It’s been a while. I’ve started back at the Manitoban doing something very different, so that’s taken up a lot of time. I’m also applying to grad schools, a process that from what I’ve seen and heard is infinitely more stressful than actually doing a master’s degree.
I managed to steal away enough time to see the movie Left Behind this weekend. It still seems hard to believe that this is a real thing—if you want to give your Rapture movie mainstream credibility (as they apparently did), Nicolas Cage is a puzzling choice for lead actor. He has ascended to a higher plane of existence and cannot appear onscreen with mortal actors, even such luminaries as Chad Michael Murray and what’s her face, without appearing photoshopped in. The ontological whiplash alone is worth the price of admission.
They appear to have blown the entire budget on Cage, which means that there is little room left for such expenses as effects, writing, or a cast. This makes it a B-movie of a kind rarely seen in theatres nowadays, which means that if you’re looking to be entertained by wooden acting, unconvincing graphics, or bathetic and oddly composed shots, then you’re in for a treat.
Unfortunately, the movie takes a minor subplot from the early part of the novel and blows it up into feature length, which means that a lot of the real fun stuff with the Antichrist and the United Nations didn’t make the cut. It also means that the second half of the movie is pretty much a wash, once the characters have accepted that the Rapture has happened and begun to focus on the practical problem of getting the plane back on the ground safely.
Fred Clark has famously dissected the series page by page and frame by frame to show how its literary failings are necessitated by the narcissistic theology underlying belief in the Rapture and the End Times (a couple personal favourites: here, here, and here). There’s not much of that in evidence here, but that’s probably because there is hardly a hint of End Times theology in the movie. The Rapture happens, sure, but it’s treated more as an inexplicable disaster than a religious event. There are Christians, but it seems unlikely that anyone, even the most die-hard Left Behind fan, would not be annoyed by them. They don’t even attempt to make Nicolas Cage’s character seem unsympathetic for distancing himself from his Bible-thumping wife.
The result is a movie that is much more watchable than the 2000 Kirk Cameron vehicle, but that is stripped almost entirely of the peculiar worldview that is what makes the rest of the series so entertaining. It’s good for an evening of laughs, not so good as an entry into the politico-theological bestiary.
You have to respect Roland Emmerich. Over a long and distinguished career he’s regularly put out exciting, well-made thrillers full of iconic moments. He’s basically Michael Bay with a brain. His movies are crammed with explosions, balls to the wall action, and witty one-liners, but it’s all woven together with care and craftsmanship, a solid filmmaking technique backed up by an eye for crowd-pleasing setpieces. Even when he’s working with material that is stupid (The Day After Tomorrow) or forgettable (2012), he still manages to land on his feet with a level of grace that few others could manage.
White House Down is a bit of an experiment for him: what if the destruction of a famous landmark, instead of being the most heavily promoted shot from the movie, was the whole movie?
The movie is built around a familiar stock structure and evolves exactly as you’d expect. Channing Tatum (what is the world coming to that we now have action stars with names like Channing Tatum?) is being interviewed for a job with the US Secret Service—which apparently likes to save money by skipping the extensive background check and just spending a few minutes with the candidate in a back office like McDonald’s. Just before he leaves, a group of armed men set off a bomb and take over the building. They kill off some of the world’s most highly trained guards like a bunch of chumps and pretty soon Tatum is the only dude left who’s bad enough to save the president. This is complicated by the fact that his eleven-year-old daughter had accompanied him to the White House to take a tour and is being held hostage by the bad guys.
Emmerich is probably the only man alive who could have so much fun with the setting. There is, I shit you not, a high-speed chase scene with presidential limos on the front lawn of the White House, while hundreds of thousands of people and a National Guard tank look on. You can’t make this stuff up. If that were the entire appeal of the movie, it would be enough. But, as others have mentioned, Emmerich gets a bit political. You see, the president is essentially Barack Obama. Not the actual, drony, indistinguishable-from-Bush Barack Obama, but this guy:
Meanwhile, the intruders are a group of white supremacists, defense company shills, mercenaries, and hackers secretly backed by the Republican Speaker of the House. In short, everyone that all the vaguely left-wing folks in the states are mad at. One of them is named after a Tom Clancy character. They invade the White House. The movie’s president embodies all the self-serving social justice myths of the theme park version of American history. It’s glurgy stuff, simplistic and often a protective ideological mask for pernicious ideas. Nobody seriously believes in it except for everybody, and they’re tired of being jerked around.
The president takes these bad guys and he shoots them in the face with a rocket launcher until they go away. Naive? Probably. But goddamn, what a ride!
There’s not a whole lot to say about Pacific Rim that hasn’t been said already. It’s scarcely necessary to mention that it’s awesome—that was clear enough from the early trailers. What hasn’t been emphasized so much is just how awesome it is, and in what ways. There was never any doubt that the fight scenes would be something else. This makes it easy to lose sight of the movie’s other qualities. Continue reading