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Left Behind: The Movie

2001, Starring Kirk Cameron, Brad Johnson and Janaya Stephens. Directed by Vic Sarin (Cloud Ten).

Easily one of the biggest homegrown breakaway hits of the modern era of Canadian genre film, Left Behind: The Movie may also be one of the most painfully underwhelming. Based on a best-selling series of Christian novels, Left Behind is a fundamentalist Christian film starring ex-sitcom star Kirk Cameron and his wife, Chelsea Noble, about a television reporter who witnesses the Rapture while on an airplane, in which the righteous believers ascend to heaven, while the others are forced to live under the Anti-Christ's iron thumb.

The story behind the film may be actually more interesting than the end result; the unlikely tale of two Jewish-Canadian brothers who briefly became the kings of Christian fundamentalist filmmaking. Based out of Niagara Falls, Ontario, Peter and Paul Lalonde got their start under the Cloud Ten Pictures banner with a quadrology of loosely related films about the Rapture, each increasingly better budgeted, with bigger B-stars. Apocalypse (1998) is the post-rapture story about two reporters from the "World News Network" who try to save the earth from a rising political figure they think is the Anti-Christ. Made for a fraction of Left Behind and rife with stock footage, Apocalypse was first offered as a premium for viewers willing to contribute to preacher Jack Van Impe's TV show, This Week in Bible Prophecy.

When the brothers found they had a surprise hit on their hands, they quickly followed up their success with Revelation (1999), a sequel in which the Anti-Christ (played by Canadian Nick Mancuso) has formed the World Government of One Nation Earth only to be opposed by an underground Christian movement led by Helen Hannah (Leigh Lewis). The third film, Tribulation (2000), has Hannah helping her police detective brother, played by Gary Busey, question his lack of faith. All the loose strings are tied up in Judgement (2001), starring Corbin Bernsen and Mr T(!), in which Helen Hannah is put on trial by the ruler to be executed for hatred of the human race. During the trial, she has to convince her own lawyer of the existence of God. Using this strategy of packaging biblical prophecy as popcorn-munching entertainment Cloud Ten has reportedly sold an astounding 5 million VHS and DVD copies in more than 30 countries and scored a distribution deal with Sony.

The brother's early success led to the licensing and filming of the first book (of 16!) in the Left Behind series, in which the Rapture occurs, leaving only the dirty laundry of true believers behind. But the one-time skeptics still stuck on Earth--who come to be known as "Tribulation Force"--must face their lack of faith in light of new evidence, while preparing for a new battle as the Anti-Christ rises under the prophecies set forth in the Bible's Book of Revelations.

Real-life evangelical Kirk Cameron plays TV journalist Buck Williams, whose coverage of solution to world hunger is sidelined after he emerges as the self-styled truthseeker of this small band of non-believers, including airline pilot Rayford Steele (Brad Johnson), his daughter Chloe (Janaya Stephens), flight attendant Hattie Durham (Chelsea Noble) and religious scholar Bruce (Clarence Gilyard). As these heathens try to figure out how to live life without their loved ones, they also must face Nicolae Carpathia (Gordon Currie). a new shadowy figure rising to power in Europe. Could he, in fact, be the Anti-Christ? Does the pope wear a hat?

Shot in only 20 days, Left Behind was made with a reported budget of $17.4 million, more than double what most Canadian films are budgeted at. And yet there's still a palpable cheapness about the film, which seems to blow much of its money on an opening CGI-assisted jet attack on Israel that quickly moves into the Rapture itself. But once Buck and the Tribulation Force take centre stage, the film slowly gives way to a sparse yet typical political thriller that touches on every hoary old cliché imaginable--stolen computer discs, trips to the United Nations, secret car bombs and CIA contacts. Though it targets a specific religious audience, Left Behind never quite rises above the level of a typical B-sci-fi action film, only with a distinct message.

Problem is, that cash-strapped approach didn't really fly. Though still more successful than most Canadian films, Left Behind didn't become the North American smash it aspired to be, in some cases disappointing Fundamentalist fans by straying from the tone of the original books. An attempt to turn the grassroots success of the DVD into a string of theatrical dates by appealing to the Christian community to champion the film as a potential conversion too fizzled. As a result, Cloud Ten's eventual sequels Left Behind II: Tribulation Force (2002) and Left Behind: World at War (2005) were released direct to video with much less fanfare.

Even for non-Christian viewers, there's a lot of obvious issues with the film--mostly that it's slow-moving and awkwardly plotted, and its maddeningly literal nods to scriptural prophecy are incredibly distracting. As few watching the film would be unfamiliar with the basic premise of Left Behind, it's curious that Paul Lalonde, who co-wrote the script, structures it as a mystery about what's happened to the missing people and what these events are leading to. And in this film, they really don't lead to much. The climax is Buck's too-late conversion to Christianity, a moment that lacks emotional punch and tension and serves almost entirely to set the stage for a battle to be played out over a series of sequels. As a story intended to turn non-believers on to Jesus, its value is questionable, but as a film, it falls flat, an unsatisfying tale in which the audience is always two steps ahead of the protagonists.

Since the release of Left Behind: World at War, the Lalondes have been relatively quiet on the filmmaking front. But it appears that the brothers' biggest brainwave may have been simply snatching up the rights to the books so early. Since announcing a plan to remake the franchise almost a decade ago, Paul Lalonde, now working without his sibling, is still attempting to reboot with a bigger budget and bigger stars that could, if production stays north of the border, end up as one of Canada's biggest box office smashes. But with little to show in the last several years other than some problematic films and a handful of rumours, it's now these one-time Christian film moguls who should worry about being left behind.

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