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