a bunch of different approaches through these movies to try to reach people. If the intent of Left Behind is to get the message out that the Rapture is coming and non-Christians need to be warned about it, then a film that’s stripped back and focused on this event is probably the right call, as is “watering down” the preaching in favour of spectacle for a more mainstream appeal. However, it also demonstrates that you can downplay all you want, but this is still unquestionably a “Christian movie”. Poo-poo Christians all you want at the start, but when the message is delivered bluntly like this, you’re going to alienate the mainstream audience you want to court. If anything, watering down the message only serves to piss off the core Christian audience who usually can be counted on to see these kinds of films. This is kind of counter-intuitive, but also probably explains why this film bombed so hard in a year when faith-based films that feverishly jacked off the Christian audience were doing major numbers.

All-in-all, Left Behind isn’t a particularly great movie. It’s cheap, but compared to the previous Left Behind films, it’s practically a blockbuster in terms of presentation. However, once the Rapture happens it at least manages to be somewhat entertaining on a pure, dumb disaster movie level. It sorely could have done with some better pacing and maybe easing back on the melodrama, but I’ve seen much worse out of this series. Congrats, Left Behind franchise, you’ve graduated from church basement movie, to made for TV movie, to B-movie!

3.5/10

Be sure to tune in again soon when we look at the next entry in this series, Vanished: Left Behind – Next Generation!

Retrospective: Left Behind III – World at War (2005)

Welcome back to the Left Behind retrospective! In this entry we’ll be going over the third film in the franchise, Left Behind III: World at War. I had previously seen the first two Left Behind movies as a kid, but had never had a chance to see this third movie… and, honestly, I was always kinda disappointed about that. Like I said in the first entry, edgy, 11-year-old me got into this series to read about mass death in a way that would be acceptable to my evangelical parents. A Christian movie about World War III always piqued my curiosity and had a good chance of leaving me satisfied one way or another – either it’s somehow actually kinda cool and has an exciting world war, or it’s bad and I get to make fun of it. Which way would it shake out for World at War? Read on to find out…

Certainly not a good poster, but it’s miles more professional than the previous two films’ attempts.

Production

By the time that Left Behind II: Tribulation Force was released on home video, Cloud Ten were already promising that a third film was on the way and would feature that novel’s excised climax – World War III. I’ve already complained enough about the effect that this had on that previous movie, but the idea of this war getting a full movie to flesh it out was exciting enough. I have previously mentioned that Left Behind books tend to revolve around some massive disaster, but what I didn’t mention is that Jerry B. Jenkins kind of sucks at actually portraying these disasters. For example, there is a massive, global earthquake in the book Nicolae, which kills a full quarter of the world’s population in a matter of minutes. As I recall, this event gets a couple pages of reference, and it’s not even from the ground – it’s Ray flying in his plane above, watching all devastation occur. This is contrasted against the Left Behind: The Kids series, where the same event takes up about half a novella and features the point of view shots of several characters on ground-level. Anyway, point being that the Left Behind movies, once again, had a potential to greatly improve upon their source material.

With the Tim LaHaye lawsuit dismissed, Cloud Ten were able to put a lot more focus into this third Left Behind film. Cloud Ten were, obviously, keenly aware of the budgetary issues that a World War III movie presented and, perhaps because of this, Sony Pictures Home Entertainment were brought on to help produce and distribute this film. It seems that Paul & Peter Lalonde were keenly aware that their evangelizing focus in Tribulation Force (predictably) alienated the people they were trying to preach to, and so hoped that partnering with Sony could help them to reach a wider audience.

Once again, most of the original cast reprised their roles: notably, Kirk Cameron, Brad Johnson, Gordon Currie, Janaya Stephens, and Chelsea Noble. David Macniven also (briefly) returns as Chris after his big salvation scene in the prior movie. However, notably, Clarence Gilyard Jr. was unable to return as Bruce Barnes due to scheduling conflicts (reportedly, Gilyard Jr. is a Catholic and his priest was happy about this because Left Behind‘s theology is basically heresy to them). The role was replaced by Arnold Pinnock, an English actor who has been in tons of TV and small roles over the years. The biggest new cast member for World at War though was undoubtedly Louis Gossett Jr., who had won a Best Supporting Actor Academy Award for An Officer and a Gentleman. Gossett would be playing President Fitzhugh. According to Gossett, “All the predictions in the Bible seem to be coming true. I wanted to be connected to a film that was making that statement.”

Directing duties would once again be handled by a different workman director; this time Craig R. Baxley would be in the chair. Baxley was more known for his stunt work and second unit directing, having worked on The A-Team, 21 Jump Street (the TV show), and The Dukes of Hazzard. His biggest credit though would be stunts and second unit directing on goddamn Predator, so there was hope at least that his pedigree could result in a movie with some serious action chops.

As with previous Left Behind films, filming would occur in and around Toronto. After some delays, production began February 21, 2005 and would wrap nearly a month later. Budget totals are unclear, but I’ve seen estimates ranging from approximately $4.5 million to $17.5 million. Also like before, World at War skipped a full theatrical release, instead going straight-to-DVD and screening the film at over 3000 churches. Prior to the release, Peter Lalonde confidently stated: “Wait until they see it. Then people will be saying, ‘I hope there’s a Left Behind 4.'”

Spoiler alert: There would be no Left Behind 4

Plot Synopsis

World at War opens with Fitzhugh in the bombed-out remains of the White House, filming a confession as someone appears to confront him…

It then flashes back one week earlier, where the Tribulation Force are conducting a raid on a Global Community facility where confiscated Bibles are being stored. Guards interrupt the raid and Chris is killed in the escape. We then cut to President Fitzhugh and his vice president, John Mallory, who are discussing intelligence that someone is planning on using biological weapons on American soil – the three biggest factions being the Christians, the militias, or Nicolae’s Global Community. Their motorcade is then ambushed, but third-party militia interrupt the attack and save the president, although Mallory is killed in the process.

We then cut to the Tribulation Force, where a dual wedding ceremony is underway. Buck and Chloe are married, and then Ray marries Amanda, a woman we’ve never met before until this scene. Fitzhugh meets with Nicolae about the attack on his motorcade and recognizes Nicolae’s personal assistant, Carolyn Miller, as one of the militia members who rescued him in the attack. He then captures and interrogates Buck, who Fitzhugh knows is connected with the Christians and that they’ve been stockpiling vaccines. Buck tells him that they’ve been doing this because of prophesized plagues and that he believes that Nicolae will be the one behind the biological weapons.

Fitzhugh arranges a meeting with Miller and the pair infiltrate a Global Community facility. Here they discover that Buck is right and that Nicolae is poisoning Bibles with chemical agents. The manage to escape the facility and meet up with the militia, creating a coalition between America, Great Britain, and Egypt which will launch a pre-emptive attack on the Global Community. However, Fitzhugh realizes that they need to kill Nicolae in order to win, and goes to assassinate him himself. However, Nicolae is aware of Fitzhugh’s intentions and, despite landing several shots on Nicolae, he is completely unphased by the attack. Nicolae reveals that he has already commenced bombing operations and that World War III is underway, before using his powers to Force push Fitzhugh out a window. However, Fitzhugh survives the fall through divine intervention and slinks back to the militia. Unfortunately, they believe the war is going disastrously and they believe that Fitzhugh sold them out.

Meanwhile, the Tribulation Force are in disarray. Bruce and Chloe have been exposed to the biological agents and are dying after caring for the sick at the church. Rayford and Amanda rush to be with them, while Buck feels that God is calling him to be in Washington. After some soul-searching, he confronts Fitzhugh in the White House and convinces him to come to Jesus. While this is happening, Chloe realizes that communion wine can be used to neutralize the biological agent, although this is discovered too late for Bruce, who succumbs.

Fitzhugh once again confronts Nicolae at Global Community HQ, who gloats over his victory. However, Fitzhugh has activated a satellite missile, which homes in on their location and obliterates it, killing Fitzhugh in the process. Nicolae is seemingly killed as well, but emerges from the flaming wreckage completely unscathed.

Review

Right from the opening scenes, it’s apparent that World at War has a very different “feel” than its predecessors. I believe that this is down to two factors. First of all, World at War was the first proper post-9/11 Left Behind movie (Tribulation Force did come out in late 2002, but it would have been in production in the days and months following the event). The filmmakers would have been able to draw inspiration from the fallout of the disaster, the Anthrax attacks, the beginnings of the Iraq War, and the cultural paradigm shift occurring around them. Tonally, World at War feels like it has more in common with a mid-2000s, post-9/11 political thriller than it does with its two predecessors. I think the most notable factor though was Sony’s involvement. It seems that they brought guidance and a more professional atmosphere to the project, and you can clearly see this when comparing the production values of World at War to either of the previous Left Behind movies. I’ve been harping on this throughout this retrospective, but my God, it is refreshing to see a movie that’s competently lit; it makes such a massive difference at making this look like a real, professionally-made movie.

God said “Let there be light”, to which Peter and Paul Lalonde replied “Nah man, that shit’s too expensive”.

I will give some credit though to the filmmakers (and probably Craig R. Baxley in particular), because there are a couple pretty exciting moments peppered throughout the runtime. The opening sequence where the Tribulation Force break into a Global Community compound and steal confiscated Bibles is approaching legitimate action movie territory and is miles more exciting than any sequence in the prior two films. This quickly gets upstaged though by the ambush on the presidential motorcade, which opens with an incredible car explosion stunt. Seriously, this ambush sequence came out of nowhere and my jaw dropped at how spectacular the opening stunt was. It makes for an action sequence which is legitimately pulse-pounding, reminiscent of the ambush scene from Clear and Present Danger (albeit, far cheaper). Unfortunately, both of these sequences are pretty early in the movie, so it peaks very early and leaves you with some false hope that the war sequences might actually deliver.

We’ll keep the positivity going by moving onto the performances. Louis Gossett Jr. is absolutely acting his ass off in this movie, putting in by far the best performance in the entire franchise up to this point, and elevating the shlocky material he’s given far higher than it has any right to be. Arnold Pinnock also really leaves an impression as the new Bruce Barnes. Clarence Gilyard Jr. wasn’t exactly bad as Bruce, but (other than one scene in the first movie) he was given absolutely nothing to work with outside of being an exposition dump machine and his character was unable to leave any kind of impression. Here, he actually comes across as the leader of the Tribulation Force, and when he becomes sick with Nicolae’s biological agent, his acting is good enough that it could bring tears to your eyes.

I have to give one last special shout-out to Gordon Currie though, who cranks his hammy take on Nicolae Carpathia up yet another notch. He’s deliciously evil and smarmy, and has some incredible moments of villainy: disrespecting Fitzhugh by sitting in his presidential chair, tanking three shots at point blank range, using his powers to force Fitzhugh to stick a gun to his own head, and then deciding it would be funnier to make him choke himself instead, he Force pushes Fitzhugh out a window and then lampshades it when he miraculously survives the fall, and then walks off a goddamn missile strike like it was nothing. Absolute king shit. I said it before and I’ll say it again, Gordon Currie’s Nicolae is a low-key, all-timer villain, and his performance in this movie just cements that further for me.

Unfortunately, for all these good performances, there’s also some notably weak ones. Kirk Cameron has been tolerable through this series, but his constant boy scout charm isn’t really selling it for me when Buck’s going through some really emotional moments that should be leaving him far more shaken. His wife, Chelsea Noble, is also notably weaker here than in previous films, coming across like a personal screed against catty bitches moreso than an actual character performance. In some ways, this actually makes Hattie legitimately dangerous to Rayford, but it’s kind of wild how spitefully performed and written she is. Notably, Cameron and Noble were always the weakest of the original cast, but this is the first time that I feel like their performances dipped enough to actually merit some criticism… and, honestly, as far as movies like this go, it’s still not that bad overall.

As for Cloud Ten’s attempts to court a wider, more secular audience, the whole enterprise seems to be a fool’s errand. Explicitly Christian movies are kind of damned if you do, damned if you don’t. If your entire purpose is to push a message, like Tribulation Force does, then you completely alienate the people you’re trying to preach to. If you scale it back, like World at War attempts to do, you still end up with a level of palpable preachiness which is going to alienate a wider audience and is also going to cause your core audience to believe that they’re “watering down the message to be like Hollywood”. World at War is definitely trying to entertain and is less-overtly pushing a message than the previous two films, but it’s still unmistakably preachy. For one thing, the Christian persecution complex is starting to actually show here, with Christianity outlawed, Christians getting shot, several characters likening them to terrorists, and government agents literally poisoning Bibles to kill off believers. Hell, Buck has a gun to his head and is told to renounce Jesus and refuses, a fantasy scenario which every evangelical has jerked themselves off to at least once in their life. There’s also plenty of scenes where the characters have to trust God in order to solve their problems, way to progress the plot which is basically meaningless unless you’re already convinced that Jesus is your saviour. Hell, the very idea that they could neutralize the effects of the chemical weapons attack with communion wine is absolutely insane and only makes sense if you think that communion holds some sort of special, elevated significance already.

Now, while the production value of World at War may be above its predecessors, that’s still not saying all that much. If the first movie was a glorified church basement movie, and the second was absolutely a church basement movie, this third movie has finally reached the lofty heights of a late-night, made-for-TV movie. Progress! Again, the lighting and direction really make the movie feel far better, even though World at War feels even cheaper than the previous two movies in some aspects. For one thing, there’s a lot more use of visual effects, with lots of sequences of people firing rockets, setting off massive explosions, throwing people through windows, etc. This definitely cost more than the miniscule visual effects in the previous two films, but the CGI used is so bad and so prominent that it ends up making World at War feel tackier. There’s also a lot of usage of green screen for scenes of driving, flying, window vistas, etc, and it’s usually really obvious when it’s been used, because the the matting is terrible. I’m talking visible “fuzz” around the actors where the background hasn’t been quite eliminated, the background not matching the camera movement properly, or even green light reflecting onto the actors (humourously, during one of these scenes, Nicolae asks Fitzhugh what colour the sky is, and then says that he could see it as green for all we know, while green light is literally showing on his skin). World at War is also taking place in a lot more sets than its predecessors (who at least spent a good chunk of their runtimes seemingly filming at some guy’s house as a stand-in for Rayford’s or at a literal church). In World at War, the church has been driven underground, so all the church scenes are literally in a church basement (which is like 60% of the Tribulation Force’s entire screentime), while the rest of the movie alternates between the White House, Buck’s apartment, a military bunker, a warehouse, and Nicolae’s office… and I’m pretty certain that most of these are just being borrowed from other productions (the White House set at least was apparently reused from Murder at 1600). This isn’t necessarily bad, but it does lend the film a very tacky, low-budget, TV-movie quality.

However, easily the biggest fumble for World at War and the cheapest, most made-for-TV movie aspect of it all is that World War III occurs entirely off-screen. I’m not exaggerating either – we see some brief news snippets, see some background explosions, hear the sounds of distant fighting, and the camera shakes every once in a while to simulate a nearby explosion. We don’t even get a shot like what the film’s DVD cover promises with planes doing a bombing run! A decade ago I wrote about how low budget movies will often promise some really cool, ambitious idea in order to draw you in, and then not deliver, and World at War absolutely lives up to that shameful standard. They could maybe make an excuse like “Oh, we wanted to focus on the message, not on gratuitous violence!” and to that I say bullshit. This is goddamn Left Behind, the gratuitous violence and spectacular disasters is absolutely the draw. If you make a movie about World War III and then not show that war at all, then you have absolutely failed as a filmmaker.

This brings me to the second crippling flaw of World at War, and that is the awful script. This movie is basically a messy jumble of scenes stitched together that barely make sense you actually scrutinize what is happening. When I take edibles, I hyper-fixate on the structure of a story and the filmmaking decisions involved and become really easily confused if any of this is “off”. I’m thankful that I watched this movie sober, because if I watched it high, I probably would have had a mental breakdown, it’s that all over the place from scene to scene. I’ve got countless examples of this that I need to go through:

  • Fitzhugh was just told by his vice president that Nicolae’s planning on using biological weapons to attack America. It’s pretty heavily implied that Nicolae knew that he knew this, and had the vice president assassinated to shut him up. Nicolae then meets Fitzhugh to offer his condolences for his friend’s death, and proceeds to show him biological weapons he’s developing. This is an absolutely insane scene and it makes no sense when Fitzhugh later re-confirms this information and is shocked at the revelation.
  • Fitzhugh captures and interrogates Buck Williams, but the whole scene makes no actual sense under scrutiny. First of all, Buck is Nicolae’s personal media mouthpiece. Fitzhugh seems to know that Buck is secretly a Christian, so maybe he assumes that his snooping around won’t make its way back to Nicolae, but that still means he’s basically talking to a terrorist as far as the state’s concerned. Fitzhugh asks Buck if he knows about the chemical weapons, because Christians have been stockpiling vaccines (boy, that’s rich in 2024), to which Buck says that he doesn’t know, but that he imagines that Nicolae’s the one who will unleash them. Fitzhugh then lets Buck go. I’m going to say this over and over again here, but this is the actual, goddamn President doing this interrogation, and not some lackey, so there’s no plausible deniability, no layers of insulation, nothing. Buck Williams, a globally-respected reporter now knows direct, national security information because the President directly gave it to him for no real reason and then let him walk out of there alive.
  • Fitzhugh then meets Nicolae’s personal assistant (who, like his pilot and media representative, is yet another mole in his organization) and the pair decide to infiltrate a Global Community facility. Again, not secret service, not trusted soldiers, the goddamn President grabs a gun and goes Solid Snake on this facility. He even shoots a guard and then snaps another one’s neck! I get that they’re just trying to maximize the amount of Louis Gossett Jr. that they can get in this film, but my God, the idea of the goddamn President being put in harm’s way so directly and unnecessarily is completely insane.
  • Then, as soon as he gets confirmation that Nicolae has chemical weapons and the militias are planning on launching a surprise attack on him, Fitzhugh has the bright idea to call Buck Williams on a cell phone so he can tell him that he was right about Nicolae!!!! Again, HOLY SHIT, the unprompted and unnecessary intel leak for something of this magnitude to Nicolae’s personal reporter is unbelievably stupid.
  • Then, when they decide they need to assassinate Nicolae in order to win the war, they send Fitzhugh to do it. They know that there are moles in his organization, it’s not like Fitzhugh is the only one who can get close to him.
  • Then we get to the war itself and there’s so much dumb shit here. There’s bombs going off a few blocks from the Global Community HQ and Nicolae is just sitting up in his office building watching it all… rather than, y’know, heading back to New Babylon where it’s safe (this is entirely on the movie, by the way, in the book I believe he is orchestrating the attacks from his plane the entire time). Meanwhile, characters are walking all over the country like there isn’t a war going on outside – we’ve got Fitzhugh walking from Global Community HQ, to the militia’s bunker, the White House, back to GC HQ, like it’s nothing. And at the same time, we’ve got Buck walking to the White House to meet him. There is absolutely no danger presented by these considerably-long treks, no sign of exertion or anything. It’s just more proof that the whole World War is basically an after-thought.

It’s also worth noting that the Tribulation Force, the characters we’ve been following since the first movie, are relegated to the B-plot of this movie and have shockingly little to do here that matters. Basically, Buck warns Fitzhugh about the Nicolae, converts him to Christianity, and the other characters are at ground zero for the biological weapon attacks. They are sidelined so heavily that it makes most of their screen time feel unnecessary, and if they weren’t legacy characters, then they probably would have been cut out during script rewrites.

World at War annoyed me. For the first twenty or thirty minutes, it displayed some legitimate potential and I was thinking that this could end up being my favourite Left Behind movie. Unfortunately, it falls apart quickly, absolutely fails to deliver its promise of an apocalyptic World War III, and completely collapses as soon as you start thinking about what actually happened during the course of the movie. In spite of all that, I’m kind of sad that this is where the original series ended – as poor as these films are, it would have been nice to see them get through apocalypse and show us some of the more outlandish disasters. Say what you will, but Jerry B. Jenkins and Tim LaHaye are spectacularly uncreative – if the Bible says something about demon locusts with horse-like bodies, a scorpion’s tail, men’s faces, and women’s hair, then you’d best believe they are making a literal army of locusts attack humanity. If the Bible says that there’s two hundred million horsemen riding on horses with lion’s heads that can shoot fire, have snake-head tails, and will kill 1/3 of the human population, then you’d better believe that they’re literally gonna have a bunch of demonic horsemen show up. For the record, this isn’t just them “taking the Bible literally as intended”, as it all stands in contrast to the equally-specific descriptions of the various Beasts who are popularly identified as the Antichrist and False Prophet. However, since these figures are associated with human individuals, suddenly it’s fine for them to be metaphorical descriptions. It’s shit like this that made me, as a child, realize that the apocalypse portrayed in these books is pure fiction. That said, setting aside that millions of people believe this will actually happen, this kind of Christian apocalypse is metal as fuck. That is why I wish we got a continuation of this series with this cast – Cloud Ten would no doubt manage to screw it up in execution, but I would have had a lot of respect for them if they had managed to bring this vision to life.

3/10

Be sure to tune in again soon when we look at the next entry in this series, Left Behind (2014)!

Retrospective: Left Behind II – Tribulation Force (2002)

Welcome back to the Left Behind retrospective! In this entry we’ll be going over the second film in the franchise, Left Behind II: Tribulation Force. To everyone’s shock and surprise, I didn’t think that the original Left Behind was all that bad – sure, it was extremely cheap, and the source material is garbage, but the movie itself managed to mine the drama and excitement of its apocalyptic premise well enough. Could they keep this (relative) quality up going into the sequel? Read on to find out…

Okay, I had some nice things to say about the original movie’s poster, but this one’s just bad. Random, distant shot of Kirk Cameron looking moody? Really indistinct picture of Nicolae framed against flames? This poster communicates basically nothing about the movie and looks like a high school media arts project at best.

Production

In spite of the poor theatrical run of Left Behind: The Movie, DVD sales were healthy, with over three million copies sold. This reception was strong enough for Cloud Ten to greenlight a sequel, in spite of potential issues which could arise due to their ongoing legal battle with Tim LaHaye. Cloud Ten insisted that the sequel would continue regardless, to which LaHaye stated: “Whether the second movie will happen or not will be settled by the court.”

Well, turns out that Cloud Ten and Namesake pictures got the last laugh, because the courts dismissed LaHaye’s case. He would go on to appeal, but we’ll cover the results of that in later entries… For now, Tribulation Force was a go.

The second Left Behind film would be based on the second book, Tribulation Force, which continues to follow the characters from the previous book in the aftermath of the Rapture, leading into the beginning of the Tribulation. Perhaps due to budget, the movie would not include the most exciting (and expensive) part of the book – World War III, where Nicolae goes to war with all the nations that haven’t submitted entirely to him. Instead, Tribulation Force would cover the time period leading up to those events and the next movie would be dedicated entirely to WWIII.

This brings us to a character who, despite playing a very small part in the making of the film, influenced it in a way that can be felt strongly: pastor and evangelist Ray Comfort, a man so easy to make fun of that even Wikipedia pulled off a Fatality on him. You know those fake $100 bills you come across which end up having a Bible tract on the back? This guy is the sonofabitch responsible for those things. He also really hates evolution, having written a book called You Can Lead an Atheist to Evidence, But You Can’t Make Him Think and an abridged (and suspiciously-edited) version of “On the Origin of Species”. During my research into this movie I found that he had written a book about the making of the film, which I attempted to track down. If you followed my Twitter account in the last few weeks, you would know that this did not go well. I did eventually get the book though and read through it…

According to Miracle in the Making, Kirk Cameron had met Ray Comfort in the 90s, and instantly found his teachings to be captivating. The pair would become close friends and collaborators, and would eventually go into ministry together. During the production of Tribulation Force, Kirk confided to Ray that he and Chelsea were considering dropping out of the movie. Two weeks out from the start of shooting, the script had not been finalized, contracts had not been signed, and they didn’t even know who else was going to be in the movie at that point. However, Ray convinced him to stay on in order to champion the film’s message. Together, he and Kirk rewrote the script to include a stronger evangelistic message and, after pitching the changes to Cloud Ten, the producers agreed to incorporate them.

…that’s about all we learn from Ray Comfort about the making of the movie. Forgive me for going on a tangent away from Tribulation Force, but I need to indulge for a bit: Miracle in the Making is 100 pages long, about maybe 15 pages of which have anything to do with Tribulation Force. The rest is a meandering gaggle of Ray preaching about his doctrine (basically, keeping the Ten Commandments is the most important element of salvation), telling parables about two guys wearing parachutes on an airplane, telling stories about getting told to fuck off by Arnold Schwarzenegger and James Cameron, debating atheists, hanging out with celebrities, and harassing restaurant-goers (and others besides) with Bible tracts. It’s also got some jaw-dropping moments, like Ray Comfort and Tim LaHaye joking about their chances of being accused of sexual harassment. He also tells a story about how he was on notice for jury duty on a case where a truck driver had been carrying unsecured boxes, which came off the truck and caused an accident with back and neck injuries. Ray bragged that he got off jury duty because he declared that he found the idea of making someone pay for an accident abhorrent and that he “wouldn’t give the guy a bean”… DUDE, assuming that the injury is indeed legitimate (which is the job of the trial to determine in any case), that guy is gonna be dealing with medical bills for life, which he’s not going to be able to afford with America’s shitty healthcare system, and this “accident” is directly due to the driver’s negligence. This is a textbook case of why suing people is so common in the States and why the system even exists in the first place.

Maybe the biggest shock though was how Ray Comfort describes how Kirk Cameron first became enamored with his preaching. Cameron describes how “I believe I was robbed of the deep pain of seeing the depth of my sinfulness, of experiencing the exceeding joy and gratitude that comes from the cross, because I was convinced of God’s love before I was convinced of my sin. […] I had never opened up the Ten Commandments and looked deep into the well of my sinful heart. I never imagined that God was actually angry with me at a certain point because of my sin.” THAT is emblematic of Comfort’s doctrine – Jesus may love you, but God hates your sin more and if you don’t do something about that then you were never “really” a Christian to begin with. Take his argument against the idea that the church is full of self-righteous hypocrites: “There are no hypocrites in the Church. Hypocrites are pretenders, masquerading as genuine Christians. God sees the pretenders and He sees the genuine, and warns that they will be sorted out on Judgement Day”. Keep all this in mind as we go into the film whose script he helped influence…

Is… is Ray Comfort responsible for making Kirk Cameron into Kirk Cameron, the guy we all know and hate now…?

Anyway, back to Tribulation Force… As I stated earlier, Kirk Cameron and Chelsea Noble both returned to reprise their roles, as did many of the cast from the original film – not just the main cast either, like Brad Johnson, Clarence Gilyard Jr, Janaya Stephens and Gordon Currie, but also smaller roles like David Macniven (who played Rayford’s co-pilot, Chris), Krista Bridges (who played Buck’s assistant, Ivy Gold), and Christie MacFadyen (who played Rayford’s Raptured wife). It’s honestly extremely impressive that they were able to get everyone together, especially considering that most of the cast wasn’t secured until the last minute.

Directing duties would go to Bill Corcoran, a long-time, workman Canadian filmmaker. Like the original, filming occurred in and around Toronto, including the scenes in Israel (I didn’t see any camels this time though, sadly). Normally I wouldn’t mention anything about the editing, but I got extremely excited when I saw that Michael Doherty edited this movie. The Michael Doherty of Godzilla: King of the Monsters, Trick ‘r Treat and Krampus fame!? I was excited about this for days, but literally as I am writing this I realized that Michael Doherty is (sadly) not Michael Dougherty. Dude still edited the latter-date Romero zombie movies and several episodes of Hannibal, so that’s cool, but significantly less exciting than I had thought…

The budget of this film is estimated to have been around $3.8 million, significantly less than the original’s reported $17.4 million, although if the estimated budget for Left Behind of $4 million was accurate, then this actually wasn’t that much of a drop. Unlike the first film, Tribulation Force skipped a theatrical release entirely, only going straight-to-DVD, with some churches choosing to screen it privately.

Plot Synopsis

Tribulation Force opens with Nicolae working on establishing the UN as a one-world government, as he consolidates the major currencies into a single global currency and begins taking steps towards founding a one-world religion. He is impressed by Buck’s reporting and requests a meeting with the reporter, who is uneasy about doing so after having just witnessed him murder Stonagal and Todd-Cothran in the previous film. Buck, Rayford, Chloe, and Bruce debate about what they should do now that they know that Nicolae is the Antichrist. They hear rumours about three men burning to death at the Wailing Wall in Israel and Bruce believes that this is the doing of the “two witnesses” who are prophesied to lead thousands to Christ during the end times. However, the area has been placed off-limits and their message is being suppressed. After much deliberation, Rayford and Buck decide to get closer to Nicolae to leverage their positions to fight back against him – Buck will attempt to get the message of the witnesses out, while Rayford will become Nicolae’s pilot in order to spy on him.

During their meeting, Nicolae agrees to give Buck full UN security clearance in exchange for becoming his personal voice in the media. Meanwhile, Rayford leverages his connections with Hattie in order to get the job as Nicolae’s personal pilot. While all this is happening, Chloe grows increasingly concerned about the safety of her father and Buck, while also getting jealous and throwing a fit for a while because she mistakenly believes that Buck is cheating on her. This is because his assistant, Ivy Gold, is staying at his apartment, since she has nowhere else to stay due to the post-Rapture chaos (women, amiright?). The couple manage to make amends before Buck and Rayford travel to Israel for a press conference, where a leading religious scholar, Tsion Ben-Judah, is due to make an announcement about the identity of the Jewish Messiah.

During the flight over, Rayford discovers that Ben-Judah’s announcement will be that Nicolae is the Messiah. They decide to intercept him and try to get him to speak with the witnesses, who will be able to convince him through God’s word that Jesus is the real Messiah. Buck manages to convince Ben-Judah to confront the witnesses with the ruse of performing an interview to discredit them. Ben-Judah accepts and the pair confront the witnesses on the temple mount. The witnesses say some Bible verses, and then they shoot flames out of their mouths to burn a couple soldiers to death. Buck is distressed to discover that the UN cut off his broadcast before the witnesses could say anything, but he hopes that Ben-Judah heard enough to change his coming speech.

The next day, Ben-Judah makes his proclamation on international broadcast that the Messiah could only have been Jesus. Nicolae is enraged and tries to stop the broadcast, but Rayford sabotages his ability to do so, and the proclamation goes off unhindered. The film ends with the Tribulation Force gathering to celebrate this victory against the Antichrist as Nicolae swears vengeance against God…

Review

When I originally saw Left Behind: The Movie as a kid, I recall that I thought it wasn’t bad. I was surprised to find that I agreed with this watching it again 20+ years later. As a kid, I thought that Left Behind II: Tribulation Force SUCKED, and I am completely unsurprised to find that this has also held true. This isn’t a shock at all – the book, Tribulation Force, also sucked. Even as a kid, I found it incredibly dull, to the point where I got fed up, and skipped over like fifty pages of it just to get to the World War III section… which isn’t even in this movie, so that should give you an idea of how much this film is scraping the barrel for anything of interest. While I understand that cutting out a massive war was probably done for budget reasons, it’s kind of insane – each Left Behind book almost entirely revolves around some massive disaster or dramatic event that defines that entry: Nicolae is the earthquake book, Apollyon is the demon locust book, Assassins is the insane Nicolae murder conspiracy book, etc. The decision to excise the novel’s climax has massive repercussions on the movie, because everything that remains is so FUCKING DULL.

I’ll get the nice stuff out of the way first. The cast were easily one of the best parts of the first movie and it’s nice to see them get to reprise their roles. They still do a decent job, especially Brad Johnson (who portrays Ray as putting up a manly-man façade, but is clearly still traumatized over losing his wife and son) and Gordon Currie (who’s hamming it up more than ever), although they are really let down by the much weaker script. That said, putting aside the issues caused by removing the big climax from the book, Tribulation Force actually improves on its source material in some areas. In the book, Tsion Ben-Judah comes to the conclusion that Jesus is the Jewish Messiah on his own and, for some reason, the world is interested enough that this announcement becomes international, live broadcast news. However, the movie changes this so that the whole announcement and broadcast is orchestrated propaganda – it’s heavily implied that Ben-Judah has been intercepted by Nicolae and brainwashed into believing that he is the Messiah, all as part of Nicolae’s plan to establish his one-world religion. Thus, it becomes up to our heroes to save the day and spread the truth. This ends up being orders of magnitude more tense and interesting than what was put to page.

I also appreciate that this film seems to have more compassion for its characters than the source material. In the first book, Chris (Rayford’s co-pilot) commits suicide off-screen immediately after discovering that his entire family were Raptured. In Tribulation Force, there is an extended sequence dedicated to saving Chris – not just from suicide, but converting him so he can be with his family again someday. On the one hand, his fate in the books really underscores the devastating magnitude of the Rapture and the effects it can (and would) have on those left behind. However, step back a bit, and this is basically Jerry B. Jenkins and Tim LaHaye conceptualizing a character and then condemning him to an eternity of torment while his family who love him are separated from him forever… and all this is justified because, according to their doctrine, he deserves it. Just thinking about it reminds me why, if God is truly all-loving, then universal reconciliation surely must be true doctrine, because the alternative reflects very poorly on Him and makes salvation an existential horror. Meanwhile, giving Chris the opportunity to be saved is far more in keeping with the sort of fate a Christian should want for a character and I’m kind of glad that he gets his little redemption arc in this adaptation.

Wait a minute… there’s no shadows being cast by the witnesses from the flamethrower attack.

And… uh… that’s about all the good I have to say about this movie. Everything that was a problem in the previous movie is still here: poor lighting, cheap sets, unconvincing special effects, etc. However, everything feels so much worse. If Left Behind: The Movie was, as Tim LaHaye put it, a glorified church basement movie, Tribulation Force is very much a church basement movie. The first movie at least had a pretty ambitious opening scene with lots of practical explosions and a real car bombing later, this movie has… a very brief fire stunt and that’s it. You’ve got alleyway sets where they’ve thrown trash all over the place to represent the post-Rapture lawlessness. We’ve got UN soldiers and Israeli army in what are clearly WWII-era army surplus uniforms. The Israel restaurant set looks like it was a reused Arabic bazaar. Nicolae’s plane changes models three different times depending on what location or stock footage the scene is using. Tribulation Force is operating on a much smaller scale than the previous film and when it tries to widen that scope beyond “American house/church” you can reeeeally feel how small this film’s budget was.

The direction of the film is also notably worse. This is perhaps best demonstrated recalling the scene of Nicolae murdering Stonagal and Todd-Cothran in the first movie, and then comparing it to the scene of Buck meeting Nicolae in Tribulation Force. The first movie nailed the execution of that scene, creating a very tense sequence which effectively demonstrates the character and otherworldly menace of Nicolae, visually demonstrates that Buck is immune to his charms, and communicates that he’s terrified that Nicolae might realize this. Conceptually, the rooftop meeting could manage to be comparable: Buck is voluntarily putting himself within reach of his sworn enemy, who may or may not know his secret. Plus, visually, the scene is evocative of the temptation of Christ, which seems relevant since Buck is literally making a deal with the Devil. However, in execution, this scene really fails. There’s nothing sinister about the meeting, no tension at all in the way that it’s filmed. Any tension to be had is wrought out of the dialogue, but it is utterly neutered by unimaginative direction. The fact that the meeting is occurring on a rooftop even seems to be completely irrelevant – they might as well be meeting in the street, or a café for all it’s worth. Not even a camera movement to suggest “Oh my God, is he going to throw me off the roof?” Hell, you could have an awesome character moment for Buck if he just thinks “I could push the Antichrist off this roof right now”… and all it would take is someone deciding to shoot anything other than two angles of medium close ups.

However, all of this pales in comparison to the actual problem with this movie, and that is unquestionably the script. As I’ve already said several times, cutting out the novel’s climax has huge repercussions on the movie. The entire climax has been excised and they have to compensate by spinning a lot of wheels in order to get Tribulation Force barely over a 90 minute runtime. This results in some excruciating scenes as the film grinds its pacing to a halt and wastes as much time as humanly possible. Nearly the first ten minutes of the film are just people watching TV: Nicolae watching Buck reporting the news. Bruce watching Nicolae at the UN. Buck watching the same broadcast, but from an entirely different location. Barely any of this serves anything but to dump some exposition about the state of the world and to establish why Nicolae wants to turn Buck into an ally (although given their relationship in the previous film, this probably wouldn’t even be necessary). It’s also really awkward to have the scenes constantly get inter-cut with footage of Bruce, who doesn’t react or say a damn thing the entire time, and won’t even get a line for about another five minutes. It’s like they need to remind us that he exists because he barely got to do anything in the last movie.

The absolute worst part though is the awful, awful, AWFUL attempt at romantic drama which dominates a putrid, nearly fifteen minute chunk of this film. Chloe and Buck have become an item between the end of the last film and the start of this one and Chloe wants to make things more serious with him. However, through a set of extremely contrived circumstances, she goes to his apartment and finds Ivy Gold staying there, who flashes her engagement ring and tells her to piss off. Chloe then gets pissed off at Buck, refuses to talk to him, and acts like a child, all while Ray tells her that she’s acting like an idiot. When it’s finally revealed that she’s misunderstood the whole situation, it comes across like the film’s just dropped a bucket of shit on her, because she obviously should have trusted Buck all along. How awful it is that she would not assume he was innocent! This whole storyline adds nothing to the overarching plot, is nothing but absolute bottom-barrel romantic comedy tropes, and serves nothing but to pad out the runtime.

Really, the film is just constantly shitting on Chloe during the first half – when Rayford takes down photos of his wife and son, Chloe comes across like she’s whining when she makes some very reasonable points. When Rayford and Buck decide to put themselves in harm’s way for the cause, she whines and sulks about it. She’s just such a wet blanket that it nearly gave me whiplash when, in the second half, they turn around and let her be competent at serving in the church’s makeshift hospital and she even becomes friends with Ivy Gold. Adding it all up, it just clearly shows where Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins’ opinions on women in the church lie: while the men are off doing big, “important things” throughout the movie, Chloe (when she’s not being an emotional burden on them) is stuck comforting the dying and getting over jealousy. She’s clearly side-lined and “lesser”, and it’s an issue which sticks with her through the entire book series (well, until her untimely demise, anyway).

On top of all this, the writing also just happens to be really stupid at times. Like, the film opens with Nicolae seeing Buck on TV and going “Wow, he’s so cool, I want him on my team!” Buck has literally just been providing a basic overview of what has happened in society since the Rapture happened. There’s nothing notable or exceptional about it or Buck’s reporting, but it gets treated like he’s an eloquent, hard-truth-speaking genius. Or how about how Rayford refuses to become Nicolae’s private pilot because it would be dangerous and then Bruce berates him for being selfish, but literally one scene later Buck says he’s going to get access to the two witnesses to spread their gospel and Bruce says “I dunno Buck, that’s dangerous, you sure?” You could miss the inconsistency entirely if they weren’t literally back-to-back scenes, but as is, it makes it seem like Bruce just really hates Ray and wants him to go get himself killed. Or how about when Nicolae is told to arrest the witnesses, he says “I do not want to put them in jail, this is not a dictatorship.” DUDE! They lit three people on fire, arrest them all you want, no one is going to complain! Or how about how Tsion Ben-Judah becomes convinced that Jesus is the real Messiah because the two witnesses literally just quote some Bible verses to him. I need to explain why this is so insane: Tsion Ben-Judah is apparently the world’s greatest religious scholar. Are you telling me he hasn’t even read the Bible or spoken with Christians before in his studies? He doesn’t even argue with the witnesses, the thing he is supposed to be meeting with them to do in the first place! Man, I sure am glad that they axed the WWIII climax in favour of this one!

In regards to the writing, one way that Tribulation Force really differentiates itself from its predecessor is by being an exponentially-preachier film. If you weren’t a Christian already, you could probably get through Left Behind: The Movie without feeling like you were being outright preached to the whole time – it feels like a narrative moreso than a sermon. In comparison, Tribulation Force spends far more time unabashedly focused on preaching to its audience. Your taste for this change will vary significantly – I’ve always been of the opinion that these movies are almost entirely made by evangelicals, for evangelicals, and so any preaching is literally being done to the choir. It’s less about changing hearts and minds, and more about pandering and reinforcing the audience’s existing beliefs. I would not say that this is necessarily a bad thing in itself; rather, that the execution is poor…

What is this, some kind of Tribulation Force?

…which, finally, brings us to good ol’ Ray Comfort’s contributions to the film. He and Kirk Cameron wanted to make this film more “evangelistic”, and boy did they take a sledge-hammer to the script (despite Ray Comfort literally saying in his book that movies that preach to the audience suck). The most blatant example of this is when Rayford is trying to convince Chris to submit to Jesus. The arguments that Rayford uses to convince Chris that Jesus is real are straight out of Ray Comfort’s mouth… and they kinda suck. Rayford has two big points he pushes to try to convince Chris not to kill himself:

  1. You’re not a good person, because if you ever committed a single sin in your life, then you’re tainted in God’s eyes. Also, the parameters of potential slip-ups are way broader than you would think, so God’s extra unfair to you (eg, if you covet then you’re a thief in God’s eyes, if you get angry then you’re a murderer, if you look lustfully then you’re having pre-marital sex, etc). Therefore you need to submit to God, or you’re gonna roast in Hell.
  2. Gun to head, all else has failed, what can Ray possibly say to convince Chris not to do it? “Hey, maybe there’s a God, or maybe there isn’t! If there isn’t, then we both end up the same. If there is, then you go to heaven if you listen to me, or hell if you don’t! Which would you prefer?” I need to iterate that THIS IS THE ARGUMENT THAT CONVINCES HIM TO BECOME A CHRISTIAN!!!

Having spent a couple years in university associated with Campus4Christ, I can attest that these sorts of crap evangelism tactics don’t really hold up to any sort of scrutiny. Like, “if you get angry, you’re a murderer in God’s eyes”. Umm, no, that’s kind of an insane difference, God. Where is the justice in the idea that God is just waiting for us to slip up even a tiny bit, just so He can punish us to the full extent? All that Ray has really done is use the movie to push his own, very narrow view of faith, and weigh down the script with poorly considered arguments that aren’t convincing to anyone outside of the target audience. Honestly, a bit of reframing could do wonders – “Umm, ackshully, the rules say that you’re a thief, murderer, and an adulterer!” is extremely unconvincing, but change that to “You may not be as bad as a full-on murderer, but in comparison to the perfection of God, you are just as much of a sinner”. There’s an actual argument here, one that actually meets them where they are and doesn’t hinge on them accepting that God views them as the most extreme kinds of sinner.

Overall, there really isn’t a whole lot to say about Tribulation Force (I say, approximately 4000+ words deep in this retrospective). It’s a movie whose greatest struggle is simply in finding ways to waste time until anything of importance has to happen. The result, predictably, is a dull and slow slog with no satisfying payoff. There is precious little plot here and it is surrounded by long stretches of wheel spinning. The movie is barely 90 minutes long and you can feel how they padded the runtime significantly to get it to “proper” movie length. Considering that approximately ten of those minutes are directly dedicated to the infuriating “romantic misunderstanding” storyline, I can pretty much guarantee that an arbitrary runtime was the entire reason the pacing is so bad in this movie. With some more judicious editing, this could easily have been a far better film at 70 minutes (or even 60)… but then they’d have to find some other way to end this story. A shame, if only there was some other ending that they could have used instead…

2.5/10

Be sure to tune in again soon when we look at the next entry in this series, Left Behind III: World at War!

Retrospective: Left Behind – The Movie (2000)

It’s been quite a while since my last retrospectives series (more than 3 years now), but that’s largely because of the sheer amount of work that goes into these things. Not only do I have to make time between work, family, and other hobbies to be able to watch 3+ movies, I also have to do research into the the production history of the franchise, and actually write out the reviews for each movie… I’m not complaining, I really enjoy doing this stuff, but I also get paid jack shit for it so it takes a lot for me to get the motivation to put one of these out (it’s also why I’ve largely pivoted to the less labour intensive Love/Hate format for most media franchise overviews these days).

Anyway, all that said, I want to make it clear that I’m fucking excited for this look at the Left Behind franchise. Growing up evangelical, I was really into the book series… because fuckloads of people die in it. I’m not even kidding, that was the entire appeal for little edgelord me at 10 years old (the massive disasters and demons running rampant were also super cool). It simultaneously managed to get me into end-times theology, and also eventually made me realize that the whole industry that built up around it was a grift. Despite having a massive grudge against this franchise and the poison it has been for Christianity as a whole, I’m going to give each film a fair shake and recount the batshit insanity that went on behind the scenes with each new film. So let’s start at the beginning, with Left Behind: The Movie, which I actually thought was pretty decent when I was a kid. Does it hold up still, now that I’m a jaded, crusty old bastard? Read on to find out…

Boy… that sure is a late 90s-era evangelical movie poster. Definitely not good, but could be worse. I also kinda like that whoever designed it at least understood colour theory and made sure to make this poster orange and blue, it gives it some visual unity and appeal, even though the poster is entirely made up of random images. Oh, and it probably doesn’t bear mentioning, but they REALLY upped the brightness on ol’ Kirk here and it doesn’t look very good.

Production

If there is one man most responsible for Left Behind, it is Tim LaHaye (take of that statement what you will). LaHaye was a pastor in the mid-1950s before becoming an instrumental force in the conservative evangelical movement in America in the 70s and 80s. He, along with Jerry Falwell, were instrumental in establishing and directing the Moral Majority, the movement which caused Ronald Reagan to be elected to office and, among other things, created the cultural environment that would allow the Satanic Panic to occur.

Basically, this motherfucker is the reason why America is so fucked up today.

Anyway, LaHaye was on a flight in 1994 and witnessed the pilot (who, apparently, was married) flirting with a flight attendant, which caused him to begin imagining how he would react if The Rapture occurred at that very moment. He quickly teamed up with Christian writer, Jerry B. Jenkins, and the pair conceptualized Left Behind, which would follow a large cast of characters trying to survive and save as many people as possible during the final seven years of Earth in the evangelical Christian apocalypse. The pair drew heavy inspiration from A Thief in the Night, a series of apocalyptic thriller films released in the 70s and 80s, which also portray a post-Rapture world. By all accounts, LaHaye provided his ideas and theology for the structure of the story, while Jenkins did all the actual writing. Notably, LaHaye’s influence can also be felt in some of the more… interesting decisions in the book. Notably, a lot of the first book’s plot is driven by shadowy “international bankers” influencing the UN, which has way more power than it does in real life… then you realize that Tim LaHaye is obsessed with the Illuminati, and this just reflects what he thinks is actually going on in the world. Similarly, LaHaye believes that Catholics are a bunch of heretics, so most Catholics are not Raptured. Oh, and as an extra “fuck you” to Catholics, the Pope gets Raptured… because he dropped his Catholic beliefs and adopted evangelical doctrine. And then, later in the series, the new pope abolishes Catholicism for a new one-world religion and, when he dies, his memorial is cancelled because no one gives a fuck about him, ouch.

Left Behind was released in 1995, and would be a run-away success, with selling millions of copies, and reigniting an evangelical obsession with eschatology as the new millennium drew nearer. A new book would follow every year (some years, 2 new books!), for a grand total of 16 main series entries by 2007, plus countless spin-offs and merchandise, not to mention a cottage industry of prophecy-based media which polluted Christian bookstores for decades.

As early as 1997, Jenkins and LaHaye began shopping the series around to movie studios interested in adapting the books to the screen. Namesake Entertainment optioned the rights from LaHaye and Jenkins, promising that they would be able to make it into a big-budget blockbuster series. Namesake seemed like a good fit for LaHaye and Jenkins, because they specialized in adapting Christian thrillers for screen. With Ralph Winter on-board to produce (known for X-Men, Fantastic Four, and… that Planet of the Apes movie), things were looking promising for Left Behind (even if its script was being written by Alan B. McElroy, the guy who wrote Halloween 4, Spawn, and the goddamn Tekken movie). Unfortunately for all involved, Namesake were unable to find a studio interested in financing the movie, so they licensed the rights to Peter & Paul Lalonde at Cloud Ten Pictures, a Canadian production studio making end-times films for the evangelical market. At this time, they had already made a micro-budget trilogy called Apocalypse (whose entries feature goddamn Mr. T, Gary Busey, Jeff Fahey, Margot Kidder, and Howie Mandell, what the actual fuck!?), so apparently they were the best people for the job. Despite being prominently credited on the film (and its sequel), Ralph Winter and McElroy didn’t have any actual role in the production, and it’s believed that their names were included because it granted the film more legitimacy.

Y’know who didn’t want their names on the film? Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins. They had sold the movie rights on the promise of getting a $40 million Hollywood blockbuster that could compete with the secular market. Instead, they got a film directly marketed to the Christian community with a reported budget of $17.4 million (which, according to the producers, made the film the most ambitious Christian movie of all time), although LaHaye stated on-record that “representations about the size of the budget were not true”. It seems that this was especially contentious for LaHaye and Jenkins because they had, for whatever reason, sold the exclusive film rights to their entire franchise to Namesake in their original deal – not just the books which had been written at that point, but also future novels, and the Left Behind: The Kids young adult series, which they seemed particularly keen to reclaim the rights to. LaHaye and Jenkins had planned on making their own adaptation of Left Behind: The Kids, which was unable to proceed due to the rights agreement.

In July of 1999, before the movie even came out, LaHaye sued Cloud Ten for breach of contract, claiming $10 million in damages. He offered to drop the suit if Cloud Ten and Namesake relinquished their rights to Left Behind: The Kids and gave up their rights to any further Left Behind books. This was not going to happen though because Namesake were developing their own television series based on Left Behind: The Kids (which never came to fruition, probably due to this lawsuit) and, despite offering revenue sharing to the authours, LaHaye would not budge. This lawsuit would drag on for several more years (and movies), which we’ll cover further in their own entries…

Meanwhile, development of Left Behind: The Movie proceeded in spite of all the drama surrounding it. Vic Sarin, a Canadian, long-time, workman director and cinematographer was brought on to direct the film. Of the principle cast, the highest-profile cast member was Kirk Cameron, who was known for being on Growing Pains and then converting to evangelical Christianity and going off the deep end. He, along with wife Chelsea Noble, were very much true-believers, and actively sought to become involved in the films after reading the books. Cameron was cast as co-lead Buck Williams, a high-profile journalist, while Noble was cast as The Whore of Babylon. The other co-lead role went to manly-man Brad Johnson, who played Rayford Steele. The role of Nicolae Carpathia went to Gordon Currie, who had a small role in Jason Takes Manhattan (he’s the poor son of a bitch who gets chucked off the mast and gets impaled on the radio antenna). Rounding out the main cast were Janaya Stephens as Rayford’s daughter, Chloe Steele, and Clarence Gilyard Jr as Bruce Barnes. Fun fact, the role of Chloe Steele was originally going to go to Hallmark movie queen, Lacey Chabert, in what would have been one of her first film roles, but she ended up dropping out due to scheduling conflicts.

Filming took place in and around Toronto in May of 2000 and lasted for 31 days. For the opening sequence of the film, which takes place in Israel, the production used a quarry and made some camels walk around in the background to make it look like the Middle East. I mainly mention this because literally my first note when I was watching the movie was that the camels were extremely conspicuous and that “Israel” looked like a quarry, so it was hilarious when I found out that these observations were indeed correct.

Left Behind: The Movie would take an unconventional release strategy. It originally was released straight to DVD in 2000, with a theatrical release following in February of 2001. Its theatrical run was not particularly great, grossing only $4,224,065.

Plot Synopsis

The film opens in Israel, where GNN television reporter Buck Williams is interviewing scientist Chaim Rosenzweig, who has developed “Eden”, a formula which can allow food to grow in desert environments. This formula has poised Israel to become a global leader as they hold the key to solving a growing food scarcity crisis. However, the interview is cut short as Arab and Russian jets launch a surprise attack on Israel. The pair flee into a bunker and watch the unfolding attack. However, the attacking forces begin spontaneously exploding before Israel can scramble a response, which causes Buck to run outside to document and report on the miraculous happenings. Within moments, the entire raid is thwarted and Israel is saved by mysterious forces.

We then follow airline pilot Rayford Steele, who bails on his son’s birthday party in order to take over a flight from New York City to London, much to the distaste of his daughter, Chloe. Aboard this flight is Buck, who is looking into the attack on Israel after being tipped off by a contact of his, and Hattie Durham, a flight attendant who Rayford is having an affair with. However, she reveals to Ray that this is her last flight, she will be taking a job with the UN, in part because she feels like he has just been leading her on.

While over the Atlantic, passengers begin to realize that several people aboard have disappeared, including all of the children. Bruce, Hattie, and Buck struggle to maintain order aboard, while Rayford diverts the flight back to New York. They soon discover that these disappearances are a global phenomenon and that hundreds of millions of people have vanished without warning, causing several deaths due to vehicles having their operators disappear, amongst other things. The flight ends up diverting to Chicago. Rayford is thankful for Buck’s help during the flight and Buck convinces Rayford to link him up with a private pilot who can get him to New York City. He stays at Rayford’s home for the night.

Rayford returns home to discover that his wife and son are gone. He realizes that his wife, who he had resented for converting to Christianity, was right all along. Meanwhile, Chloe returns home, having had her vehicle stolen while trying to head to college for her exams, before being unable to continue due to all the wrecked vehicles littering the roads. Chloe takes Buck to the airport, where he links up with Ray’s contact, pilot Ken Ritz, who agrees to take him to New York. When he arrives there, he finds that his contact, Dirk Burton, has been killed for knowing too much. Buck gets his confidential files and then flees when a sniper tries to kill him as well. He discovers a plan orchestrated by international bankers, Jonathan Stonagal and Joshua Todd-Cothran, who intend to use their protégé, UN Secretary General Nicolae Carpathia, to entice Chaim Rosenzweig to hand over the Eden formula to the UN in exchange for plans to reconstruct the Jewish temple. They will then bankrupt the UN and control the world’s food supply, netting themselves untold billions in the process.

Rayford travels to new Hope Village Church and discovers that its pastor, Bruce Barnes, has been left behind. He had preached for years, but never really believed until now. The pair set about preparing for the coming tribulations.

Meanwhile, Buck returns to Chicago and meets with CIA agent Alan Thompkins to try to get information about Stonagal and Todd-Cothran’s plans. However, Thompkins is killed in a car bombing and Buck flees to Rayford’s home once again. They take Buck to New Hope Village Church in order to utilize the medical services running out of the building. Rayford and Bruce show Buck a tape that the former lead pastor had made, which predicted the disappearances, the rebuilding of the temple and the rise of the Antichrist. Buck doesn’t believe them, and leaves to go to the UN to warn Chaim about Stonagal and Todd-Cothran’s plans.

When he arrives, he soon finds that every prediction that he had been told by Rayford and Bruce were true and converts to Christianity in order to protect himself against the Antichrist’s machinations. Nicolae calls a private meeting, where he reveals his plans to consolidate power and then executes Stonagal and Todd-Cothran, before using mind-control to cause everyone (except Buck) to believe that they committed murder-suicide. Buck returns back to his new friends and they all agree to band together to fight the coming evils…

Review

So, this might be a hot take, but here goes: Left Behind: The Movie isn’t all that bad. No, I’m not kidding. I remembered thinking the movie was decent when I saw it more than 20 years ago, but my opinions on eschatology and movies have changed since then, so I was expecting to like it a whole lot less. While I definitely have my issues with it, my estimation of it hasn’t dropped that far compared to where it was. It also probably helps that I’ve made a hobby out of seeking out and writing my thoughts on shit movies, so in comparison Left Behind: The Movie doesn’t even come close.

Now, a caveat to this – if you have no interest in religion, then Left Behind will probably not do anything for you. Similarly, if you can’t set aside a distaste for the creators’ theology, then it’ll also sour your experience. If you can lay that aside though and just go with it, Left Behind: The Movie is an alright thriller, buoyed significantly by its strong premise.

I’ll keep the positives going with probably the strongest aspect of Left Behind: The Movie – its cast. Christian movies, especially in this era, were known for having amateur-level acting, but Left Behind‘s cast are fairly solid across the board (even Kirk Cameron, although he and Chelsea Noble put in the weakest performances of the main cast, in my opinion). Easily the two standouts are Brad Johnson as Rayford Steele and Gordon Currie as Nicolae Carpathia. Johnson is a consummate professional, effortlessly taking Rayford from seething and resentful of his wife, to controlling and in-charge as a pilot, to desperate and downtrodden when he discovers his family has disappeared, to truly convicted in his beliefs when he converts. The only problem is that his arc ends too early and he spends the last forty minutes of the film with nothing to do but preach at the audience (I found a contemporary review by a Christian who saw the movie who agreed that Rayford was the best character, but opined “he comes off as a Bible-thumping turnoff after he’s saved, and delivers the usual ‘there’s something bigger than all of this’ kind of talk”).

Meanwhile, Gordon Currie gets to chew the scenery as Nicolae Carpathia, going from seemingly-good natured, to slimy and sinister on a dime. The reveal that he’s the Antichrist is extremely obvious from the moment he appears in the film, but when they do reveal it, it’s really effective scene where Currie absolutely commands the room. Hearing him say “Don’t worry, this will be completely painless. After all, I’m not a monster” and then chuckling to himself is downright chilling. This might be another hot-take, but I feel like Currie’s Nicolae is, low-key, an all-timer villain. That might sound crazy considering that I’m talking about a series of micro-budget Christian films, but these novels and movies have a hold in the imaginations of the evangelical market. There are millions of people whose conception of an Antichrist figure is exactly what Currie portrays: a wolf in sheep’s clothing, a leader who preaches peace, but who has sinister intentions. This portrayal is so ingrained in their thoughts that, when a figure who arguably fits the theology of who an anti-Christ figure is better, they enthusiastically vote for that guy three times.

The other main strength of Left Behind: The Movie is its overall premise and plot. It also has to be said that the movie is a whole lot better than the novel it’s based on. Where the novel can be meandering and poorly written, the movie tightens everything up into a (mostly) well-paced thriller. While the Rapture itself is a compelling enough event to mine a lot of drama, it’s over fairly quickly and the film needs more events to keep you watching. Think about it a bit: if this movie was just about The Rapture, then the natural progression for acts 2 and 3 would be a massive amount of preaching to the audience. The main reason the film is able to sustain interest after the Rapture is its B-plot, which features Buck Williams uncovering the conspiracy to take control of the world’s food supply, which eventually results in the rise of the Antichrist. While nothing particularly special or unique goes on in this B-plot that you haven’t seen in any other conspiracy narrative, this storyline stays interesting with a cavalcade of assassinations, clues, and near-misses, keeping it constantly moving forward and engaging (dare I even say “exciting”?). It all culminates in probably the best scene of the movie, where Nicolae is revealed to be The Antichrist and Buck realizes he’s trapped in the same room as him. It’s a really tense scene, with Nicolae dispatching Stonagal and Todd-Cothran in cold blood and then using his mind control super powers to tell everyone assembled what he’d like them to believe (except, Buck, who is protected by the power of God). It effectively hypes up the real danger Nicolae presents going forward and gets you properly interested to see how the characters will deal with him in future… until you read the books and find out he’s constantly getting clowned on, because they can’t just let their symbol of ultimate evil ever win.

That said, there’s one glaring issue with this film’s narrative structure and pacing, and that’s how Rayford’s arc is handled. If Buck’s journey is the B-plot, Rayford’s storyline is very much the A-plot for most of the film as he deals with the fallout of the Rapture and then tries to cope with the disappearance of his wife and son. However, after about an hour he realizes they were right, converts to Christianity, and then becomes a die-hard believer from that point onward… with about 40 minutes left to go in the movie. Like, the movie cuts back to him every once in a while, but there isn’t much for him to do, other than preach at Buck, Chloe, and the audience. I can’t help but feel that the movie would have been stronger overall if Rayford spent more time struggling, or maybe went through a period of anger at God for taking his family away. Then, maybe he could have learned about the Antichrist from Bruce Barnes at the same time as Buck.

And with that, we can dovetail into the things that Left Behind does not do so well. It really pains me to say this, but Tim LaHaye was right about something – this movie is cheap as fuck. Like, I know that people will say all sorts of things in a legal battle to try to sway the narrative, but I actually believe Tim LaHaye when he says that the film’s widely-reported $17.4 million budget is an exaggeration (and, adjusting for inflation, that would apparently be closer to $30 million today, which makes this even more insane to me). I’ve seen estimates that put the budget around $4 million, and I find that far more realistic considering what we got on-screen. Tim LaHaye has also gone on record saying that Cloud Ten’s productions look like “glorified church basement movies” and, oh my God, it’s a pretty apt description. Most of the film takes place in very simple sets – Ray’s home, a warehouse, a plane set, some office buildings, a UN set. They’re functional, but considering that we only get a very small handful of outdoor sequences, and they’re pitched as the “big” money-shot sequences (eg, air terminal chaos, Chloe coming across the car wreck, the car bombing), it underscores this film’s low production values. It also doesn’t help that the lighting in the film is absolute ass for most of the runtime, which is probably the largest contributing factor to why this movie feels so amateurish.

The absolute worst offender though is the aforementioned opening scene in “Israel”. As I said in the Production section, the second I saw that camel in the background I thought “Oh man, they clearly are NOT filming this on location, it looks like a quarry”. Then there’s the CGI of the planes and tanks during this sequence, which was poor even by year 2000 standards. I’ll give them some credit – there are some pretty good practical explosions during this sequence, almost enough to make you not realize that Buck and Chaim go into some random goat herder’s house, and suddenly are in a state-of-the-art military bunker. It’s pretty clear that most of the budget and ambition went into this opening scene, because it is miles beyond anything else in the film… but would it have taken up a good chunk of $17.4 million in the year 2000? I strongly doubt it.

Then again, I wonder how much they had to pay to borrow camels from the Toronto zoo for a day.

Left Behind is better than the book it’s based on, but there are fundamental issues which can’t really be excised in adaptation. Even as a child reading these books, one of my greatest frustrations was a deep-rooted lack of imagination on the part of the authours and the people inhabiting their world. Let’s look at an example to illustrate what I’m referring to here: as the attack on Israel gets underway, the skies suddenly darken, going from the middle of the day to black as night. In any other movie this could be construed as “passage of time”, or (potentially intentional) “continuity error”, but here it’s clearly intended to convey the intervention of God. However… no one comments on it. It’s supposed to be the middle of the day, but for whatever reason in Israel it suddenly became night time, defying meteorological explanation. And then all the planes begin exploding and everyone is just dumbfounded… and I do mean “just”, because there’s no explanation or speculation presented. Buck’s driving force for a good chunk of the movie is “Wow, I sure do wonder what happened there in Israel?”, but he seems to be the only one who cares, and the the whole question gets quietly dropped pretty soon in the movie. It’s not even like the world didn’t see this happen, it was literally being televised, but there’s zero impact beyond this scene. Like… are you telling me that there wasn’t a sizeable contingent of people going “That sure looks like it was divine intervention”?

Of course, the response to the Rapture falls into the same issue. “Huh, every non-Catholic Christian and child under thirteen in the world disappeared in a manner like the mythical rapture some evangelicals believed in. Wonder what happened, radiation maybe?” That last part isn’t even a joke either, radiation becomes the “official” explanation for what caused the disappearances, even though any moron could look at the demographics of the people who disappeared and find correlation showing that it was not random. One character believes that aliens were behind the disappearances (which, honestly, would probably be the second most obvious answer), while laughing about the idea of it being the Rapture, but that just underscores the issue – if they have information about the Rapture, it kind of defies explanation that they wouldn’t see that this miraculous event was anything other than that and instead handwave vaguely to “radiation” without any evidence. To me, this reveals a few potential insights into the authours’ opinions on the average non-Christian:

  1. Charitably, they might believe that God is “hardening their hearts” like the Pharaoh in Exodus, so that they cannot accept the obvious truth. If so, it’s kind of fucked up that God would then put them into this “final chance for redemption” and then take away their chance to see truth.
  2. They believe that the signs of God really are as obvious as they are portrayed in this movie and non-believers are just oblivious idiots. Hate to break it to them, but if we lived in a world God blew up an entire army and then caused hundreds of millions of children and Christians to disappear, there’d be a lot more converts, because then there would be some actual, concrete evidence for the supernatural.
  3. They believe that non-believers are actively looking for any excuse to defy God. Considering that “there are no real atheists” is a common belief amongst fundamentalists, this wouldn’t surprise me too much.

While I think that any (potentially even all) of these options are true, there’s also a much simpler explanation which could also be true: Jerry B. Jenkins is a hack writer who ignores any potential impact to the world because it interferes with the story he’s trying to tell… despite that story being one where the entire world’s population is undergoing countless disasters, the massive consequences of which should be being felt and responded to. There is so much impossible shit that happens in these books: in this first movie alone, completely ignoring full-on supernatural intervention, we have Israel magically developing technology to make the deserts fertile in order to become a global superpower. Kind of a weird plot point, until you realize they only did this because they believe it to have been prophesized. Our prophecies say that there will be a one-world currency? Guess we’re gonna make Korea join the EU now. Maybe this felt more realistic in the late 90s when the European Union was just taking form, but 20 years later in the wake of Brexit, this idea is laughably optimistic. And don’t even get me started on Israel rebuilding their temple, which even the movie acknowledges is impossible without the aforementioned magic and some handwaving to reveal that the temple can actually be built somewhere else… again, because their prophecy says that it has to happen, so by God they will force it to, then yada yada through the details and have everyone accept it. Oh, and this is also in a world where the UN basically rules the world already, which starts to make sense when you realize that Tim LaHaye believes in the Illuminati…

Underscoring all of this, I’ve always found it ironic that the existence of Left Behind makes the entire scenario even more impossible. Like, the premise of the books kind of works if the Rapture remains this weird thing that some evangelicals believe in, so you can see why some people wouldn’t immediately go “oh shit, the Rapture just happened!” if everyone suddenly disappeared. However, Left Behind was such a cultural juggernaut and has become so ingrained within the evangelical zeitgeist, that the idea of a Rapture occurring and not causing most people to immediately logically conclude that is laughable, let alone the idea that hundreds of millions of people would willingly go and tattoo themselves with 666 in light of all this.

Also, this scene is driving me nuts. 142,380,000 confirmed vanished? That’s got to be an interim and highly under-estimated total. There were 6 billion people in the year 2000 – we know that every child under the age of 13 was Raptured, in addition to a high number of Christians. Assuming even 10% of the world’s population was raptured (which seems like a very low estimate considering that world population demographics tends to skew young), that’s still over 600 million people.

Rounding things out here, it wouldn’t be an IC2S review if I didn’t at least mention the ladies… and they are really poorly served here. Hattie Durham is set up to be important, but she doesn’t really do anything – she ends her affair with Rayford and then goes off to the UN to work with Carpathia. Real riveting stuff… I have no idea why Chelsea Noble was so keen to play her. Then there’s Chloe Steele, whose entire character in this movie is “mad at dad” until the end when she decides that he’s right, they should convert to Christianity. As I recall from reading the books, Chloe does basically nothing important for the entire series and only really exists to be a love interest for Buck. I expect that this probably stems from LaHaye’s regressive views on women (his wife Beverly founded an anti-feminist womens’ organization, Concerned Women for America, which, among other things, advocates for the subservience of women…). As a result, Chloe isn’t allowed to do anything cool, so she just kind of exists on the sidelines.

When it comes down to it, the overarching message of Left Behind doesn’t come across as “You don’t want this to happen to you!” Rather, when Rayford came home and saw his wife’s clothes and her Bible beside the bed, the message became clear to me: “I told you so”. Perhaps it is a consequence of Cloud Ten making this film directly for the Christian market, but Left Behind feels like it’s jerking off its audience, reassuring them that their beliefs are true and, boy, those sinners sure are going to regret not listening to you when this happens to them! It’s not as nakedly spiteful as, say, the God is Not Dead movies, or is it as smugly hateful as Atlas Shrugged, but there doesn’t seem to be much of an effort made into changing hearts and minds as it is saying “Your beliefs will be vindicated, just wait”.

That is all pretty harsh, and like I said, this movie isn’t all that bad. That said, it’s also not exactly great – it is, after all, an adaptation of Left Behind, so it’s always going to be screwed to some degree. As you can see, other than the really poor production values, most of my issues with the film are related to the shitty books and theology it rests upon, which cannot be entirely ignored, but they also aren’t really issues with the film itself. However, it’s not so intrusive in this film that you can’t mostly ignore it, and I think that there is some enjoyment that can be had here with this premise if you’re able to put up with all the bullshit.

5/10 (A very generous rating, if I do say so.)

Be sure to tune in again soon when we look at the next entry in this series, Left Behind II: Tribulation Force!

15 Best Movie Posters of 2023

I may not be writing as much as I used to, but it’ll be a cold day in hell before I miss my mostly-annual year-end countdowns! In case you’re unfamiliar with how this works, I spend the year trolling through impawards and collecting all the really cool, interesting and striking poster designs for 2023 movies and then narrow them down into a shortlist. As always, any poster released during the year is eligible to make the list, but special consideration is given to posters which are intended for mass distribution rather than posters which are intended to be limited-release, alternative, “artistic” posters. As usual, you can see the full-sized poster in all its glory if you click on the images.

Anyway, with those considerations out of the way, let’s get onto the list, starting with some honourable and dishonourable mentions:

The Drew Struzan style is over-done and tired at this point, a lazy trope to make a poster look nostalgic and exciting without having to put in any actual effort to design something original. On top of that, I couldn’t care less about a new Indiana Jones movie in 2023. However… I’d be lying if it wasn’t nice to see the iconic Struzan style brought back for one last hurrah where it absolutely is warranted, for the franchise which is perhaps most intrinsically tied to this style. It wasn’t enough to make the list proper, but I felt it worth highlighting.

Oh, and speaking of the Struzan style, here we have the poster for a new Left Behind movie. I’ll be honest, the poster itself is incredibly dull, but I mainly put it here to shit on this series and Kevin Sorbo. Also, Neal McDonough, you poor man, what the hell happened to you to make you have to slum this hard? I haven’t had the spark to do a new Retrospective series, considering all the time and effort that has to go into writing them, but dammit the idea of looking at all the Left Behind movies fills me with a sinister excitement… Maybe stay tuned in 2024 if I can muster the motivation.

Okay, this one deserves some mention for how effective these posters are for a “ridiculous slasher villain” movie. These would all be slightly-above-average posters for a regular slasher film, but add in the decent tagline and how seriously they’re taking the ridiculous premise, I can’t help but chuckle.

And with that said, let’s get into our top 15 proper:

15) Saw X

Saw X starts the list with a couple posters that I found fairly clever in their simplicity. First off is the “eye poster”, which instantly evokes a sense of primal terror before you even notice the saw shape at the edge of the iris, revealing what the victim is so scared of. The “I Heart Saw” isn’t quite as striking, but I do appreciate how it cheekily calls back to the series’ legacy of posters featuring severed body parts, hinting that this is a sequel aiming to go back to the franchise’s roots.

14) Nimona

Back when I was in university, one of the most important lessons I learned came from an American literature prof who had a blunt, but effective motto when we were writing essays: “Why should I care?” I think about that whenever I’m writing, and it’s a lesson that can be applied in most walks in life. For a poster designer, the job is (usually) to sell a movie, so “Why should I care?” presents a challenge with results that can be intriguing, if you check out this countdown annually.

I mention this because these posters for Nimona represent a twist on the usual approaches to “Why should I care” from graphic designers. Honestly, these posters have sold me on Nimona, and they aren’t doing anything particularly special in their own right. They just demonstrate that if you are working with a strong, charming art style, then that can be enough to sell a movie on its own, without any special flair being required on top of that. The designers of these posters are clearly putting in some work in order to be able to highlight the art so stylishly, so credit where it’s due, but this is one of those cases where character and tone are expressed so strongly in the character designs that you don’t really need anything else. These lists aren’t just about elaborate artistry or unique twists, sometimes it’s just working with the pieces you have and realizing that they can speak for themselves. I just thought that that was neat.

13) Super Mario Bros.: The Movie

I’m not a massive Mario fan – I enjoy the 8- and 16-bit classics, but never have played much of the games beyond that point. However, looking at this poster, I can’t help but get hyped. This is a perfect distillation of what a Mario fan would want to see in a movie, full of colourful, iconic imagery and easter eggs, similar to the Detective Pikachu poster a few years ago. It’s also worth noting that this establishes that the art style will be familiar to fans, which you wouldn’t think would be that notable, but considering that the last attempt at a Mario movie ended up being a surreal, dystopian, live-action fever dream, it’s warranted.

12) The Boogeyman

Look, if a movie’s posters are pulling off imagery which would be The Moneyshot in your average horror film, you know someone’s doing something right. The fact that these posters are actually rather scary in their own right, while still keeping its titular villain shrouded in mystery, is a bonus as well. I have no idea if this movie is any good, but if the marketing is this strong, it certainly suggests that you’d be in for a good time.

11) Expend4bles

Full disclosure: I’ve always loved this poster design which has been used across the entire Expendables franchise, to the point that it was the basis for my custom logo back when I spend hundreds of hours playing Battlefield 4. The skull + wings (or, in this case, hair) made of various weapons is a flawless bit of symbology for a deeply flawed franchise, promising all the action you could ever want from its star-studded cast. It still works here for me, and it’s good enough that I’ll even forgive that idiotic tagline.

10) The Deepest Breath

I call this the “Free Solo poster design philosophy” – a poster for a documentary which is just a simple picture of someone doing something batshit insane. While The Deepest Breath can’t quite match the same level of sheer intensity as Free Solo (to be fair, few could), it still promises an ass-clenching thriller of a documentary that will thriller your thalassophobia to record levels.

9) Cocaine Bear

THE BEAR. IS MADE. OF COCAINE.

8) How to Blow Up a Pipeline

This one gets a spot for how its title is worked into the image. It’s simple on its face, but very stark, evocative, even transgressive. I can’t help but be impressed by how the title makes it work – on many posters, the title is just there to let you know what the movie’s called. Some posters use a tagline to try to tell you what it’s about, and use characters and imagery to try to sell it. This just has a simple barrel and some inflammatory language, and it instantly gives you an idea of the sort of journey you’re in for with this movie. Kind of like Nimona, this is a lesson in using what you have, to an even more extreme degree, since they’re almost exclusively using the title to sell the film. While maybe this makes for a poster that’s less striking than some of the others on first glance, it’s a fascinating case when you think about the decisions put into it.

7) Barbie

I could not be further from the target audience for a Barbie movie, but goddamn do these posters nail the titular character’s pop cultural footprint. First of all, the “larger than life” poster is what made this rank so highly – it succinctly and artfully evokes how Barbie is an icon, a monolith which girls have looked up to for decades (literally, in this case). Meanwhile, the second poster deserves some mention because it shows that not only is Margot Robbie the perfect casting for Barbie, but assures the audience that the film understands Barbie as a character and is going to deliver on those expectations.

6) Swallowed

Do I really need to explain this one? This one just looks BLOODY PAINFUL, and assures you that you are in for an extremely uncomfortable time if you watch this movie. For a certain class of horror fan, what more could you ask for?

5) Candy Land

I really love this poster. It’s so evocative – it’s appropriately sleazy and erotic, hinting at nudity while barely obscuring it, and the faux-vintage design and blood splatters only serve to heighten all of that. Obscuring the subject’s face also serves to depersonalize her, lending the whole design a forbidden, voyeuristic quality which is nearly as uncomfortable as the more overt imagery Swallowed uses.

4) John Wick: Chapter 4

A John Wick movie came out this year, so you know they went hog wild on amazing posters. As usual, the artists really need to be commended here, because they’ve put together enough stylish designs that I could have made an entire list just of the best John Wick posters. They’re all just goddamn cool, but not quite enough to put them at the top of the list this year.

3) Oppenheimer

This is one of those posters where the title kind of brings it all together. First you see the extremely harshly-lit picture and wonder what the hell is happening. Then your eye is drawn to the title and it becomes chilling as you realize the apocalyptic awe of what is unfolding. It’s a poster that basically tells the story of Oppenheimer in one image and makes you want to see that unprecedented power unleashed for yourself. Pretty impressive I’d say for a poster which is so harshly lit that it obscures most of what you can actually see in it.

2) Spider-man: Across the Spider-verse

Every frame of this movie os fucking art and these posters prove it. The “Gwen and Miles” poster is just a random frame from the movie, but it is so stylish and well-composed that it is enough to completely sell me on the movie by itself. Just looking at it, you can tell that they’re having a good time just sitting and chatting, and that Gwen is absolutely simmering for Miles. It’s wild – this is a bombastic Spider-man movie, but what is selling me is wanting to hang out with these characters and see how their relationship blossoms. Again, that’s the power of a strong art style, it can make the marketing easy if you know what you’re doing.

Then there’s the standard character poster. You’ll notice that I haven’t even included any other “character posters” in this list, despite them making up like 70% of all movie posters released in a year. Usually these are bloody dull affairs, meant to do nothing more than introduce and familiarize an audience to the characters of the movie, but more often just turn into boring window-dressing made more out of obligation than inspiration. This poster of Gwen breaks that tradition, being colourful and eye-catching on its own, but it also utilizes the movie’s strong art style to hint that Gwen is going to be on a conflicted journey in Across the Spider-verse. It’s not just an excuse to show a name and have them look cool, the same thought that’s gone into every frame of the movie is on display here in its marketing. It would be enough to take my #1 spot, if not for…

1) Evil Dead Rise

These posters got me for the sheer sadistic creativity on display. They might be confusing at first as your eye is naturally going to be drawn to the rather mundane household objects, but if you’ve ever seen an Evil Dead film (especially the 2013 remake), then when your eye is eventually drawn to the title, these objects are twisted into PAINFUL promises. “Oh God, I can just imagine the brutality of the cheese grater and scissors, but what the fuck are they going to do with the wine glass!?” It’s a less-is-more approach as you think of all the gory possibilities and this nasty bit of imagination born from such a simple bit of imagery is exactly why Evil Dead Rise‘s posters get my #1 rank this year.

15 Best Movie Posters of 2022

Welcome back to the mostly-annual year-end countdown of the best movie posters of the year! In case you’re unfamiliar with how this works, I spend the year trolling through impawards and collecting all the really cool, interesting and striking poster designs for 2022 movies and then narrow them down into a shortlist. As always, any poster released during the year is eligible to make the list, but special consideration is given to posters which are intended for mass distribution rather than posters which are intended to be limited-release, alternative, “artistic” posters. As usual, you can see the full-sized poster in all its glory if you click on the images. Anyway, with those considerations out of the way, let’s get onto the list, starting with some dishonourable mentions!

Dishonourable Mention: Me!

Well… this was embarrassing. Last year’s big winner, Jackass Forever, ended up slipping to 2022, meaning it shouldn’t have even been on the list and should probably be winning this year’s award instead… To be fair, when I wrote the article it hadn’t been delayed into 2022 yet and I didn’t realize the issue until much later, but that was certainly embarrassing when I clued in.

Dishonourable Mentions: All This Shit

Ok, I don’t want to take up this preamble with a half dozen Dishonourable Mentions, but good God were there an unusually high number of notably-shitty posters this year. On the one hand you’ve got bootlicking shit like Bezos, which makes me retroactively hate the cult of personality that Steve Jobs cultivated even more than I already did. Then there’s cringe shit like the poster for Gamestop: Rise of the Players, which is a fascinating story but one which this poster memes to the point where I’d be embarrassed to even see their documentary. And then there’s stuff like Dakota, which despite featuring a good boy Malinois, has some of the worst graphic design I’ve seen on one of these lists before. The blue background against that garish red font literally hurts my eyes to look at.

Anyway, with that out of the way, let’s get on to this year’s best posters!

15) X

X was one of my favourite movies of the last year and these posters were actually part of the reason I checked it out in the first place. The graphic designers have outdone themselves in all of their designs for this film, capturing the 70s aesthetic and lurid subject matter through the imagery they’ve used (the crossed legs making an “X” is particularly clever). These posters don’t really spoil anything, but they prime you for the tone and feel of the movie in an abstract way and for that I think that the designers deserve some accolades.

14) Texas Chainsaw Massacre

Netflix’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre is one of the stupidest horror movies of the year, but goddamn if the posters for it weren’t some of the year’s most interesting and evocative. The sun-drenched poster is beautiful and disturbing, hiding Leatherface’s visage despite him being in full daylight. Meanwhile, I really like the abstract painting of Leatherface’s mask, which shows very little but aptly promises the “face of madness”. There’s even a little homage of the last shot from the original film beneath Leatherface’s mouth on this poster. Just great posters overall, which is especially surprising considering that the film’s Netflix release meant that they theoretically could have gotten away with marketing the film without producing any.

http://www.impawards.com/2022/good_egg_xlg.html

13) Good Egg

Here’s one of those little movies that wouldn’t get a lot of attention if not for the very striking poster design. Despite knowing nothing about this movie before seeing its poster, it’s impressive how much about the movie you can glean from this poster (it’s about a woman who has been having no luck with invitro fertilization so she turns to criminal methods to help out; hijinks ensure). In fact this poster’s so good that I legitimately want to see this movie now, so you know they did something right!

http://www.impawards.com/2022/jurassic_world_dominion_ver3_xlg.html

12) Jurassic World: Dominion

Much ink has been spilled about how Jurassic World: Dominion wastes its “dinosaurs on the mainland” setup, but for a moment there in the marketing it looked like we’d get to see cool scenes like this where a t-rex interrupts a drive-in movie showing. Depending on what you were looking to get out of Dominion, you could also argue that this makes this particular poster better than the movie we actually got. It’s also kind of wild because this is technically a poster for a teaser trailer, which feels like the pinnacle of big budget franchise marketing excess. If you want to get nitpicky, some of the photoshop compositing isn’t the best, but I really like the premise here and think that it effectively gets across the terror and wonder of dinosaurs unleashed in the real world.

http://www.impawards.com/2022/guillermo_del_toros_pinocchio_ver3.html

11) Pinocchio

It would take a lot to get me to give a shit about a Pinocchio movie (a fact evidenced by Disney’s own attempt this year coming and going without me even noticing), but apparently that limit for me is a poster with the name “Guillmero del Toro” on it. Del Toro’s creature designs are always fascinating and this poster puts that on full display, promising an unsettling take on Pinocchio which is more than a little reminiscent of Pan’s Labyrinth. Add on that this is not just childhood nostalgia pandering and this is a Pinocchio project that I actually have some interest in checking out when it releases on Netflix.

http://www.impawards.com/2022/black_panther_wakanda_forever_ver2_xlg.html

10) Black Panther: Wakanda Forever

Marvel movies tend to have pretty boring poster designs, but this one for Wakanda Forever struck me as being visually interesting the first time I saw it. It checks off all the standard “character poster” designs on the top half, but the way it places Namor and his forces upside down on the poster is interesting. It’s a clear visual metaphor, showing that the two sides are mirrored opposites, but it works really well and with more creativity than I’ve come to expect from Marvel these days.

http://www.impawards.com/2022/spin_me_round_xlg.html

9) Spin Me Round

I was thinking of giving the award for “movie poster that looks most like a dime-store novel” to The Black Phone, but Spin Me Round executes on that premise so much better in my opinion. It captures the harlequin romance cover aesthetic perfectly, with just a wink and a nod that everything may not be as straightforward as it may seem with Alison Brie’s backward glance towards the audience. Given that this is by the director of The Little Hours, which was basically the plot of a nun porn without the porn, this definitely is an intentional hint at all sorts of comedic chaos.

http://www.impawards.com/2022/northman_ver10_xlg.html

8) The Northman

The Northman makes this list mainly because… well, just look at it, it’s a gorgeous shot. Robert Eggers knows how to wring every bit of potential out of his historical films and give us some really striking visual design. Whoever decided that Bjork would make a great viking deserves all the praise. Muted colour schemes don’t always work, but here combined with the off-focus it grants The Seeress an ethereal glow which is hard to look away from.

http://www.impawards.com/2022/white_noise_ver5_xlg.html

7) White Noise

This poster makes the list for the sheer excess of it. It looks like an I Spy or Where’s Waldo illustration – everywhere you look there’s something interesting going on and the poster rewards careful study of it. There’s lots of little hidden details throughout, including the names of the director and the stars, plus various little gags and hints about the movie’s plot. You could argue that the poster is just too much, but considering how much this makes me want to study every little detail, I think it succeeds with aplomb.

6) Nope

For my money, Nope has the most iconic poster design of the year and it doesn’t even come close. This is one of those posters like for Jaws or Star Wars that people are still going to remember years from now. It doesn’t reveal anything about the movie really, just hinting at the alien abduction aspects, but it’s such a striking image and the title is so blunt that it sticks in your head immediately.

http://www.impawards.com/2022/fire_of_love_xlg.html

5) Fire of Love

Fire of Love‘s poster asks a simple question: do you want to watch a documentary about a volcanologist couple who stand in front of giant walls of lava like it ain’t no thing? It’s such a simple poster, selling you on the film itself with some of the striking, unbelievable imagery which has been captured for it and allowing that to speak for itself.

4) Deep Water

I don’t know anything about Deep Water, but the graphic designers went hard on it this year, putting out a ton of bomb-ass posters (to the point where I haven’t even posted all the posters I liked for this one film here). They’re all abstract, with vivid colours and imagery that hints at a movie full of sex, mystery, drama and murder. Again, this is for a Hulu film so it’s not like they needed to go this hard with their marketing, but the fact that they did really has helped make this movie’s posters stand out.

3) Everything Everywhere All At Once

I usually hate multiverse stories, but Everything Everywhere All At Once makes the most of the premise with some really fun and striking “alternate universe” posters. Raccacoonie in particular looks hilarious and nails the quirky Disney animation poster design perfectly, while the googly eye poster is weirdly unsettling. Even the standard poster is colourful and visually interesting, showing off the various alternate universes in a more efficient (if less fun) fashion. Everything Everywhere All At Once has had easily the funnest posters of the year, which is actually an accomplishment considering how much I enjoyed that one for White Noise.

2) The Batman

Batman movies have been trying to one-up themselves for a decade an a half now with how grim-dark they can get, and these posters for The Batman easily take the cake for how moody and dark they are. The red and black contrast is eye-catching and sets the oppressive, noir tone efficiently. The poster with the Riddler looks more akin to a serial killer film than it does a traditional Batman poster and the poster that frames Batman with the question mark hints at the Riddler’s involvement in iconic fashion. All-in-all, the posters for this incarnation of the bat are thematically united, hinting at a take on the character which will be darker, more serious and more disturbing than any we have seen before.

1) Crimes of the Future

NOPE. These posters are weird and disturbing enough without context, but if you know David Cronenberg and his penchant for twisted sci-fi and body horror, then these posters should be making your skin crawl. These posters only hint at the sorts of sick depravity you’re in store for if you watch this movie and for that they are easily the most effective posters I’ve seen all year.

15 Best Movie Posters of 2021

Welcome back to the mostly-annual year-end countdown of the best movie posters of the year! Obviously since we basically got no movies in 2020 I had to take the last year off, but we’re back for 2021 with a very solid selection of eye-catching posters that I had a seriously difficult time narrowing down into just a top 15. As before, I’m using impawards as the source for 2021 posters. Any poster released during the year is eligible, but special consideration is given to posters which are intended for mass distribution rather than posters which are intended to be limited-release, alternative, “artistic” posters. As usual, you can see the full-sized poster in all its glory if you click on the images. Anyway, with those considerations out of the way, let’s get onto the list!

Dishonourable Mention: Cosmic Sin

Okay, the idea of Bruce Willis and Frank Grillo as a couple of space marines sounds fucking awesome, but the cheap, obvious, awful headswap Photoshop job on this poster makes this whole movie seem cheap and laughable. Not that Cosmic Sin needs much help, this movie is apparently so bad and forgettable that no one has even fixed the numerous grammatical errors in its Wikipedia page as of October 21, 2021. Ouch.

15) The French Dispatch

This one mostly makes the list because you take one look at it and go “Oh hey, it’s a Wes Anderson movie in poster form”. It’s quirky, detailed and has tons of stuff to look at, each cell is practically a miniature character poster of its own and the Fibonacci sequence-like layout directs your eyes in an unusual and interesting way. The pulpy, 30s/40s serial art style also helps this standout amongst the other posters of 2021 and no-doubt reflects Anderson’s distinct visual style and aesthetics. All-in-all, a unique and fun poster which undoubtedly reflects the film’s aesthetic as well.

14) Spencer

This poster is very striking. Between the massive, elaborate outfit, the contrast between the dark and the light of the dress and Kristen Stewart’s flawless transformation into Princess Diana, there’s plenty to draw you in. What helps make this more than just a visually-appealing piece is that the design also belies the story’s darker elements, with Diana seemingly stifled, like she’s trapped in the opulence. It’s a true art piece in its own right and I’m curious if Spencer can live up to it.

13) Billie Eilish: The World’s a Little Blurry

I’m not really a fan of pop music (shocker), so unsurprisingly I don’t give a shit about Billie Eilish and could care even less for an Apple TV exclusive documentary about her. However, it’s hard to deny that she doesn’t have her own distinct style, best highlighted in these posters for The World’s a Little Blurry. I like the first one mostly, it has a moody tone to it, Eilish’s signature green hair gives it a strong hue and it (obviously) lives up to the “blurry” part of the title. It reminds me of the Joker poster from 2019 that I liked so much. Like most good posters, the use of colour is very intentional, bringing its own tone, mood, style and even symbology to these posters which I can’t help but appreciate.

12) Prisoners of the Ghostland

While I find this poster very visually-arresting, promising me the trippiest samurai movie you’ve ever seen, there’s one small element that really makes me love this poster. I love how this poster draws your eyeline downward – first you see a samurai badass with his back to you, then the spooky mask, then the title and then “This wildest movie I’ve ever made”. Wow, who’s saying that? Nicholas goddamn Cage and for him that is a freaking declaration. The poster itself is cool but that strategically-placed quote gets my imagination racing, just going to show that every aspect of poster design can be crucial to its success. For that, Prisoners of the Ghostland deserves special commendation!

11) A Classic Horror Story

This one succeeds for a couple reasons. First of all, it’s called A Classic Horror Story and the poster design makes this look like… a classic 70s horror story. Secondly, if I saw that horned devil lady in my doorway, I’d be legitimately unsettled. The fact that it seems to be happening in full daylight just makes the whole thing even more unsettling to me, while the red and black colours give the whole thing a sinister vibe. Like I said, colour is very important in good poster design (a trend which you will likely notice going forward) and the use of it here helps contribute to the horrifying atmosphere that A Classic Horror Story is giving off.

10) Honeydew

There are several horror posters this year that get by with their disturbing and unnerving imagery, including choices that just missed the list such as Malignant and We Need to Do Something. However, this poster for Honeydew is the most unsettling for me. I’m not entirely sure what is happening here, but it sure looks uncomfortable and you can see the fear in this guy’s eyes at whatever’s going on. It conjures images in my mind of some Saw-like trap and all the nastiness associated with that. The sickly, yellow hue over the entire poster just makes it feel even more disconcerting.

9) Old

This one is pretty simple but effective. While other posters for Old get across the idea that it takes place on a beach more, this one is far more interesting. In my opinion, it captures the concept of the inevitable, uncontrollable and even frightening passage of time and death very well, all wrapped up in a minimalist, black and white style that makes it striking to view.

8) The Sleeping Negro

Oh and speaking of minimalist styles, while the poster for Old mostly just looks cool, this poster for The Sleeping Negro uses it to get across some pretty clever racial imagery. This poster deftly gets across the theme of alienation and isolation in this film in a very simple manner that makes it even more effective than if they had gone for something more complicated or less stylized. Hell, they could honestly go even more minimalist if they wanted to, cutting out the title completely, and the message would still be conveyed just as strongly, as even the black character’s afro highlights that he’s singled out because of his race. When you can afford to strip down your poster even more then you know the designers hit on something right.

7) Bulletproof

This is another one of those posters where the imagery captures the ideas of the film in a really striking manner. Bulletproof is about the American response to school shootings and seeing children pointing finger guns at each other here is an eerie encapsulation of the topics this film will be exploring. Once again, the eyeline works perfectly – you see the finger guns, then you’re drawn down to the title and know what this movie is saying in chilling fashion.

6) The Suicide Squad

The Suicide Squad has a huge cast of extremely colourful and varied characters and this first poster captures that aspect of the film and its off-kilter tone in glorious fashion. It also doesn’t give any of the characters more prominence than the others, which makes the characters’ fates in the film even more ambiguous (which is pretty important for a movie where, like, 80% of these characters get annihilated in gory fashion). The second poster captures the feel of a pulpy, 60s-era action movie, which isn’t nearly as interesting but it it’s worth highlighting and contrasting it to the first poster. These are very different styles but they both work to capture the fun of this very enjoyable romp of a film.

5) The Green Knight

I love the use of bright red and gold and the subjects facing away from the camera across The Green Knight‘s posters, it gives them all a unifying, sombre tone. While the main theatrical poster would have made this list regardless due to its strong aesthetic, what really pushed this into the top five for me was the presence of that brilliantly huggable foxy boi. When I first saw that poster I squealed with glee. For the record, graphic designers, throw a fox on your poster and you’re pretty much guaranteed to make my top 15 if your poster is any good.

4) Godzilla vs. Kong

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, the Monsterverse consistently have some of the best posters of all Hollywood blockbusters. We get posters like Spiral which are pretty and posters like Bring Your Own Brigade and The River Runner which give you massive scale, but Godzilla vs. Kong gives you pretty colours and massive scale! The fact that they have so many cool posters and so many of these were actually used in the general marketing of the film make this even more impressive to me. Even if Godzilla vs. Kong was kinda disappointing, there’s no denying that the marketing was, once again, on point.

3) Army of the Dead

I didn’t really care for Army of the Dead – I thought it was bloated, poorly written and squandered what should have been an over-the-top action romp. While the film itself fell short, the marketing department for Army of the Dead clearly understood what this movie should have been. We get gorgeous poster after gorgeous poster of colourful, macabre excess, all of which make the film look way cooler than it actually is. This is just a handful of the great posters Army of the Dead got this year, so even if the quality wasn’t there (which it is) then due to pure variety this would have ranked highly. For my own part, I especially like the neon-hued skull in a river of paint and the pile of corpses in the shape of a skull. Man, seeing these posters is making me think about how I wish the movie lived up to them all over again…

2) The Night House

We’ve had a slew of spooky and disturbing horror movie posters in 2021, but for my money The Night House has the best of them. What makes it more impressive is that there isn’t much horror imagery to speak of – there’s a blood-red moon, a scared expression from Rebecca Hall and, in one poster, a ghostly hand cutout, representing a spectral figure or perhaps someone who’s been lost? Then there’s the strong use of red and black to give everything an eerie atmosphere. In any case, it works, I really want to see this movie and figure out what sort of thrills The Night House has in store for me, which makes it more than worthy of this spot. However, there can only be one #1 pick…

1) Jackass Forever

There’s something about this poster where I looked at it and said “this is perfect” and instantly put it as a frontrunner for the year’s posters. Like, just look at it, it’s the perfect encapsulation of what Jackass is. You’ve got the rainbow hang glider and obese man to draw your attention and then the eyeline goes down to the cactus plants and then down to the film’s title. Just by looking at it, it creates a story in your head that is equal parts funny, painful and so incredibly stupid that I can’t help but applaud it. It’s so simple, but so striking that I still can’t quite believe that it’s this good, especially because the other Jackass Forever posters don’t hit me the same way at all. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise though, this right here: this is art.

POST-SCRIPT: Well, shit. I usually have a rule here – only posters for movies released in the year in question are considered and here I have completely flubbed as Jackass Forever is going to be released in 2022 instead. To be fair, when I started this list it actually would have been a 2021 film, but it was delayed and I missed that in the time it took to make selections, write and release the list. This isn’t the first time I’ve had this issue due to unexpected delays, but it should probably go without saying that I’ll not take Jackass Forever into account for 2022’s list (because it would probably win again).

Attack on Titan is Kind of Trash

Attack on Titan is one of those blockbuster series that you can expect even the most casual manga/anime fan to enjoy, up there with Death Note, Sword Art Online and Full Metal Alchemist, among others. However, like Death Note, I have never understood the praise this series has gotten – with both of these series, it’s almost like people are in love with the fantastic premises more than the actual execution. I watched the first two seasons of the anime when they came out and was initially intrigued, but soon lost interest due to the glacial pacing and wasted characters, to the point where I dropped off entirely a couple episodes into season three. That said, I knew that there were big, interesting developments as the story went along and so when Humble Bundle were offering 26 volumes of the manga (plus a ton of spin-off manga to go with it) for cheap, I decided to jump on the opportunity. I’ll be honest – the manga sunk its hooks in and captivated my attention in a way that the anime never could. I greedily devoured multiple volumes every day as if I was one of the series’ titans. There were a few niggling issues, sure, but the writing was too damn engaging to really hold this against the series.

…and then chapter 100 comes along and out of nowhere the series’ quality plummets off of a fucking cliff. I’m serious, as soon as I hit this chapter I said to myself “Wait, what the hell!?”, but kept going because “The writing has been strong to this point, surely Hajime Isayama knows what he is doing”… Well, turns out he didn’t, because the last 40 chapters of Attack on Titan are disastrous, going off the rails in ever more spectacular ways and outright harming the preceding chapters in the process. It’s so bad that, as of the time of this writing, the fanbase are still up in arms about it. I would personally say that it’s a disaster on par with Game of Thrones season eight, an ending so bad that it torpedoed most peoples’ previous love of the series.

So, what is so bad about Attack on Titan? Let me count the ways… Oh and just a note, this is mainly going to be based off of the manga – the anime is extremely faithful to the manga so story criticisms are likely to carry over between the two. My main criticisms unique to the anime are that the pacing is painfully slow (like, when your goal is to pick up a rock and move it, it shouldn’t take you two whole fucking episodes to pick up the goddamn rock) and that the show leaves me questioning how anyone ever gets caught and/or killed by titans (they are portrayed as being so slow, stupid and unthreatening that everyone who is dies does so because the stupid morons were frozen in place for minutes at a time).

Anway, with that said, you know what time it is!

The Characters

Before we get to the ending we should probably lay some groundwork on the issues I had with Attack on Titan, even before it all went bad. Foremost among these issues were the characters. Don’t get me wrong, there are some great characters in Attack on Titan – Jean is by far the best character of the main cast of heroes, Reiner is such a compelling and tragic character, Gabi has a strong character arc (which is one of the few bright spots in the last 40 chapters), Erwin Smith is a good example of a morally-complicated leader and Captain Levi is just cool. The story itself mainly centers on Eren Yeager and his two childhood friends, Mikasa and Armin, but unfortunately Eren is a generic, boring anime protagonist. You’ve seen this kind of protagonist before, someone whose sole characteristic is a philosophical opposition to some external force which is further fueled by a defining, tragic event. In the early parts of the manga his character entirely revolves around wanting to kill the titans and save humanity and this is fine for this kind of story, if not particularly interesting. I’ll cover more of Eren’s character development as we go along, but the main thing to know for now is that the series is centered on a rather shallow character.

Then there’s Mikasa, who initially seems like she’s going to be a total badass. She’s extremely capable, the best fighter in her class in every category, but is emotionally distant. Unfortunately, her character revolves entirely around Eren to the point of being ridiculous. Seriously, when she is told that Eren was killed by titans, she straight-up tries to commit suicide and almost gets herself killed several times trying to protect him. Why is she like this? Well, turns out that her parents were killed and she was kidnapped by robbers, but then Eren came along and fucking stabbed them to death and then told her to stab the last one to save him, so she believes she owes him her unending devotion (even though, y’know, she saves his ass several times and he doesn’t return the favour). As a result, Mikasa’s character is constantly kneecapped by being slavishly devoted to Eren, while also being upstaged by Eren at all times in the process. To make matters even worse, Mikasa also has the indignity of being upstaged twice, because as the stone-cold badass she occupies the same role in the story as Captain Levi. As soon as Levi gets introduced, every time something badass needs to be done Levi gets to do it, leaving Mikasa as Eren’s over-glorified bodyguard for the rest of the series. It sucks, and to make matters worse, it’s treated like some sort of revelation towards the end of the story that, oh my God, Mikasa is in love with Eren! And then we discover that Mikasa’s talents aren’t because she’s just a badass, it’s actually because her family were experiments infused with the strength of titans… and also because she’s Asian. I’m serious, if you thought Midichlorians were the stupidest demystification in fiction, you clearly haven’t read Attack on Titan. As if that wasn’t enough, it’s also implied that Mikasa rejecting Eren turns him into a genocidal maniac in the series’ ending. It definitely comes across to me like this is the intended reading, but even if it isn’t, it’s self-internalized by Mikasa and is just another shitty development for this wasted character. Oh and worst of all? One of the last panels in the series is Mikasa kissing Eren’s severed head WHAT THE ACTUAL FUCK!?!?!

I bet you thought that that was a joke. Also, I wanted to make this the featured image for this so much.

Armin, on the other hand, is easily the best character of the main trio. He isn’t physically impressive, describing himself as weak and useless on several occasions. However, he has a sharp mind which gets the characters through many dire situations and he draws strength from his friendship with Eren and Mikasa, while inspiring them in turn. The main characters manage to survive impossible odds because of Armin’s keen wit on several occasions, showing how invaluable he is to the survey corps. In perhaps the most climactic arc in the whole series, the retaking of Shiganshina district, Armin’s character arc hits its peak. The survey corps are nearly wiped out by a trap, but Armin’s strategic mind and his deep friendship with Eren are what wins the day, as he sacrifices himself to allow Eren to defeat the Colossal Titan. It’s a heartbreaking moment and a perfect death for the character, showing the pyrrhic cost of victory with the decimation of the corps and the sacrificial death of Commander Erwin Smith… but then, in perhaps the first example of Isayama committing a cardinal sin with his narrative, he reveals that both Armin and Erwin Smith somehow survived their injuries and are barely holding onto life. Let me lay this out to you so you can truly understand how insane this is – Armin was fucking cooked to death by the Colossal Titan, covered in full body burns (not to mention that he probably burned out his lungs in the process). This makes for a very intense chapter where the surviving characters fight and argue over which of these character should be healed (they happen to have a serum which will resurrect one of them and give them the powers of the Colossal Titan). They ultimately decide to save Armin, a decision which haunts him as he feels unworthy of being saved instead of Erwin Smith. This could have made for a fantastic new character arc in the latter-half of the narrative… except that Armin does nothing of consequence for the rest of the story (with the one exception being that he blows up a fleet of ships with his titan powers, but it’s not like this actually has any bearing on the plot). I’m serious, this genius character who had carried the heroes to victory several times up to this point gets resurrected and then does absolutely nothing of value for the rest of the story. I should also point out that the latter-half of the narrative revolves around several conspiracies and involves trusting clearly-untrustworthy characters. You’re telling me that Armin couldn’t do a goddamn thing to unravel any of these plots? Oh wait, that would have inconvenienced Isayama’s narrative, that’s why they neutered Armin. But… why even bother resurrecting him at all at that point? I’m serious, he had a fantastic death, just let him die instead of dragging out his character as a shadow of his former self.

The Ending

So, how exactly does the last third of Attack on Titan drop the ball so badly? Well, it all starts with a sneak attack by Eren on the nation of Marley. Marley are attempting to get support for a global coalition to wipe out Eren’s people, the Eldians living on the island of Paradis. The Eldian bloodline are the only ones capable of turning into titans and they are viewed as monsters because of this, and because in the past the Eldians had conquered the world and committed atrocities which they are still hated for. At the time of the story, Eldians are a ghettoized and demonized people, used as weapons of war by Marley through forced transformation into titans, with the only “free” Eldians having isolated themselves behind their walls on Paradis for nearly one hundred years now. So how does Eren react to this call to commit genocide against the people of Paradis? Why, he gives them all the excuse they need to go to war with them by becoming a fucking terrorist and attacking the public gathering of nations!!! Might I add that this declaration of intent was a huge public event, with dignitaries and civilians from all around the world gathered together and caught up in the crossfire as Eren rampages through the city. His actions force the other people of Paradis to act as well, causing a gigantic titan fight right in the middle of a city and leading to the aforementioned destruction of the Marley fleet by Armin in an attempt to debilitate their military response.

Why does this moment bother me so much and why does it mark the point where Attack on Titan nosedives in quality? Well, I believe that the issue here comes from the way that Eren’s character is handled throughout the story to this point. At the outset of Attack on Titan, Eren makes all sorts of bold declarations about how he’s going to kill all the titans, but in his very first mission his blind rage gets him consumed and seemingly killed until it turns out that he’s secretly had titan powers all along. He then spends the next several volumes trying (unsuccessfully) to understand and get control of his titan powers. During this time, he learns that he cannot just act as he wishes to, he needs to trust his allies who see the bigger picture. Then during the coup storyline, Eren gets kidnapped and spends most of the arc sidelined. Finally, during the retaking of Shiganshina, Eren does a lot of the fighting but he’s not really making the decisions, by this point he’s just following orders to save humanity. As you may notice, in addition to being shallow and boring, Eren is a passive protagonist, which is a lethal combination. Whenever I see people saying stuff like “Eren is so cool!” or “Eren is a chad!” my first response is “…seriously?” What Mandela Effect universe did they come from? This makes Eren’s sudden turn into being an active antagonist in the final third of the story so jarring and unconvincing – it just doesn’t make sense given the trajectory of the character up until that point. Those Game of Thrones season eight comparisons don’t end at how bad the ending is, this sudden heel-turn by a major character is a big reason why the ending is so unsatisfying. It’s not just that Eren attacks Marley either – after touring other countries he decides to wipe out the freaking world’s population in order to save the people of Paradis. WHAT??? In my opinion, Isayama didn’t lay the groundwork for this twist. Having a character say “My friends are the most important thing in the world to me” isn’t justification for “Okay, I guess I’m going to kill everyone in the world now”, especially after he tours the world and sees that there are many good people within it.

Beyond forcing Eren to become a villain “because plot”, the final third of the story has so many stupid twists that it wants us to go along with. The biggest among these is the idea that anyone believed that Zeke (an Eldian working for Marley who has the power to turn into the Beast Titan… and also, Eren’s half-brother) could possibly be working to save Paradis. Like, how did anyone in the survey corps go along with this? The guy was gleefully turning Paradis’ civilians into titans and hurling rocks at the survey corps (which killed Erwin Smith, I may add) a couple volumes earlier, now you’re trying to convince me that anyone believes that he has the best interests of Paradis in mind? The fact that the characters lampshade how stupid this is by talking about stealing his titan powers away from him and yet do not do it does not make this any better. We later discover that Zeke truly does have nefarious plans all along – he’s planning on sterilizing all Eldians the world over, killing them all off in about a hundred years and ending all conflict with them… a horrifyingly evil plan which turns out to be preferable to what actually ends up happening…

Then there are the numerous plot twists involving the Yeagerists, a radical faction of Marley defectors and Paradis soldiers who view Eren and Zeke as saviours. This is a huge conspiracy which somehow goes undetected for years, but even within the Yeagerists themselves there are secret sub-factions, some of whom strive towards Zeke’s sterilization plan and some of whom strive towards Eren’s plan of wiping out the world beyond Paradis by releasing the titans within the walls in an event known as “the rumbling”. There are some clever moments within this storyline (particularly the revelation that Zeke has been spiking the soldiers’ wine supplies with his spinal fluid, which creates a ticking time bomb where he can turn everyone affected into a titan at will), but for the most part it is exhausting and pushes the bounds of belief that this conspiracy wouldn’t be uncovered at some point, especially considering how fanatical these Yeagerists are. Thankfully, it all mercifully ends with Eren getting his head blown off by an anti-titan rifle, but just before his brain shuts down he makes contact with Zeke and then sets his plan in motion, beginning the rumbling which leads into the final arc where the main characters have to stop him once and for all.

The final third of Attack on Titan is a good example of the dangers of the mystery box style of storytelling. Attack on Titan absolutely thrives on mystery boxes. What are the titans? What is outside the walls? What is Eren’s father’s secret he keeps locked in the basement? Where did the Colossal and Armoured Titans come from? As the story goes along, and even as some mysteries get answered, new mysteries appear. Why can Eren turn into a titan? Why are there titans in the walls? Why did Reiner, Bertolt and Annie betray the survey corps? How did Eren control the titans that one time? While this kind of storytelling is a big reason why Attack on Titan is such a compelling read, it’s also a big reason why it all feels so deflating in the last third of the narrative, as the mysteries it has been building up either have unsatisfying answers or get thrown to the wayside. One big question I always had was why did Ymir go with Bertolt and Reiner, abandoning Historia (who she is clearly in love with) in the process? What duty could she do that would outweigh protecting Historia and fighting alongside the people of Paradis? Well, turns out, absolutely nothing because by the end we realize she literally handed herself over to the people of Marley to be killed and all she got for it was a promise from Reiner not to kill Historia… whoop-de-fuckin’-do. This is a fairly minor issue in the grand scheme of things, but it’s one that makes repeat readings of Attack on Titan more unsatisfying because Isayama puts twists and mysteries ahead of actual payoff. Another big example of this is Annie, who is revealed to be the Female Titan and encases herself in crystal early in the story to avoid capture. She spends almost a hundred chapters encased in this crystal, the audience tense the entire time, knowing that it’s only a matter of time until she decides to free herself and wreak havoc once more… only for Isayama to finally remember “oh shit, I’m in the end game, better release Annie now!” and have her just randomly escape and join the heroes to take down Eren. It’s a rushed, jarring and unsatisfying payoff which feels like it was done as an afterthought rather than actually planned to go this way. Oh, and just to shit on everything even more, it’s revealed that Eren’s titan power allows him to see into the memories of past and future inheritors of the Attack Titan, meaning that he’s known what was going to happen all along and has been manipulating his past self from the future into making all the misery of the series happen (including killing his own mother, setting the events of the story in motion). Just… holy fucking shit, that is a stupid fucking twist. I literally rolled my eyes and said “Are you fucking kidding me?” when Isayama dropped that steaming load on my lap. Oh, and in the final chapter, it turns out that Eren told Armin about this and that he’s going to massacre the world and Armin thanks him! AND THEN Eren uses his titan powers to ERASE ARMIN’S MEMORY OF THE CONVERSATION UNTIL THE MOMENT OF EREN’S DEATH. Jesus fucking Christ, fuck mystery boxes, fuck “big twists”, just tell me a good story for fuck sake!

I would be remiss if I failed to mention the most egregious waste of character in the last third of the story: Historia Reiss gets completely shafted. She’s a crucial character during the middle chapters of the story, revealed to be the secret heir to the throne of Paradis and the only one who can change the fate of the nation after a hundred years of oppressive rule. The whole point of the survey corp coup storyline is to put Historia in charge of the nation, so surely when they get her in charge something important happens, right? Well… no, not in the slightest. Isayama knocks her up and then sticks her in an orphanage for the rest of the story. I’m not joking, this major character shows up in maybe three or four panels in the entire last third of the story, which is absolutely insane and down-right insulting. Why do this, you may ask? Well, I believe Isayama got high on twists and then wrote himself into a corner. Part of Historia’s importance is that, as a royal descendant, she is capable of unlocking the power of the Founding Titan, which is possessed by Eren but unable to be used unless he comes into contact with a titan of royal descent. There are several discussions about turning Historia into a titan in order to use this power for their advantage, so why don’t they do it and give one of the established, main characters something to do after hyping them up during the entire middle-section of the story? Well, Isayama decides to instead reveal that Zeke is secretly of royal descent all along and is already a titan, so he’s capable of unlocking the power of the Founding Titan for Eren and is more than happy to do so. Again, this makes the fact that the survey corps places trust in Zeke even more insane. You clearly can’t trust the guy, kill Zeke and transfer his powers on to Historia, goddammit! And, again, lampshading this idea and then not following through with it doesn’t make it okay!

As if the ending wasn’t bad enough, it has been revealed that in the soon-to-be-released final volume of Attack on Titan there are going to be additional pages which add onto the ending. The existing ending sees Eren use the rumbling to wipe out 80% of the world’s population before being killed by his old friends in the survey corps in order to stop him. This erases the ability to turn into a titan for all Eldians around the world, meaning that their race can no longer become monsters. They return home to Paradis where the Eldians live in peace thanks to Eren’s sacrifice and it’s implied that Eldians are viewed as heroes who saved the world. It’s a poor ending, but it’s going to get even worse when Isayama shits on it even more by showing a time skip where Paradis gets carpet bombed into oblivion. Goddamn, I guess preventing complete global genocide was the wrong course of action then? I get that this is thematically appropriate – Attack on Titan frequently shows that cycles of violence are inevitable and that people are incapable of uniting, but holy fuck is that a cynical way to end your story. It effectively undoes everything that has happened because none of it matters in the end and, like I said, it makes the lesson “don’t half-ass a genocide, you have to wipe out all of your enemies to secure your future”. Just… it’s a story. I don’t care how pessimistic you are, break the fucking cycle you cynical dickhead!

So… How ‘Bout That Imperialism and Antisemitism…?

I was aware of the commentary about Attack on Titan taking a fascist, imperialist and antisemitic turn in its latter-half, so I was keeping a critical eye out for this while reading. While I feel like some of these hot takes may be a tad overblown, Isayama does weave in some uncomfortable themes which I have a hard time just dismissing away. Up-front, Attack on Titan appears to be staunchly anti-war – from the first volume you have soldiers haunted by the things they’ve seen, the comrades who have been devoured around them, desperate to feel like their sacrifices have any meaning to them (not to mention all of the horrific deaths we witness throughout the series). This would seem to paint war as something to be avoided at all costs, but as the story goes on I get the sense that that’s not really what Isayama is getting at – in Attack on Titan war is portrayed as a horrible thing that is necessary. After all, the while the narrative sympathizes with cadets who want to join the military police to stay as far away from titans as possible, they’re very clearly looked down upon in comparison to the survey corps who will lay down their lives for the good of humanity. Sure, they’re going to die in droves, often painfully and without even knowing their contribution to the betterment of humanity, but it is hammered home several times in the narrative that their sacrifices were not in vain.

In addition to this, war has to be led by great people who can make these sacrifices worthwhile. While there are hints of this early on, it’s stated outright by Armin when Erwin sacrifices dozens of survey corps members to lure out the Female Titan:

“The commander my be a cruel, even evil, man… but I… I think that’s good. Even if it puts his comrades’ lives in danger, he has to envision every possible development and make a choice. Between the lives of 100 of us and those of humanity, behind the walls. […] The people capable of changing things are the ones who can throw away everything dear to them. When forced to face down monsters they can even leave behind their humanity. Someone who can’t throw anything away will never be able to change anything.”

As if that wasn’t enough, Erwin Smith is viewed as the best hope for humanity’s future and there’s a whole chapter that revolves around how the previous commander of the survey corps admitted that “Average men aren’t able to accomplish anything. […] Special people do exist. It’s just that I wasn’t one of them. But I had to lead so many of my comrades to their deaths before I was able to figure that out.” We get a few of these “great men” in the story, most of whom are active military leaders, including Commander Pixis (who is based off of an Imperial Japanese general who Isayama admires). They are contrasted by the weak, selfish elites of Paradis who contribute nothing to society and who are shown to always put their comfort and power above any efforts to better humanity. This comes to a head when Eren’s titan powers are discovered and he is arrested and brought to trial. The elites want him to be killed because his existence threatens their seat of power, while the survey corps want to utilize him as a weapon to retake Wall Maria and save humanity. During the middle-section of the story (particularly during the coup arc), the elites and their cronies do everything they can to stifle the efforts of the survey corps up to and including going to outright war with them when they feel that their threat to their stability is too great. Again, this is the sort of thing that seems anti-authoritarian on the surface – they are, after all, trying to take down this corrupt regime. However, the resulting military coup and emphasis on these “heroes” who should be trusted above all others to reshape society puts that into question. I found the discussion on this Reddit thread about whether Attack on Titan is fascist to be particularly interesting and worth reading for more perspectives on this topic.

Another contentious aspect of Attack on Titan is the way it co-opts Jewish imagery and history in questionable ways. The most glaringly obvious of these is that the Eldians living in Marley are all hated by society, confined to ghettos and forced to wear armbands to identify their race. The parallels are evident, which makes me question whether Isayama gave any thought to the implications that this would bring about. First of all, every Eldian has the capacity to turn into a titan, lending credence to the notion that Jews are secretly monsters and suspicion or hate of them is in some way justified. Furthermore, the Eldians once ruled the world and are accused of committing atrocities around the globe centuries ago, harkening to the anti-Semitic ideas of nefarious Jews ruling the world. Hannah Collins, herself of Jewish descent, describes why this is so problematic within the narrative:

Anti-Semitism, like any form of predjudice, is based in fear, which has no logical root. By making Eldians former conquerors and genetic ‘freaks’ of nature, Isayama provides a plausible rationality to something that should have none. He didn’t have to make Eldians analogous to Jews for us to understand them as victims, and I – like many others – would have felt far more comfortable if he didn’t, to be honest.

It’s the same issue we’ve seen time and time again where racial and political imagery are co-opted in a narrative (Bright and Tom Clancy’s Elite Squad being recent examples of how crass and offensive this can be). At best, Isayama didn’t consider how making Eldians obviously analogous to Jews would lead to some questionable implications. At worst, it belies a racist worldview, which brings me to my next criticism…

Isayama seems to be obsessed with bloodlines in Attack on Titan. Race is, in the real world, largely a social construct, but in Attack on Titan it’s about as “real” as you can get. As I have already said, the ability to turn into a titan is a genetic trait of the Eldian race, but not only that but all Eldians have the ability to have their bodies and minds altered by the royal bloodline. This, of course, adds a whole other hierarchy to these bloodlines, since the royal bloodline possess special powers that are unique to them alone. As I previously mentioned, the fact that Mikasa is Asian is also a weird plotline in Attack on Titan. It’s revealed that non-Eldians were hunted down in Paradis since they are immune to the royal family’s memory-altering powers so the fact that Mikasa is Asian is made out to be a big deal that makes her special. In addition, her status as a member of the Ackerman family also provides her with the genetically inherited ability to be a really fuckin’ good fighter… again, it’s not because she’s just a badass or talented, it’s because of her stupid bloodline. Hell, Eren reveals that Mikasa doesn’t even really love him, she’s just genetically predisposed to protect them due to her bloodline (that said, the truth of this statement is left ambiguous and I personally believe he was lying). All this obsession with bloodline is weird and, in my opinion, narratively lazy on its own, but add it up with the co-opting of Jewish history and the imperialist themes and it becomes harder to believe that Attack on Titan isn’t promoting a pro-fascist worldview (and that’s not even getting into the ending, which promotes genocide as the only way to protect your loved ones).

Well If You’re So Smart, How Would You Fix It, HUH?

There really is a lot to like in Attack on Titan – as I said in the intro, I greedily devoured every volume of the manga I could get my hands on because it was such a compelling read that any complaints I had were excusable until chapter 100 came along. There are a lot of things to love up until that point – engaging and compelling plot progression, well thought-out world-building, fantastic art that conveys the sheer speed and force of the setting, and a handful of outstanding characters. I even really like the big twist about the world outside Paradis, but it has to be said that this reveal represents a fundamental shift in the narrative with little direction on where things will go next. As a result of the open-ended nature of this moment, it’s hard to make any substantial changes without having to just write the whole ending out yourself. That said, I do have two scenarios where I would diverge the narrative and make Attack on Titan into a whole other beast.

First of all, the obvious – change chapter 100. I hate the entire notion of Eren becoming a terrorist and bringing the wrath of Marley down on the people of Paradis (not to mention the subsequent stupid twist with Zeke, the Yeagerists, Rumbling, etc). It only really happens because of Isayama’s cynical worldview, but it rings false to me. Eren and the survey corps have spent the last hundred chapters talking about how they’re trying to save humanity, so when he finds out that humanity is doing fine he just… decides that the people of Paradis are the only actual people who matter so time to flatten the rest of them? Again, I don’t like this villainous turn, it doesn’t make sense to me. So here’s my suggestion for an alternate post-chapter 99 – focus the narrative on war between Marley and Paradis, while the characters try to break the mental trauma of the Eldians living in Marley.

The second place where I would consider diverting the narrative is that Eren should have stayed dead. That first battle with the survey corps was almost brilliant. Having Eren’s boring-ass protagonist schtick end up being a red-herring as he is brutally killed in his very first battle would have been incredible and would have given Armin and Mikasa someone to be inspired by throughout the rest of the narrative. Obviously, this would be a HUGE diversion as it would also take with it the whole idea of titan powers (and we wouldn’t get four or five variations of “oh my God, so-and-so is also a titan!”), the world outside the wall, coups, etc, but it would focus Attack on Titan back to the simplicity of its premise – the bleakness of its world and the actual titan fighting. It doesn’t take too long for Attack on Titan to lose track of the regular titans and instead become more interested in the politicking or special titans, to the point where they barely matter after the first dozen volumes. This change would scale everything back and make for a far more simple narrative centered around that initial premise of the last of humanity killing titans. It would be far more simple, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing and could be far more satisfying in the end. At the very least, it would have been interesting to see how Attack on Titan could have turned out if it didn’t get immediately bogged down with typical anime bullshit.

I think that what’s so frustrating about Attack on Titan is that it has left itself effectively unsalvageable. Like, look at it this way – The Rise of Skywalker sucks but at least The Last Jedi is a good enough open-ended, cyclical conclusion that you can happily ignore it. You can’t really do that with Attack on Titan – the whole early narrative revolves around getting to Eren’s basement and once you get there and find out about the wider world you can’t really end there – it begs for a conclusion and unfortunately the one we got was bullshit. If we’re being honest, I still liked the first two thirds of Attack on Titan enough that I’d probably still recommend reading it, but goddamn you need to go in knowing that the ending is really fuckin’ bad.

Let Them Fight – The Human Characters in the Monsterverse

Godzilla vs. Kong was easily the most excited I have been for a movie since… well, since right before Covid-19 hit and delayed A Quiet Place: Part II indefinitely. Most of the Monsterverse films are little more than disposable fun (except for the 2014 Godzilla, which is a straight-up great blockbuster as far as I’m concerned), but I got hyped regardless and found myself entertained as I watched the big gorilla and the big lizard punch each other on-screen. To the surprise of no one, Godzilla vs. Kong‘s human characters feel superfluous, which led to the common refrain of “well it’s a kaiju movie, of course the human characters suck!” This feels like a total cop-out though, because not only are there several good human characters in the long history of the Godzilla and Kong franchises, but we had a solid human cast in Godzilla 2014. Think about it – we don’t get any giant monsters until about forty minutes in and Godzilla himself doesn’t show up until nearly an hour has passed. The humans have to hold up the entirety of that first hour and the film doesn’t suffer because of it – can you imagine that with one of the more recent Monsterverse movies? So what happened? How did we get from the grounded human drama of Godzilla 2014 to the melodrama and camp of the latter-Monsterverse? Let’s examine each of these movies in turn and see how the human characters were handled there.

Oh, and in case it wasn’t obvious?

Alright, with that said, let’s get into this…

Godzilla (2014)

At the time of its release, one of the big controversies with Godzilla 2014 (which I’m just going to refer to as “Godzilla” from here on for simplicity’s sake) was that Bryan Cranston’s Joe Brody shouldn’t have been killed off and that they should have killed the film’s actual main character, Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s Ford Brody, instead. The reasoning for this is because Joe was a far more compelling character than Ford, which is hard to deny – he’s a broken man driven to self-destructive obsession to try to understand the unexplained nuclear reactor meltdown which killed his wife a decade and a half ago. There’s some good family drama early on where he and Ford reluctantly reconnect and try to uncover what caused the reactor disaster. Cranston puts his everything into this role, and the writing is interesting enough to carry the film on its own long before any kaiju appears on-screen. However, as soon as the first MUTO emerges and Joe dies, Ford takes over and is characterized as a dull, lawful good soldier. I can see how this would be a big come-down from Joe’s more compelling characterization, but I feel like this was an underrated narrative decision which ultimately made Godzilla a stronger film overall.

The best and most distinctive part of Godzilla is that it frames the kaiju action at a human level. The monsters are enormous, rarely able to fit into the frame and they are so gargantuan and unstoppable that the lives and cares of humans are unworthy of their attention. Some of the most memorable scenes in this film are just random humans trying to survive the destruction going on around them, with the audience’s full understanding that it is all unintentional collateral damage. For example, the tsunami in Hawaii or Godzilla going through the Golden Gate Bridge aren’t particularly crucial moments in the plot, but they get so much focus because they show the scale of the devastation that these monsters can unintentionally cause from a human perspective. In this kind of narrative, you need someone on the ground level who would have to be in the vicinity of the monsters in order to progress the story and Ford works perfectly in this regard. Think about it – what would Joe have done to improve the plot if he didn’t die? He’s not a soldier; at most he would be working with Monarch to try to stop the MUTOs. In order to keep Joe in this film, we would either require more dull expository scenes with Monarch (which would hurt this film’s pacing), or he’d have to be awkwardly shunted to the background of the film in order to preserve the narrative direction. Ultimately, killing him off was the most efficient solution – unfortunate, but necessary to preserve the pacing of the narrative.

On the other side of the narrative, we have Ken Watanabe as Dr. Serizawa. He isn’t really a main character per se, instead acting as more of a mouthpiece to deliver exposition and, perhaps unintentionally, deliver memes straight to the audience. He’s in the movie just enough to let us know what’s going on and who we should be rooting for, but he doesn’t make a huge impression. He’s functional and unobtrusive.

That said, Godzilla‘s biggest sin would be how badly it wastes Elizabeth Olsen’s Elle Brody. Like… seriously? You got Elizabeth Olsen (who had just received critical acclaim for Martha Marcy May Marlene and was poised for superstardom in the MCU) and then trapped her in a forgettable role as Ford’s wife. She barely even appears in the movie, but there’s no good reason for this to be the case. She’s a freaking nurse caught in the big showdown in San Francisco, you’re telling me you can’t find something for her to do? Especially in the early hours of the attack in San Francisco, before Ford is even on-site, she should be treating victims, avoiding falling buildings, etc.

Godzilla‘s human characters aren’t the most compelling out there, but you can see that they’re interesting enough to carry a good chunk of the film by themselves and provide a strong narrative grounding which only serves to make the overall film stronger. The monsters are still the main draw, but the humans don’t feel like they’re actively robbing us of anything interesting. It strikes by far the best balance in the entire Monsterverse and looking back it really is shocking how bad the human characters have become in comparison.

Kong: Skull Island

Kong: Skull Island starts out promisingly enough, introducing us to a large and colourful cast of human characters. They’re all clear archetypes (Tom Hiddleston’s your action hero, Brie Larson’s your tough leading lady, Samuel L. Jackson’s your Vietnam squad leader, John Goodman’s your shady, desperate scientist), but they’re interesting enough to give us people to care about and get the plot moving forward. The problem with Skull Island is that these characters don’t really go anywhere beyond these basic archetypes. Once the characters end up on Skull Island, they have little to no development to speak of, with the only real exception being that Samuel L. Jackson’s Preston Packard goes kill-crazy (which is particularly notable because it is implied to be due to PTSD from the Vietnam War which leads to this breakdown, providing some well-trodden political commentary on the film’s 70s backdrop). The lack of development is particularly disappointing with Tom Hiddleston’s Conrad and Brie Larson’s Weaver – you’d think they’d at least give their leading duo something to do other than just look cool, but nope.

Luckily, Kong manages to get away with having such a disposable human cast by treating them as, well, disposable. The cast gets quickly whittled down one-by-one in fun ways at a quick pace. Like Godzilla, Kong: Skull Island wastes several of its talented actors, but I’m less annoyed about it here because Kong seems to understand the how high-profile its cast is and revels in killing them off unexpectedly. If anyone feels truly wasted it would be John Goodman, but he gets a funny and memorable death which helps make up for it. That’s not even mentioning Shea Whigham who, as a recent viral tweet stated, has one of the funniest death scenes ever. It almost feels like a disrespectful way to off one of the most colourful characters in the film, but it’s so funny that it is hard to hold it against the movie.

Kong also has one ace up its sleeve in the human character department and that’s John C. Reilly’s Hank Marlowe. He gets by far the most interesting characterization as a World War II fighter pilot who gets stranded on the island with a Japanese soldier and is instantly endearing to us with his fun personality, capability and desperation to get home to his wife and son who has hasn’t seen in almost thirty years. Seeing him reuniting with his family at the end is surprisingly poignant for a film that is almost entirely breakneck-paced action up to that point.

Kong: Skull Island represents the best and worst of human characters in a kaiju film. On the one hand, the cast is undeveloped and exist mainly to be killed off in fun ways, but on the other hand they’re just interesting enough to carry the plot forward, shuffle us along to a lot of entertaining action sequences and don’t feel like they’re detracting us from the good stuff (Kong kicking ass). While developing a couple more cast members would make the narrative resonate more, this is around the baseline of what you could consider “acceptable” for a broad-appeal adventure movie.

Godzilla: King of the Monsters

The number one complaint about Godzilla was that the title monster didn’t show up nearly enough. King of the Monsters came along to try to right that, but the end result leaves me so mixed. On the one hand, this is a fundamentally flawed film, but it might be my favourite entry in the Monsterverse and is the best 5/10 movie I’ve ever seen by far. At the very center of King of the Monsters‘ flaws are those human characters, which are probably the worst in the franchise in some ways.

King of the Monsters has more of an epic, globe-trotting scale compared to Godzilla‘s grounded and human-level scope. This necessitates a larger cast of soldiers and scientists who are constantly giving exposition dumps to explain what big disaster is going on at any one time, which they make sure to constantly update us on. As if this wasn’t enough by itself, we also have family melodrama between Kyle Chandler, Vera Farmiga and Millie Bobbie Brown (I could not tell you their actual characters’ names for the life of me), who are caught up in a bio-terrorist plot to unleash monsters across the world. This family drama has the potential to be compelling – their son was killed in the attack on San Francisco and it has caused them to grow estranged from each other. Kyle Chandler blames Godzilla for his son’s death and wants to destroy all the monsters, whereas Vera Farmiga uses their loss as motivation to try to save the world. Unfortunately, the film doesn’t explore their relationship any further than that. There’s just no time for human drama with all the action going on and it ends up serving as a way to have a fractured family caught on opposite sides of the conflict.

Serizawa also returns to lead the scientists and he’s about as functional here as he was there. His heroic sacrifice resonates because we’re familiar with the character and he seems like a good person who wants to do the right thing, although he still isn’t very well-developed. As for the rest of the characters, they are a bunch of nobodies. Like, don’t get me wrong, there’s a bunch of people we see a whole lot on the Argo: the lady commander/pilot, the smart alec, O’Shea Jackson Jr.’s soldier character, and probably a couple other nobodies that I’m forgetting because they were all so pointless. Oh and Sally Hawkins reprises her role from the first movie as well, but she was so forgettable there that I didn’t even realize she wasn’t in this as a stunt-casting due to her role in The Shape of Water. Oh, and she gets unceremoniously stepped on early in the film, making her character’s entire existence feel even more hollow.

Unlike Kong: Skull Island, King of the Monsters sticks to Godzilla‘s more serious tone, making these characters all just so dull to watch and entirely forgettable. For example, there’s the scene where Rodan flies over a Mexican town, destroying it from the hurricane-force winds created by his passing. Conceptually, it’s similar to the scene in Godzilla where Godzilla comes ashore in Hawaii and unintentionally creates a tidal wave which wipes out the entire downtown sector, but far less exciting because the film doesn’t bother to make us care about anyone on the ground. Like, they throw O’Shea Jackson and a kid into the scene, but at this point I don’t even know a thing about this soldier and this kid literally just showed up out of nowhere. Not only that, but we don’t even get a proper resolution. One second we see O’Shea Jackson desperately holding onto this kid and then like five minutes later we find out that they’re all fine, not that any of us were wondering anyway. To make matters worse, King of the Monsters does a fantastic job of giving all the monsters distinct personalities. Hell, King Ghidorah’s individual heads have more interesting characterization than anyone in this movie! Worst of all? The human characters actively take up time which should be dedicated to the monsters fighting, especially in the second half of the film. The two most egregious examples are when Rodan and King Ghidorah are fighting and suddenly the film cuts away to dumb drama aboard the Argo and when we get just one shot of Ghidorah wrecking downtown Washington D.C. That’s the kind of moment where some ground-level scenes of destruction could go a long way, but King of the Monsters‘ scope is planted so firmly on its epic, globe-spanning scale that it can’t even take the time to linger on this before zipping the plot ahead to the next big event. Again, I like King of the Monsters and in some ways I think it’s the ideal Hollywood blockbuster interpretation of a kaiju movie, but the human characters are by far its greatest weakness, to the point of being actively detrimental to the whole experience.

Godzilla vs. Kong

I was nervous going into Godzilla vs. Kong, but after seeing the first trailer I was reassured that they had learned one lesson – even if the human characters inevitably sucked, they had pulled off a masterstroke by making Kong the film’s true leading character and emotional core. That said, some studio head out there decided that there still have to be human characters in this movie, and these are a tale of two halves…

For the Kong half of the film, we get Alexander Skarsgård as Nathan Lind, Rebecca Hall as Ilene Andrews and Kaylee Hottle as Jia. They’re all functional at best and serve little more purpose than to drive the plot forward (Lind has researched the hollow earth, and they need Kong to guide them there) or provide a connection to Kong (Andrews is the top researcher on Kong and Jia has bonded with Kong to the point of being able to communicate with him). This half of the film also features Eiza González in an obviously-villainous corporate underling role as she funds their expedition to the hollow earth, but she similarly has little in the way of development or interesting motivation, you just sit there waiting for her sudden but inevitable betrayal. Like most people in the Monsterverse, the humans in this half of the film are purely functional – not actively detrimental or disruptive, but about as uninteresting as you’d expect from a film like this… so better than King of the Monsters, at least.

Speaking of which, that brings us to the Godzilla half of the film, which is centered around Millie Bobby Brown’s returning character, Madison, along with her friend and a bumbling conspiracy theorist who unearth a sinister conspiracy afoot at Apex Cybernetics… and good God, this is by far the worst set of characters we’ve gotten in the entire Monsterverse. Godzilla vs. Kong makes the interesting decision of dialing back on the po-faced seriousness of Godzilla and King of the Monsters and instead goes for a campier tone. This is an sensible idea for a monster movie, since they are intended to be a breezy fun time, but the camp is cranked to the max whenever this trio is on-screen to the point of being grating. It’s to the point of being cartoonish, as these three clowns bumble their way into Apex Cybernetics, somehow avoiding detection the entire way, until they come face-to-face with the moustache-twirling corporate villain. This half of the film also suffers from two egregious sins (actually let’s make that three – Jessica Henwick was cast but cut from the final film, what the fuck movie!?). The first is that poor Kyle Chandler is completely wasted, relegated to little more than a cameo role. A familiar face would have done wonders and I struggle to see how you couldn’t have worked him into the plot in a more substantial manner. The second sin is that the bad guy’s main henchman is freaking Ren Serizawa, the son of Ken Watanabe’s Dr. Serizawa, and the film doesn’t play this fact up at all. Hell, he even dies unceremoniously, making the entire existence of this character pointless. Like, at that point why not just make him a nameless goon? Or just fold his role into that of the main bad guy? I don’t understand this decision and all I can think is that there was significant chunks of story cut out in the final film which may have expanded on his role.

So Godzilla vs. Kong has one set of characters who are functional at best and another set that I actively wish would die. This might have been a crippling flaw for the film but, like I said at the outset, Godzilla vs. Kong downplays this issue by making Kong the true main character. This provides what should be a blueprint for future Monsterverse films where they won’t feel like they have to saddle us with boring or annoying humans and instead focus on the monsters directly. That said, I would like to see a return to what made the first Godzilla film so successful, where the action is shown from ground level with humans scrambling just to survive. King of the Monsters already put the stakes about as high as they can realistically get, so I feel like trying to maintain that kind of scope just isn’t sustainable and instead the right course of action is to lean into the human stakes instead. I really enjoy the Monsterverse and it would be great to see this franchise continue and improve as time goes on

DOA Is The Best Video Game Movie (300th Blog Post Celebration!)

This review has been a long time coming. Like, to put it into perspective, I tend to start drafts on my blog so that I remember ideas and am able to come back to them later. Sometimes they even get completed and get published here! Well, it was around seven years ago when I thought “hey, I love DOA: Dead or Alive and would love to write a review explaining why!” For whatever reason, that idea kept getting shoved back in favour of other ideas, but that draft has been sitting in here for literally years in various iterations, including two serious attempts to complete it that got shelved and the whole blog migration to WordPress. This also means that I have had to rewatch the film on several occasions whenever I planned on sitting down to work on this review.

Well, a few months ago I realized that I was rapidly closing in on my 300th blog post. Considering that I celebrated my 200th blog post with a review of DOAX3, what better time to finally get off my ass and review this movie? DOA: Dead or Alive is the best video game movie of all time and I’m going to explain why (yes, better than Detective Pikachu – no one is more shocked by that statement than me).

I remember seeing this film’s DVD cover in the local movie rental place when I was in high school… it looked identical to the covers of the porn DVDs nearby. That was obviously an intentional choice.

Production

After the box office success of the first two Resident Evil films, the producers of the first film, Paul W.S. Anderson, Jeremy Bolt and Bernd Eichinger, were eager to tap into the burgeoning video game adaptation gold rush and searched for the next big hit (funnily enough, of all the video game adaptations listed in production on that link, the only ones that would actually come out were DOA and Resident Evil: Extinction). Perhaps owing to Anderson’s success with the 1995 fighting game adaptation Mortal Kombat, the producers decided to give Dead or Alive a shot – after all, it was all about action sequences and sexy women, so it would surely draw out all the teenage boys, right? Also being brought on to help produce the film was Mark A. Altman, who had previously produced freaking House of the Dead (fighting The Howling 2 for the championship title of most insane film to ever make it into theatres).

Corey Yuen was brought on as the film’s director. Yuen was well-known for his impressive Hong Kong action films and fight choreography, and had just found success with Western audiences with The Transporter. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the lead actresses were all models: Devon Aoki (of Sin City and 2 Fast 2 Furious fame) was cast as Kasumi, Holly Valance (known for the soap opera Neighbours, Prison Break and… what, she was in Taken!? Oh shit, she was the pop singer Liam Neeson has to protect, of course!) was cast as Christie and Jaime Pressly (probably the biggest name in the main cast, best known for My Name is Earl) was cast as Tina Armstrong. The supporting cast are also filled with plenty of interesting actors. By far the most notable is professional wrestler Kevin Nash as Bass Armstrong. This was an absolutely perfect casting, he steals the show whenever he’s on screen. The film also has several notable character actors and B-movie stars, such as Matthew Marsen (who has been in many films, but was last seen on IC2S in Atlas Shrugged) as Max, Eric Roberts (here playing a discount John Carradine) as Donovan, and Natassia Malthe (a kick-ass Uwe Boll regular) as Ayane. Some relative unknowns were also cast in major roles, such as Sarah Carter as Helena Douglas, Steve Howey as Weatherby and Brian J. White as Zack (who plays the role to perfection). Rounding out the cast were a pair of martial artists, Collin Chou as Hayate and Kane Kosugi as Ryu Hayabusa (he’s fine for the role they wrote for him, but good God do not expect this Ryu to be anything like the demon-slaying badass from Ninja Gaiden or you are going to be disappointed).

Filming took place in various locations in China. Most of the cast had never played a Dead or Alive game before, although most checked it out during production (Matthew Marsden specifically acknowledged that he sucked at it). According to the “Making Of” featurette (which really sucks by the way, nearly half of it is uninterrupted footage from the movie), the cast trained for 3 months with US marines and martial arts experts in order to learn their characters’ fighting styles. According to Sarah Carter, the entire cast performed most of their own stunts and some fight sequences could take up to 7 days to film (such as the impressive Helena vs Christie fight at the mid-point). The film also features a volleyball scene which was 100% pure fan service and which went through a staggering forty pairs of bikinis to complete.

Unfortunately for the producers, DOA: Dead or Alive didn’t light up the box anywhere near as much as Resident Evil had. In fact, while those films had wracked up grosses over $100 million worldwide, DOA brought in a paltry $7.7 million on a $30 million budget. Ouch.

Plot Summary

The film opens at a ninja palace in the mountains where princess Kasumi resolves to find her brother, Hayate, who went missing after being invited to the Dead or Alive martial arts tournament and is presumed dead. However, she is warned by Hayate’s friend, Ryu Hayabusa, that if she abandons the castle then she will be condemned to death by the laws of their people. Unperturbed, Kasumi escapes, pursued by her vengeful half-sister, Ayane, and is invited to participate in Dead of Alive. The film then cuts to Tina Armstrong, a professional wrestler who is trying to prove that her talents aren’t all just showmanship (which she quickly proves to us by beating up a group of pirates who board her boat, securing her invite to Dead or Alive). Finally, we’re introduced to Christie, a criminal who uses her femme fatale wiles to fight her way through a group of Interpol agents who have cornered her in her hotel room, earning herself an invitation to Dead or Alive in the process. With our main cast assembled, the group is flown to the island where Dead or Alive is held, alongside fellow competitors including Zack, Hayabusa (who has entered the tournament to watch over and protect Kasumi), Helena Douglas (daughter of the tournament’s recently-deceased co-founder), Bass Armstrong (Tina’s enthusiastic and laid-back father) and Max Marsh (Christie’s partner in crime, who is joining her to try to steal the company’s fortune). After parachuting to the island and traversing the rugged terrain to reach the tournament grounds, the group is introduced to Dead or Alive’s organizer, Victor Donovan, who explains the rules of the tournament – fighters will be tracked with nano-bots, fights can be called at any time and any place with single-round eliminations determining who will move on to the next round of competition.

As the first rounds of the tournament slowly get underway, the characters begin getting to know each other. Zack spends all his time hitting on a very unreceptive Tina, while a computer technician for the tournament named Weatherby tries to work up the courage to ask out Helena (who, surprisingly, decides to give him a chance). Meanwhile, Kasumi continues her search for Hayate, avoiding attacks from Ayane and the other competitors. She is eventually joined by Hayabusa, but he goes missing while infiltrating Donovan’s headquarters, making Kasumi even more suspicious about what’s going on. Finally, Christie and Max discover the location of Dead or Alive’s vault and try to figure out the password to get inside. Max eventually realizes that the code is tattooed on Helena, a fact which adds additional tension when Helena and Christie are paired off against one another in a quarter finals match. After an intense fight, Christie manages to come out on top while also discovering the tattooed code.

Concerned about Hayabusa, Kasumi convinces Tina and Christie to join her in infiltrating Donovan’s headquarters. They discover Hayabusa unconscious, but are incapacitated and captured by Donovan. Meanwhile, saddened by Helena’s defeat to Christie, Weatherby confesses to Helena that Donovan is working on some sort of secret project and that he believes that her father was murdered to cover it up. Helena decides to stop Donovan, but they are attacked by his cronies. They manage to defeat the mob and then head into the complex to get to the bottom of Donovan’s scheme. Donovan monologues to the captured heroes about his plan – he has been using the nanobots in their bloodstream to collect data on the worlds greatest fighters, which will be fed directly into a pair of computer-enhanced glasses he has developed, allowing him to instantly learn their techniques and counter them all. He plans to sell these glasses to several international criminals to rake in millions of dollars. Donovan then reveals that Hayate is still alive and uses him as a demonstration of the glasses’ power, defeating him in one-on-one combat easily and throwing him through a wall. He is left to die but Ayane saves him, which causes her to finally realize that Kasumi was right all along.

Before Donovan can send the data to his buyers, he is interrupted by Weatherby, who cuts off the upload and alerts the CIA of Donovan’s dealings. Donovan and Helena fight while Weatherby frees Hayabusa, Tina, Kasumi and Christie just before Donovan actives a self-destruct sequence. The fighters all converge on Donovan, with Helena, Kasumi, Ayane, Hayate, Tina and Christie all beating on the old man at once while Weatherby and Hayabusa try to find an escape route. They encounter Max, who has been trying to break into the vault, and help him escape (despite his protestations). Overwhelmed by the sheer number of people attacking him, Donovan’s glasses are knocked off and he is left in a paralytic state by Hayate and Kasumi and watches helplessly as the heroes all escape the island before the base explodes, consuming Donovan in the inferno. The group quickly come across the pirates who Tina had fought earlier and steal their boat as they ride off into the sunset… to a final stinger where our heroines all face off against an army of ninjas at Kasumi’s palace.

Review

The opening of DOA is a perfect encapsulation of what makes this movie work. It starts with a terrible CGI tracking shot through a palace in the sky and then assaults us with stilted acting, bad dialogue and melodrama… and then suddenly Kasumi’s escapes by throwing a sword into the wall, leaps the cross the backs of an entire army, uses the sword as a springboard to launch herself over the walls of the palace and then reveals that she has a freaking hang glider hidden under her clothes to sail away as a robot ninja star just comes out of nowhere and invites her to DOA.

Holy shit, what did I just watch?!

The movie just gets better from there and makes it unmistakable that Corey Yuen and his cast know exactly what kind of film they’re making and then wring every ounce of fun out of the premise that they can with tongue planted firmly in cheek. That’s the thing, DOA has several elements that would tank any other film – paper-thin story, bad acting, a stupid and cheap third act, etc. However, Yuen executes this all in such a manner that they either don’t matter or they even enhance the experience. For example, how many times have I criticized Resident Evil for its crappy stories? The difference here is that the story serves DOA‘s actual strengths – fantastic action sequences and fun characters (and for the record, these are the exact elements that made the two Resident Evil movies I actually like work). There’s very little time wasted on pointless exposition or worldbuilding, the film knows what you’re here for and it will give you enough to make that function and create some stakes in an efficient manner. Again, this would usually sound like a bad thing, but how many action movies have we seen where they put in a forced romance, or set up a long-winded relationship in order to give our character motivation when it’s taken away, or just spent time trying to prove that this is not “just some b-movie”? There’s a reason movies like Mad Max: Fury Road, Taken and John Wick are so beloved and that’s because they cut the fat… and it just occurred to me while typing this sentence that I’m unironically going to argue that DOA: Dead or Alive is at least in the same ballpark as those movies.

First off, DOA has some fantastic fight sequences. This should be expected, but you’d be surprised how many video game movies (let alone lower-budget movies in general) that are all about their action sequences fail to even surpass this simple hurdle. Films like The Legend of Chun-Li are supposed to be all about the action but fail to even succeed there. Again, look no further than the most recent Resident Evil, which was basically just an excuse to string together action setpieces but which had the worst directed and edited action sequences in the franchise so far in the process. In this regard, DOA scored a homerun right off the bat by hiring Corey Yuen, whose expertise is clearly reflected in the plethora of fun and exciting fights peppered throughout this film’s runtime.

There are two particular sequences I want to highlight – the showdown between Kasumi and Ayane in the bamboo forest and the rain-soaked, bare-knuckle beatdown between Christie and Helena. The bamboo forest fight is a clear riff on Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon as a sword-wielding Ayane tries to kill an unarmed Kasumi and features all sorts of acrobatics, wire stunts and creative use of the environment to allow Kasumi to survive her half-sister’s furious onslaught. I highlight this particular fight because it’s basically just thrown there for the sake of an action sequence, but it’s so damn cool that it doesn’t matter that it halts the actual story for a couple minutes. On the other hand, the fight between Christie and Helena is not only really cool (shot in slow-motion close-ups during a pouring rain storm), but is also tense because we have no idea who is going to win. We like both characters by this point and don’t want to see either of them lose. Some of the best acting in the film is demonstrated in this sequence, you can really feel that these characters are fighting a desperate battle against one another and doing whatever they can to come out on top. In a movie with tons of great fight sequences, this one really stands out because it makes you realize just how effectively it has gotten you to like these characters.

That’s another big strength of DOA – the characters are all really fun (well, mostly, but we’ll get to that). It helps their personalities and motivations are conveyed perfectly through the action sequences… again, just like Fury Road. I mean, just look at the character introductions for an example. Tina gets introduced complaining that, as a wrestler, she’s not taken seriously before her boat gets boarded by pirates. She takes the opportunity to then beat the crap out of them, proving to the audience that she is indeed a formidable fighter (and even kind-hearted as she allows the last pirate to throw himself off the ship to spare himself a beating). Meanwhile, Christie’s introduction establishes that she’s a charming femme fatale, using her sexuality in order to get the upper hand when she’s ambushed and seemingly cornered by Interpol. Hayate gets one of these introductions in a flashback as well. Need to prove that he’s the best fighter in the world? How about have him chuck a bunch of needles at a group of bandits, snatch these needles out of the air and prick the bandits in their pressure points to paralyze them all? Holy shit, this guy’s amazing! It makes Kasumi’s unrelenting search and Donovan’s later beatdown of Hayate all the more effective.

It’s not just about the fights though, DOA‘s characters are also just fun to watch interacting with each other and have great chemistry. The most obvious example of this is Kevin Nash’s Bass Armstrong and his interactions with Tina. He’s like the ultimate goofy, macho dad and Tina is constantly embarrassed by his inability to take anything seriously. This comes to a head when Tina and Bass get matched against each other and he bursts into her room, only to sheepishly back out when he realizes that he might have just walked in on Tina and Christie in bed together (in reality she was just sharing a bed because Christie’s room got trashed). It’s adorable how supportive he is of his daughter and is obvious that there’s a lot of love between them, even if there appears to be friction most of the time. Weatherby and Helena’s relationship is also quite cute. While Weatherby is a dork and it strains credulity to think that Helena would find him interesting, the fact that she does is adorable and both are kept interesting enough and have enough relevance that it doesn’t feel like either is a dreaded “generic love interest”. Or how about how the film establishes that Kasumi, Christie and Tina are now friends with each other? When the group parachutes onto DOA island together, they have to reach the tournament grounds in time or be disqualified. Initially they’re all looking out for themselves while climbing the temple, but quickly realize that they’re not going to make it unless they work together and are soon a solid team. It’s simple and obvious, but effective visual character building.

Unfortunately, DOA‘s one big stumbling block in terms of its characters is in its lead, Kasumi. Devon Aoki’s performance is extremely flat and I can’t help but feel like this was intentional – Kasumi herself is a bit of a personality-void in the games and I think they were trying to capture the same sort of stoic heroine energy. It’s a shame because Aoki seems very charming and fun in the film’s “Making Of” feature and it would have been nice to see her in a role that didn’t require her to be so serious the whole time. Similarly, Ayane is also very one-note, just pissed off all the time, while Ryu Hayabusa is downgraded from a demon-slaying badass to Kasumi’s generic love interest. Whenever Kasumi’s plot is in control the film loses some of its luster, but thankfully it’s more than made up for with the subplots revolving around Christie and Tina (and eventually Helena).

Another remarkable element of DOA is that the film is one of those weird movies that manages to strike the fine balance between being sexy and empowering at the same time. This is especially surprising given Dead or Alive‘s reputation as a pervy, tit-obsessed series (this certainly wasn’t helped by the fact that Dead or Alive: Xtreme 2 released only a month after DOA hit theaters). DOA does a far better job of balancing this out, if only because the cast are real human beings and not a bunch of 36DD teenagers and so they can’t just take the easy route by going with over-the-top eye-candy. Sure, the girls are in bikinis on several occasions and there are lots of shots of cleavage and butts, but it comes across far better than in the games. The games are usually just voyeuristic but when they fetishize the girls it can get straight-up creepy, not to mention that the games try to maintain this weird sort of “innocence” to them all, like they don’t realize that they’re all stupidly-hot. In DOA, the women all own their sexuality – if they’re in bikinis it generally makes sense (it is a tropical island after all and they’re often in down-time between fights) and they’re not treated like these chaste, untouchable angels with no idea of how beautiful they are. Hell, Christie is straight-up sexually active in this movie, well-aware of her wants and desires and not afraid to use her allures to get the upper-hand on an opponent. It’s kind of like Bayonetta in this regard, where the female characters are framed by the male gaze, but they don’t allow it to trap them. Beyond the characters’ sexuality though, the female cast just kick a ton of ass throughout the film. That’s actually a strength inherent to the games themselves, where several women can go toe-to-toe with the best male fighters in the world and play out their interesting storylines, but the focus on tits always drowns this out and drowns out an otherwise empowering premise. Freed from pervy obsessions, DOA shows us just how awesome these women are as they take down an evil conspiracy with their fists. I’m not sure I’d go so far as to declare the film to be outright feminist, but it’s sure as hell a kickass girl power romp.

I also have to mention the third act, which is a potentially make-or-break part of the film. For my part, I think it’s fucking hilarious and the perfect cherry on top of an enjoyable sundae, but I can understand if someone would think that it’s terrible. Basically, as soon as Donovan’s evil plan is revealed, DOA turns into a G.I. Joe-level cartoon. The sets get really cheap looking and the plot goes off the rails because Donovan’s master plan is stupid beyond comprehension. Okay, cool, you’ve scanned all the fighting techniques from the world’s best fighters and downloaded them to a set of smart glasses which show you how to fight and beat any opponent… There’s just so much about this that’s pants-on-head stupid. First of all, how do you react quick enough to the glasses’ prompts to even fight back? Second, boy it sure would suck if your opponent decided to shoot you instead of engaging in hand-to-hand combat. Third, why make the crux of this evil plan revolve around a fashion accessory which is notoriously easy to knock off, especially when you’re doing quick actions like… oh, I don’t know, fighting people? Fourth, why then antagonize the fighters you stole the data from!? If he had just waited til the tournament was over to sell the data to international terrorists (some of which look like random incels wearing sunglasses!) you wouldn’t have gotten defeated like an idiot! It’s so dumb, but given how intentionally tongue-in-cheek the rest of the film has been I can’t help but think that this plan was made so campy on purpose, so I’m more than willing to go along with it, grinning like a madman all the while.

If we’re being entirely honest, DOA isn’t a top-tier movie by any means. The acting is fine at best, the story is clearly bare-bones and the low budget makes it look cheap at times. Films like House of the Dead or Street Fighter: The Movie may be similarly fun and hilarious, but it’s clear that they were not intended to be enjoyed so ironically. On the flip-side, recent acclaimed video game movies like Detective Pikachu and Sonic aim to be taken more seriously, but they’re just ultimately mediocre popcorn films with boring characters, unimpressive action sequences and questionably-structured stories. However, everyone involved knew exactly what sort of film this was and they did away with pretension to maximize its strengths and make it as enjoyable as possible with tongue planted firmly in cheek throughout. That puts it well above every other video game movie out there.

6.5/10

Retrospective: Jurassic World – Fallen Kingdom (2018)

Welcome back to the Jurassic Park retrospective! In today’s post we’re going to talk about the most recent entry in the franchise to date, 2018’s Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom! After Jurassic World brought the franchise back to life, could Fallen Kingdom successfully keep the momentum going? Read on to find out…

On the one hand, I like that this is a different sort of poster for the Jurassic Park franchise. It’s action packed and actually shows off our characters for once. But on the other hand, I am so annoyed about the heavy blue filter and the pointless sparks in the foreground. These are such lazy poster-design tropes and already were super cliché by the time this movie released.

Production

Shortly after the huge success of Jurassic World (would anyone have predicted at the time that it would become the 3rd highest-grossing film ever?), Universal pictures announced that a sequel would be forthcoming on June 22, 2018. Colin Trevorrow originally considered coming back to direct the sequel, but Jurassic World made him an in-demand director and he was scooped up to direct Star Wars: Episode IX instead. As a result, he decided to take a step away from the franchise and move into a producer role alongside Steven Spielberg and Frank Marshall.

Colin Trevorrow and Derek Connolly developed and wrote the script for the film, which would bring back Chris Pratt’s Owen and Bryce Dallas Howard’s Claire from the previous film. It was initially rumoured that Omar Sy, Ty Simpkins and Jake Johnson could be making a return as well, but this did not pan out. There were also rumours that characters from previous Jurassic Park films could return. Trevorrow and Connolly developed the story over an eight-day road trip. They were inspired by the idea of the unpredictability of humans and dinosaurs being forced into co-existing and wanted to further explore the boundaries of genetic engineering in this universe. Trevorrow has stated that he didn’t want to make Fallen Kingdom yet another movie about dinosaurs chasing people around an island and the dangers of messing with science, he wanted to do something different and explore the consequences of the mistakes which had already been made in previous Jurassic Park films, something which would broaden the scope of the franchise.

J. A. Bayona, who had been previously considered to direct Jurassic World, was the favourite to direct Fallen Kingdom, although he had agreed to direct the sequel to World War Z and wasn’t sure if he’d be able to make it work with his schedule. However, Bayona eventually dropped that project and joined onto Fallen Kingdom after reading the script.

Chris Pratt and Bryce Dallas Howard were already signed on at this point and the only other returning character would be B. D. Wong’s Henry Wu. The new cast were filled out by Rafe Spall, Justice Smith, Daniella Pineda, Ted Levine, James Cromwell and Toby Jones. Casting also went out for a nine-year-old girl, which went to Isabella Sermon as her film debut. Also worth noting was that Geraldine Chaplin, a Bayona regular, was cast in a role. Finally, it was announced that Jeff Goldblum had been secured for a role in the film, and although he was all over the marketing, it would ultimately be little more than an over-glorified cameo.

Filming began in late Febraury 2017. Befitting a film of this size, the production was massive and used several locations. Much of the film was shot in England, while most of the Isla Nublar footage was filmed in Hawaii, and there was even a scene shot in Las Vegas. Whereas Jurassic World overloaded on CGI, Bayona chose to use animatronic dinosaurs whenever possible. This also extended to the action sequences – the scene where the gyrosphere goes over the cliff and starts sinking was achieved through mostly practical effects, as Bryce Dallas Howard and Justice Smith were sent rolling down a track for the fall and then this was spiced together with sequences in a dive tank where the gyrosphere (and actors inside) were actually submerged. It’s a highlight of the film and the way it was shot no doubt contributed to the excitement.

As Universal dictated, Fallen Kingdom released June 22, 2018. Anyone who thought that Jurassic World‘s enormous success was a fluke were surely silenced as Fallen Kingdom grossed $417.7 million domestically and $890.7 million overseas for a total box office haul of $1.308 billion (just shy of it’s predecessor’s $1.67 billion total).

Plot Synopsis

Sometime after Jurassic World, a team of mercenaries infiltrate Isla Nublar to retrieve skeletal remains of the Indominous rex. A submarine crew retrieve a portion of the rib and send it to the surface, but are soon killed by the Mosasaurus. The ground crew are then attacked by the T-rex, but manage to escape only for one of their men to be killed by the Mosasaur as well before it escapes into the ocean.

The film then cuts to the present, where we discover that the volcano on Isla Nublar has become active and will soon erupt and wipe out the dinosaurs on the island. The U.S. Senate debate what to do about the situation, but Ian Malcolm tells them that they should be allowed to die. The Senate agrees and decide that they will not intervene. Meanwhile, we discover that Claire Dearing has taken command of the Dinosaur Protection Group, which seeks to secure their salvation. She is contacted by Benjamin Lockwood, John Hammond’s former partner who helped bring the dinosaurs to life. Lockwood tells Claire that he plans to relocate the dinosaurs to a new island, but he needs her help in order to reactivate the park’s systems and track them successfully. Knowing that Blue, the last velociraptor, will be impossible to track down in time, she seeks out Owen Grady to try to join her in the rescue. While hesitant, Owen agrees and the pair are flown out alongside fellow DPG employees Franklin (a computer whiz) and Zia (a paleoveteranarian). They meet the head of the rescue team, a mercenary named Ken Wheatley, who takes Claire and Franklin to get the park’s tracking back online. He then leads Owen and Zia out to capture Blue. Owen is quickly able to find her, but Wheatley’s men move in too quickly and she panics, which results in a soldier being killed and Blue being shot. Wheatley turns on Owen, tranquilizing him and forcing Zia to join him to save Blue’s life. Meanwhile, Claire and Franklin are locked inside the tracking station and left for dead as the volcano begins to erupt. They manage to escape after a close call with a Baryonyx and reunite with Owen. The trio escape in a gyrosphere with a stampede of dinosaurs as the island explodes around them, just barely making it by riding off a cliff and swimming to a secluded beach. They manage to find Wheatley’s men and discover that they are loading dinosaurs aboard their ship. The trio sneak aboard the ship as the last dinosaurs left on the island are wiped out by the eruption.

We discover that Lockwood’s aide, Eli Mills, has secretly arranged to have the dinosaurs brought to the mansion to be auctioned off to the criminal underworld. He also needs Blue because Dr. Henry Wu has been developing a new weaponized dinosaur, the Indoraptor and requires Blue’s DNA in order to create the finalized version of the creature. Lockwood’s granddaughter, Maisie, discovers this and tries to warn her grandfather. He doesn’t believe her at first, but when he presents Mills with the accusation, Mills murders him as the dinosaurs and guests begin to arrive. Seeing what is happening, Owen and Claire attempt to stop the auction, but are captured by Wheatley, while Franklin is separated from the pair.

The auction then begins and several dinosaurs are sold and transported away. Using some quick thinking, Owen tricks a stygimoloch into breaking them free and then sets it loose in the auction. During the chaos, Wheatley breaks in and accidentally sets the Indoraptor loose in the building. It kills several people before it begins hunting Owen, Claire and Maisie. They are nearly cornered, until Blue arrives and begins fighting the hybrid dinosaur. Blue ultimately prevails and the Indoraptor is impaled on a fossilized triceratops skull.

However, Claire and Owen reunite with Franklin and Zia and soon discover that a gas leak is killing the last remaining dinosaurs trapped in the basement of the mansion. Claire initially decides to let the animals die, but Maisie releases them anyway – Mills revealed that she was a clone of Lockwood’s deceased daughter, not his actual grandchild, so she believes that she has a kinship with the dinosaurs. In any case, the dinosaurs escape into the wilds of America and Mills is killed by the T-rex in the process. Our heroes escape and contend with the new reality of a Jurassic World where humans and dinosaurs are now forced to coexist.

Review

If nothing else, I love that Fallen Kingdom tries to evolve the Jurassic Park formula. I’ve criticized the previous sequels for always devolving into “running and screaming” as dinosaurs chase the protagonists around for an hour. There’s certainly some of that in Fallen Kingdom, but it shakes-up the formula far more than any previous Jurassic Park film and tries to tackle the “bigger ideas” inherent in the premise of genetically-engineered dinosaurs. J. A. Bayona’s direction is also the best we’ve seen in the franchise since Steven Spielberg left the director’s chair. The film’s opening sequence and the sinking gyrosphere aren’t on par with the legendary T-rex escape or the trailers getting knocked over the cliff in the first two films, but they’re still very well executed, exciting and above-average blockbuster action set pieces. Yeah, Fallen Kingdom shakes up the Jurassic Park franchise in some much-needed ways… but to paraphrase a certain famous mathematician: “Your [studio executives] were so preoccupied with whether they could [make a Jurassic Park franchise], they didn’t stop to think if they should.” Jurassic Park needed to change if it was going to continue, but Fallen Kingdom is evidence that it should have just stayed dead.

The main issue with Fallen Kingdom is that its story is Resident Evil-levels of stupid. Within the first few minutes, we have idiocy like no one checking to see if the Mosasaur was still alive and then it escapes because its enclosure is connected to the freaking ocean! Having Wheatley betray Owen and Zia was also super contrived… like, why did they feel the need to try to murder them in the middle of the mission? Owen’s pissed off but as far as he’s concerned they are all on the same side still (not to mention that one of Wheatley’s men just got freaking mauled to death), having Wheatley try to kill Owen just seems like they wanted to make him an evil asshole. And for that matter, are you telling me that Zia doesn’t try to get Wheatley to bring Owen, Claire and Franklin along with them…? Oh right, then we wouldn’t have a bunch of action sequences instead, silly me! Speaking of which, why the hell are the dinosaurs still trying to eat things while the island is literally blowing up around them!? The stupid baryonyx is even lighting itself on fire trying to get to Claire and Franklin, just cut your losses dude! If there was a white chocolate Reese’s within reach and all I had to do was avoid falling lava to get it, I’d peace out, especially if I already got several drops of lava on me in the process!

Imagine this exchange between Trevorrow and Connelly:

“We need an action sequence on the boat, how can we get Claire and Owen in the T-rex cage?”

“Maybe they need a blood transfusion to save Blue?”

“Perfect.”

“But that doesn’t make sense, their blood isn’t the same…”

“Whatever, just make the vet say that they’re both carnivores with two or three fingers, therefore their blood will be compatible. No one will question it.”

Look, I get it, we need an excuse to get this exciting action sequence and I’m okay with it in theory. The thing is, we don’t need an actual explanation – just imply that you don’t know for sure if it will work, take the blood and leave the exact science up to our imaginations when it turns out it’s fine! Just say that the T-rex is safest to extract from because it’s heavily tranquilized and the several other three-fingered predators aboard the boat are not! Bloody hell! Oh and all this culminates with Blue freaking crying because the filmmakers really need us to like her and can’t figure out how to do that with any subtlety.

Dr. Henry Wu: “What the fuck!?”

Then when we get to the mansion, the stupidity just keeps coming. First of all, Lockwood is apparently a complete idiot. Not only is he somehow unaware that there is live dinosaur research going on in his own home, but he confronts Eli Mills and then tells him to turn himself over to the police! Mills, predictably, goes “lol no” and then kills the old bastard. We then get introduced to the Indoraptor and… hoo boy, this thing doesn’t hold a candle to the Indominus Rex in terms of being an effective villain. For one thing, it takes the “weaponized dinosaurs” idea even further and just goes to show why this idea has always been so goddamn stupid. The Indoraptor is hardcoded to pick targets by pointing a gun with a laser sight at them and then pressing a button to issue a sonic code to attack… so in other words, instead of just shooting the gun you already have pointed at a target, you tell the nearby Indoraptor to attack them instead (and that’s the thing, the Indoraptor has to be close to you for the sonic command to work, so it’s not like you can hide a kilometer away from the target and the raptor either). It’s clearly limited in usefulness and the fact that the Indoraptor starts killing everyone as soon as it can makes this idea even more stupid. Oh, but does the Indoraptor escape through clever guile? No, it escapes through Prometheus-levels of contrived idiocy. Wheatley’s given only two character traits – he’s demanding a bonus from Mills because he’s greedy, and he collects teeth from every dinosaurs because he’s an asshole. So he waltzes into the auction after some of the dinosaurs get loose, tranquilizes the Indoraptor and then immediately walks into the cage to steal its teeth!?! Again, I get that the Indoraptor has to escape for the story to progress and that is totally fine… but holy fuck movie, this is how you unleash your big villain? It doesn’t make the Indoraptor look clever or dangerous, it makes Wheatley look like an utter moron. It is far and away the stupidest moment in any Jurassic Park film.

Oh, and the whole reason half the plot revolves around recapturing Blue is certifiably insane. First of all, the Indoraptor apparently needs a mother to pacify it and because it’s part raptor it can view Blue as that mother… but also they need Blue’s DNA because they need to add that to the Indoraptor because Blue was controllable and the Indoraptor isn’t, despite the fact that they share the same velociraptor DNA… bloody hell, it doesn’t make sense and it’s the sort of thing you can miss because the movie basically drops the whole plotline about halfway through.

Then of course the movie ends with the dinosaurs escaping. The movie directly ties this into the ethical questions that were brought up in the opening of the film, as Claire has to decide whether the dinosaurs should be allowed to die, despite beginning the film trying to save them. She decides that they should die, but then Maisie gives the entire world a middle finger and unleashes them into the wild. I’m actually fine that Maisie is a clone, it’s a sensible and inevitable development in a world where you can clone dinosaurs back to live. The idea is barely explored though and ultimately feels like it was only introduced as an excuse for someone to willingly choose to unleash the dinosaurs on humanity. Hilariously, within ten seconds of being freed the dinosaurs indiscriminately murder three people (sure, these people captured the dinosaurs in the first place, but the dinosaurs don’t know that, they’d have been just as happy to stomp on a newborn baby).

Although maybe then we’d have the Dinosaurs Attack! movie we’ve always deserved. Side-note, I had the complete Dinosaurs Attack! card collection when I was in high school and they were gnarly. I lost them sometime in the last decade, much to my sorrow.

That’s the thing about Fallen Kingdom, it has some legitimately great ideas and the plot beats make sense in isolation, but whenever the film needs to make something happen, it chooses to do so in the stupidest possible way and assumes we won’t notice or care. This even extends to the ending – oh no, dinosaurs are loose in North America! But… think about it for a few seconds and it’s not as bad as it seems. Several species, especially the particularly dangerous ones, don’t have any breeding pairs so at the very worst this problem is going to sort itself out within a decade or two (and that’s making the very huge assumption that the militias or US military aren’t going to do something about a single T-rex going around killing people and livestock; hell, even without getting into anti-material rifles, the real world already has anti-T-rex rounds… I give it a week tops before the T-rex gets mounted above a rich redneck’s mantle).

Again, this isn’t Dinosaurs Attack!, but I wish it was.

Fallen Kingdom is also not helped by its characters, all of which suck. Owen is still the same as he ever was, although they have made him a bit funnier (“If I don’t make it back, remember you’re the one who made me come here” got a legitimate laugh out of me) and toned down his alpha male bullshit somewhat (although they still reintroduce him by having him build his own cabin in the wilderness because he’s a manly man). Claire has had all the sexist overtones of her character shaved away, but she has been turned into a personality-less character. She’s capable, but she rarely does anything and she (like the other characters) has no real arc or development to speak of. Like, sure, she decides to let the dinosaurs die at the end, but it doesn’t come across like she’s learned anything or changed her mind about the dinosaurs, it’s just that the circumstances are now different (rehousing the dinosaurs onto an isolated island is way different than unleashing them into the wilds of America where they will definitely fuck people up). At least Trevorrow and Connelly don’t force in an overt rekindled love subplot, but some sort of arc for the characters would have been nice.

As for the new characters, both Franklin and Zia are insufferable. Franklin’s the obligatory computer guy, but he serves his purpose within the first half hour and then spends the rest of the movie screaming and getting shuffled around uselessly. Zia’s a different sort of annoying. They never confirm it in the film, but she’s clearly a stereotypically coded lesbian, which means the movie has to make her tough and stand-offish… but honestly, it just makes her come across as an asshole. She just feels like corporate, performative, “woke” box-ticking, especially because a deleted scene confirmed that she was indeed a lesbian. Somehow they fuck this up twice-over tough, because deleting it is cowtowing to conservative international film markets and because the scene itself is fucking stupid (nothing says “woke” like having your lesbian character mention out of nowhere that she thinks Chris Pratt is fuckable, holy shit). For further evidence of this, I’m convinced that Trevorrow and Connelly were aware of the backlash Jurassic World had about its sexism, so they made sure to pass the Bechdel test by having Zia and Claire talk to a female senator about the dinosaurs in their introductory scene. Can’t criticize us now, liberals! This is, of course, why the Bechdel test is more of a guideline about sexism in film rather than a rule, because any “wokeness” in Fallen Kingdom is performative at best.

Mills makes for a suitably slimy corporate villain. He’s nothing special, but Rafe Spall makes him eminently hateable, especially when he goes into his bullshit moral equivalency speeches (which, I’m sure, were not meant to come across as bullshit but here we are). As for Maisie… she’s fine, I guess. Again, she doesn’t get any real development and mostly just sneaks around the mansion. The fact that she’s a clone also doesn’t really seem to matter. Like… she’s a little girl either way, she’s grown up like any other child, what difference does it make? I do like the theory that the Indoraptor has human DNA and that it wants Maisie to be its mother. It’s a pretty interesting idea and there’s enough evidence in the film that I’d be willing to bet it was cut very late in post-production.

Let’s be honest, if there’s anything that sets Maisie apart as inhuman it’s that she grew up in an extravagantly wealthy household and therefore deserves the guillotine.

Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom was a depressing experience for me. I hated it when I first saw it in theatres and rewatching it for this retrospective was just tiring. It’s made all the worse by the fact that the direction is the best since Spielberg left and that film tries to take risks and shake-up the formula, things I usually love in long-running franchises like this. Unfortunately, the writing completely tanks it, taking a film with interesting ideas and dumbing them down for the lowest possible common denominator. The longer this series goes on, the more it seems like Jurassic Park should have been a stand-alone story. At this point they’re having to contort the franchise into unrecognizable shapes in order to keep it alive when what should be done is put it out of its misery.

4/10

So where does the franchise go from here? Well, the next movie is slated for 2022 with the title Jurassic World: Dominion. After nuking his Hollywood goodwill on The Book of Henry and losing the Star Wars franchise as a result, Colin Trevorrow is back as director. It sounds like a bunch of actors from the franchise’s history are making returns, but I just can’t muster any excitement for this franchise. It’s the sort of thing I’ll probably continue to watch out of obligation but… like… we already know it’s not going to be good. Oh and Trevorrow and Universal sure suck at keeping their film crews from getting COVID-19, eh?

Retrospective: War for the Planet of the Apes (2017)

Welcome back to the Planet of the Apes retrospective! In today’s post we’re going to be looking at the finale of the Caesar trilogy and (as of now) the latest entry in the franchise, 2017’s War for the Planet of the Apes! Given the top-tier quality of the previous two films, could Matt Reeves deliver another masterpiece and make the Apes reboot one of the greatest trilogies of all time? Read on to find out…

Caesar is not fucking around.

Production

Even before the release of Dawn, plans were being put in place for the third installment in the reboot trilogy. Impressed by his work on Dawn, Matt Reeves was confirmed to be directing the next film and writing it alongside Mark Bomback once more. Unlike the last two films, Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver weren’t involved in the writing of the story or script and instead served as producers on the project. Reeves and Bomback were also given far more time and leeway so that they could maintain the high quality of the reboot trilogy. In fact, while they initially set the release for summer 2016, they pushed the film’s release date back a full year in order to give Reeves enough time to make the film he wanted.

There’s a post-credits stinger at the end of Dawn which implies that Koba survived his fall at the end of the film. Reeves and Bomback briefly flirted with the idea of resurrecting Koba, but thankfully they concluded that there was nothing that he could add to the story by being alive. THANK GOD. Blockbuster films always try to repeat what already worked, but Koba’s story has been told, dragging it out would be an awful idea. It would be like if Pirates of the Carribean brought back Davy Jones or if Star Wars brought back Emperor Palpatine, but what kind of idiot would do that…?

Anyway, here’s a picture of Disney’s mascot for some unspecified reason.

In May 2015 the title of the film was revealed to be “War of the Planet of the Apes“, but was changed to “War for the Planet of the Apes” by the end of the year (which might be why I kept misspelling the title of this film all through my writing of this retrospective). Andy Serkis was, of course, returning as Caesar once more, while Judy Greer, Karin Konoval and Terry Notary would reprise their roles as the apes Cornelia, Maurice and Rocket, respectively. Tony Kebbell would also return as Koba, appearing in visions to haunt Caesar. Woody Harrelson was revealed to have been cast as the film’s antagonist, while Steve Zahn was cast as an ape and Amiah Miller was cast as a young human character.

Once again, filming took place around Vancouver, British Columbia and Weta Digital provided the film’s visual effects. War grossed $146.9 million domestically and $343.8 million internationally for a worldwide gross of $490.7 million. While less than Dawn, it was once again a solid haul for the Apes franchise.

Plot Synopsis

Two years have passed since the end of Dawn. Caesar’s apes and the U.S. military have been engaged in a bloody war. After an attack on an ape outpost is repelled by the apes, the captives are brought before Caesar. Among their ranks is a gorilla named Red, an ape who was loyal to Koba. The humans derogatively refer to these traitor-apes as “donkeys” and use them to help exterminate the other apes. Caesar decides to free the human captives as an olive branch to the Colonel leading the U.S. forces. As the humans are freed, Red escapes, wounding a gorilla named Winter in the process. Shortly thereafter, Blue Eyes and Rocket return to the apes’ encampment and reveal that they have found a new home for the apes across the desert. Winter insists that they need to leave before the Colonel attacks them, but Caesar says that they need time to prepare for the journey.

During the night, the Colonel leads a squad of humans into the apes’ base and executes Cornelia and Blue Eyes, believing him to be Caesar. Caesar is thrown into a rage, but the Colonel escapes before he can be killed. It is also discovered that Winter has gone missing during the raid. Fearing further attacks, the apes begin their journey to their new home, but Caesar decides to strike his own path. He leaves his last son, Cornelius, with Blue Eyes’ wife, Lake, and goes alone to hunt down the Colonel. Rocket, Maurice and Luca follow Caesar and join him on his journey, much to Caesar’s displeasure. On their way to the humans’ camp, they encounter a lone soldier, who Caesar kills when he tries to pull a gun on them. They find the soldier’s young daughter hiding nearby and find that she is mute. They bring her along with them, reasoning that she will die on her own if they do not, and Maurice names her “Nova”.

When the group reaches the humans’ camp, they find that the soldiers are packing up to leave and that the Colonel is already gone. They encounter Winter at the base and discover that he sold them out to the Colonel and that he believes that the humans are going to meet with the rest of the U.S. military to wipe out Caesar’s apes one and for all. When Winter tries to alert the guards, Caesar kills him. The apes then follow the human convoy to try to find their base. Along the way, they find that a group of soldiers are executed and left by the road. One of these humans is still alive and the apes discover that he is mute like Nova.

As they move further north, Caesar loses track of the convoy in the snow and they climb a radio tower to try to get a better vantage point. While they do so, a mysterious figure steals one of their horses. The apes give chase and track him down to a ski resort, where they discover that he is a fellow ape called “Bad Ape”. Bad Ape is the first intelligent ape they have encountered who isn’t a part of Caesar’s group, having been mutated by viral exposure to the Simian Flu. Bad Ape reveals that he knows the location of a nearby military base and, after some convincing, agrees to take them there. Caesar and Luca attempt to scout the base, but are spotted by sentries. The sentries are killed but Luca dies in the struggle. Not wanting any more of his companions to die for his cause, Caesar moves on the base alone, but discovers that the Colonel intercepted the ape tribe as they attempted to escape the forest and has brought them all here. Caesar is captured by Red and forced to start building a wall to protect the base along with the other apes. Caesar tries to inspire an uprising, but the Colonel puts this down violently and begins torturing Caesar in punishment.

Caesar is then brought before the Colonel, who reveals that his forces aren’t joining with the rest of the U.S. military – they’re coming to destroy him. The Colonel reveals that the Simian Flu has mutated and is causing humans to regress and lose their ability to speak. In order to halt the spread, the Colonel has been executing any man who develops the mutation, including his own son. Meanwhile, Rocket, Maurice, Bad Ape and Nova discover a sewer system beneath the base and realize they can use it to enact a rescue. Freezing and dying of exposure, Caesar regains his hope and strength when Nova sneaks into the base and gives him food, water and a doll. Fearing that Nova will be found and captured, Rocket strolls into the base as a decoy and is thrown in with the other apes, who begin enacting their escape plan.

The next morning, the Colonel is surprised to find Caesar still alive. He finds Nova’s doll and takes it with him, curious where Caesar got such a thing. The apes then spend the workday figuring out which tunnels will lead into the apes’ cages. They find that they can free the adult apes through the tunnels, but the children will have to be freed above ground. That night, the apes begin their escape and, once freed, Caesar helps the children out of their cage and into the tunnel. However, Caesar once more turns away from his people and goes after the Colonel just as the U.S. military arrives and battle erupts. He finds that the Colonel has been infected with the mutated Simian Flu through Nova’s doll and, seeing the Colonel in such a pitiful state, Caesar is finally able to overcome his rage, allowing the Colonel to commit suicide rather than kill him himself.

Outside, the battle rages between the two human forces and the fleeing apes are caught in the crossfire. Caesar tries to destroy a fuel tank to clear the way for the apes, but is shot by an arrow. Red sees all of this and finally decides to do the right thing. He kills a soldier who is about to kill Caesar and is killed in retaliation. However, the act gives Caesar time to blow up the fuel tank and annihilate the last of the Colonel’s men in the process. The U.S. military then advance on the base and discover the apes. Before they can attack, an avalanche is triggered. The apes flee into the trees and ride out the avalanche, but the exposed humans are wiped out. The apes then regroup and cross the desert to their new home, a sheltered valley paradise. While the apes celebrate, Caesar reveals to Maurice that he is dying of the arrow wound he sustained. Caesar slips away, content that he has led his people to salvation.

Review

Perhaps it should be unsurprising, but War is a dark turn for the Apes reboot trilogy. There is a persistent grimness throughout the film, which extends beyond the story itself into the film’s muted colour palette. Of course, going grimdark to try to be taken seriously can make your story feel juvenile if not done right, but I’d make the argument that Matt Reeves has crafted the most mature film in the franchise with War. The darkness in this film is less about bad things happening and more about the emotional turmoil which drives Caesar throughout this film. This is somewhat at odds with this film’s marketing and even its title, which promise a climactic showdown between apes and humans similar to Battle for the Planet of the Apes. However, aside from one skirmish in the opening scene and a battle between two human armies which happens mostly off-screen in the finale, War is pointedly uninterested in portraying war as a source of thrills (which is a trap that “war is bad” movies like Saving Private Ryan and Hacksaw Ridge fall into). As fun as it would have been to see this war play out more directly, if we’re being honest what we get in War is far more interesting. Rather, the titular “war” is the one raging within Caesar to determine the course his people will take in the future.

Through Rise and Dawn, Caesar was always an idealistic figure, one who tried to forge the path that would balance what was best for human and ape alike. This outlook set him apart from other apes because he had been raised by them and knew that they weren’t an inherently evil species, whereas Koba had been traumatized by them and viewed them all as a threat. However, when the Colonel kills Caesar’s wife and son after he showed mercy to the Colonel’s men, his idealism is shattered and he is consumed with a desire to lash out in vengeance. Caesar becomes straight-up cold-blooded, gleefully massacring human and ape alike that get in the way of his path to vengeance. He kills Nova’s father in self-defence, but he doesn’t feel any remorse and doesn’t rush to try to talk it out with him. He kills Winter, nominally for trying to alert the guards in the human camp, but it’s obvious that he’s actually doing it because Winter caused his family to be killed. He even starts hallucinating Koba taunting him, reminding him that under Caesar’s own philosophy “Ape must not kill ape”. It becomes obvious that Caesar’s quest for vengeance is fruitless – killing Nova’s father just creates an orphan and his actions are alienating him from his friends and the apes who look to him for guidance. Ultimately though, his ill-guided quest is causing Caesar to lose sight of the bigger picture. This is most clearly demonstrated when a captive Caesar tries to kill the Colonel, who berates him, asking him what he thinks would happen if he succeeded. If Caesar accomplished his goal he would be killed along with all of the apes, but his rage is blinding him from what is actually important to him.

Considering that this film came out during the Trump’s turbulent first year, it’s impossible not to draw parallels between the Colonel’s philosophy and Trumpism (even if Matt Reeves insists that these parallels are unintentional). Like… the Colonel is building a useless wall with the apes as his slave labourers, caging the apes up like an ICE detention facility, and the Colonel develops a nationalistic, fascist cult of personality around his vision of human purity. The Colonel claims to hate the apes because he believes that they will inevitably conquer the world if they aren’t stopped. He also views the speech and cognition-affecting mutation of the Simian Flu to be so dangerous that he killed his own son to prevent it from spreading and “corrupting” his pure humanity. However, for all his bluster about a long-term plan to save humanity, the Colonel has the same short-sighted weakness as Caesar – he is so set in his beliefs that he’ll destroy himself, his men, the rest of the U.S. military and the apes in order to see his ideal of humanity through, expecting divine intervention to see him through in what he calls a “holy war”. Ironically, the Colonel succumbs before his holy war even begins, becoming infected with the mutated virus and is put into such a pathetic state that he has to beg Caesar to kill him. However, Caesar finally overcomes his own short-sighted desires at this moment and relents. However, the Colonel is so set in his convictions that he kills himself rather than become what he would view as “less than human”. As you can see, you could write it off War as a typical “revenge bad” narrative, but I’d argue that it is executed well and at least we get to see exactly why revenge is so destructive and what’s being missed by fixating on it.

Another fascinating aspect of War is dehumanization. The Colonel brands all his soldiers and “donkeys” like cattle, burning their flesh with an “AO” symbol for Alpha and Omega. The soldiers under his leadership are fanatical, excited go to war with the U.S. military to see the Colonel’s will through and are rudderless without his commands. They also dehumanize those infected with the mutated Simian Flu, executing their own comrades who become infected and saying that they’re just beasts. However, Nova shows that those who become infected are still human, capable of compassion, sadness, joy and more than worthy of life – just one that’s different than what the Colonel believes is fundamentally “human”.

The most interesting example of dehumanization in the film though is for characters who aren’t human at all – the “donkeys”. The derisive nickname that these apes have been given is already dehumanizing enough, but the humans treat them as little more than more useful versions of pack mules. The donkeys fear retribution for supporting Koba’s coup, or fear the Colonel so much that they turn to the humans for refuge, aiding in the murder of their fellow apes in order to stay alive. It is reiterated several times throughout the film that this survival is temporary, as the Colonel will surely purge them from his ranks once he has won his war, as there is no place for apes in his vision of the future. In case it wasn’t obvious, this brings some potential racial interpretations of the narrative into play (it is somewhat offensive to suggest that apes would be used to represent blacks, latinos or various other marginalized groups, although the original Apes films did intentionally draw parallels so it’s not without merit). Within this film, donkeys like Winter and Red are viewed as straight-up race traitors, propping up a system which seeks to destroy them (again, pretty prophetic for a film that didn’t intentionally draw parallels to Trumpism). This ties into the theme of short-sightedness that Caesar and the Colonel have, as the donkeys are effectively expediting their own demise for the people that are destroying them. That said, the film avoids the trap of portraying the donkeys as worse than the humans. Obviously the film portrays them as bad for supporting the people killing their own kind and who treat them like garbage, but you get why they do it. Red even gets a whole redemption arc and is sympathetic by the end.

Twentieth Century Fox’s “War for the Planet of the Apes.”

All that said, I don’t believe that War is intended to be a race narrative, although it does have some parallels and borrows some imagery to make its point. Rather, it is intended to be an Exodus allegory. Unlike the Trumpism parallels, this was actually intended by Reeves and Bomback and is even more overt. Caesar is overtly meant to be a Moses figure, from being raised among the humans before leading his own people out of captivity, to intervening when an ape is being whipped, to dying just before the apes reach their literal promised land. There are elements that even feel like they have a biblical grandeur to them, such as the avalanche which buries the human military at the end like it was an act of divine intervention. These biblical parallels seem appropriate for the grandiose conclusion of a trilogy like this, especially since it cements Caesar himself as a prophetic figure whose legacy will carry on through ape society going forward.

War is also buoyed by its characters. Rise and Dawn are often criticized for their boring human leads, but War does away with them almost entirely, only really giving the Colonel and Nova any real prominence. Instead, the apes who have been with Caesar since the beginning are finally given expanded roles (oh my God, you didn’t have to shove a boring human in for us to make an emotional connection!?!). I was giddy when I found out that Rocket and Maurice were going to be part of the film’s main cast, after being disappointed that they were put on the backburner during Dawn (which is particularly egregious for Rocket considering his own son is killed in that film). The ape supporting cast are great. Maurice is such a goddamn sweetheart, always there to lend a wise word and even tells Caesar that he wants to accompany him to make sure that he “makes it back” – both physically and spiritually. Rocket, meanwhile, has grown from the arrogant bully we saw in Rise into Caesar’s most dependable friend, someone who is courageous and defends others selflessly. Of Caesar’s companions, Luca is the most underserved (and hell, was in Dawn but I couldn’t tell you where or when), but at least he gets to display a softer side during a moment of beauty and compassion with Nova before dying moments later. As for the other apes, Bad Ape is certainly the most prominent and adds several moments of much-needed levity to keep things from getting to morose. He also presents some fascinating new developments, being the first intelligent ape to be discovered from outside of Caesar’s group. Apparently the Simian Flu could be transmitted from humans to apes, which caused them to become more intelligent. Inevitably, this means that there are colonies of apes elsewhere in the world just waiting to be discovered. Even beyond the implications of Bad Ape’s existence, the character is a real joy. Steve Zahn is perfect for the role, giving him a strong mischievous personality, but slowly revealing a kind-hearted and truly sad side to the character. Lastly there is Lake, Blue Eyes’ mate who steps up and becomes a leader among the apes when Caesar is on his quest for vengeance. She even saves Caesar’s life with some quick thinking and watches out for Cornelius during the film. I’d say that she is unfortunately undercooked in this film, but there’s enough groundwork laid that I think she’d have a lot of potential in any sequels.

I feel like I’ve said plenty about the Colonel (although I’ll reiterate that Woody Harrelson makes for a great villain, by far the best human antagonist in the reboot trilogy), but I haven’t said much about Nova. For a good chunk of the film, Nova comes across as a burden, a character whose existence only symbolizes how far Caesar has fallen from his ideals. However, as the film goes on she comes to sympathize with her companions and shows that the mutated virus doesn’t make someone less human. When she sneaks into the Colonel’s base and gives Caesar food and water, she takes on an angelic role, restoring a bit of Caesar’s own idealism about peaceful coexistence between humans and apes in the process. She even does an “Apes together strong!” motion, reiterating what I said in Dawn, that the real ideal is “Everyone stronger together!” She’s great, a ray of sunshine in a very dark film.

I also want to note some more elements to this film which are at the top of their game. Andy Serkis puts in the best performance of his career here as Caesar and it’s criminal that he was snubbed during awards season. Reeves’ direction is great once again, ensuring that he will be a sought-after blockbuster director for years to come. Finally, the special effects in this movie are flawless. Dawn had a few shaky moments, but I was actively looking for bad effects in this movie and couldn’t find any. This is likely due to the longer post-production this film was afforded, but the apes look incredible and photo-realistic. Weta really outdid themselves on this film.

All that said, there are a few really annoying issues that I have with War. First of all… goddammit, are we seriously hinging this entire plot on fridging Caesar’s wife and kid? This is especially egregious because Cornelia has been with us since Rise and has done absolutely jack shit (and despite being played by freaking Judy Greer). Similarly, Blue Eyes’ Dawn arc poised him to be a future leader for the apes, so killing him off so early just feels like the character is left underserved. It also makes it really obvious that all of the films in this trilogy were thought up independently, with sequel hooks being used instead of any actual pre-planning. It isn’t a major issue, but fridging is such a lazy, overdone and even offensive trope that it’s disappointing that it was utilized here.

My second issue is that War brings back the overt references to the franchise’s past. It’s not nearly as bad as Rise was, but in Dawn it was a breath of fresh air that they allowed the references to be subtle and organic. On the lighter side of things, we have the Colonel’s “Alpha and Omega” cult of personality, a reference to the Alpha and Omega bomb from the original series films Beneath and Battle. It’s a bit of a strained reference, but at least this one’s a bit creative – instead of just recreating the bomb, this is a more symbolic reference, alluding to the Colonel’s holy war and implying that his movement is destructive enough to doom the entire world. But then on the other side of things… fucking hell, Caesar named his second son Cornelius? Cornelia was already an overt reference to Cornelius, but you had to go and double-down on that exact same reference again? Why? And for that matter why did we have to spend two separate scenes to justify why Maurice would call his human companion “Nova” in reference to Linda Harrison’s character? Does Maurice even know what a nova is, or does he just name people after random car ornaments he is given…? To make matters worse, all these references to Nova and Cornelius have caused confusion amongst some fans who believe that they’re younger versions of their namesakes from the original Planet of the Apes. Well, unless this reboot trilogy is planning on remaking the original film again and moving its timeline up significantly, that is impossible considering that the original film takes place in 3978 (…or possibly 3955). Just… goddammit, give your new characters original names, stop referencing the past for pointless nostalgia!

The final thing which annoys me about War is that the plot begins to strain credulity towards the end. It’s bad enough when Nova just strolls into the military base (which, may I remind you, is preparing for an attack coming any day now) and gives Caesar food and water without anyone noticing. The only way I can justify this is that the Colonel implies that the soldiers may have their children with them and so it wouldn’t be weird to see a random child wandering the base, but we never actually see any so they may not even be at the base at all. On top of that, the avalanche wiping out the entire U.S. military is pretty hard to swallow. Like, sure, it feels like divine intervention, but the fact that the entire military advanced on the base and then managed to get themselves killed to a man in the process is excessively convenient. Even if you could ignore all that, having Caesar dying from a wound he sustained in battle for what must have been a week’s journey across the desert at least, only to have no one notice is ridiculous. Even worse, if they had noticed, someone surely would have been able to treat it and maybe even help him survive, right!? Again, it fits the biblical feel of the story, but it’s overly convenient and feels like it could have been justified better.

Those quibbles aside, I love War. It is definitely my favourite entry in the Apes reboot trilogy and easily cements this as one of the greatest trilogies of all time. For all its darkness, War doesn’t forget to have fun, nor does it revel in nihilism. It ultimately is about hope for a future where people of all kinds can live in harmony together, as Caesar would have wanted.

9/10

So, where does Planet of the Apes go from here? Well, before I get into any official news, I’d just like to give my own ideas for where it could/should go. If there was a direct sequel, I’d like to see Lake’s role expanded, maybe even making her the protagonist. However, I feel like a sequel should be set a hundred or more years in the future, when Caesar’s ideals have already been twisted and humans are being vilified. It’s about time for Apes films to go back to having human characters as the real focal point, especially if the series is aiming to go back to the original. And speaking of which, my ideal, long-term vision for the franchise would be to make an alternate timeline following from the original Planet of the Apes. Back when I was a kid, I imagined that the Apes sequels would deal with Taylor and Nova’s children establishing a new human society and eventually taking back the planet for humanity. I’d like to see this idea play out for real, giving us an alternate timeline where Earth is not destroyed and instead the humans slowly regain their power and fight back against the apes. Given the way that this reboot trilogy has gone, I’d want one sequel where this colony is established and is violently fighting against the apes, only to be driven out in desperation. Then at the end, in a huge twist, have the humans encounter cross the forbidden zone and discover the descendants of Caesar’s ape colony who live side-by-side with humans in peace. After all, Caesar’s living on the west coast, whereas the original Apes is on the east coast, so it would make sense if they are different societies. This would lead to conflict in a sequel since the humans don’t trust the apes and would need time to come to their side, while the apes would struggle to come to the conclusion that they need to come into conflict with other apes due to their divergent ideologies. It would also mean that this trilogy’s message of “Everyone stronger together” would get a chance to actually play out and we could even get a happy ending when this is all said and done.

So those are my pie-in-the-sky ideas for an Apes continuation, but what news have we actually heard so far? Well… remember how I criticized Disney for being a bunch of limp-dick hacks with their franchises earlier? Well… they bought 20th Century Fox and the Apes franchise along with it and have already announced that there are more films on the way which would be set in the same timeline as the reboot trilogy. It has been announced that a new Apes film is in production, directed by Wes Ball of… oh fucking hell, the Maze Runner guy? Well, at least Ball’s film will be following “Caesar’s legacy”, implying that it is indeed going to be set decades after War and will deal with the corruption of Caesar’s ideals. Fingers crossed that he can pull it off and that Disney give this venerable franchise the respect it deserves.