Nicholas Cage vs. Reese Witherspoon in a Christian Movie Smackdown

The Year of Christian Movies reaches its climax this weekend with a choice between more Christian kitsch and a movie that matters.

This coming Friday, October 3, most eyes in the film world will be on David Fincher’s much-anticipated adaptation of the best-selling novel Gone Girl. But for observers of the curious genre of “faith-based films” (a.k.a. movies marketed to American Christians), this weekend also presents a fascinating showdown — one that could determine the future of the faith-based film market.

Two major releases targeting the Christian demographic will go head-to-head this Friday: Left Behind versus The Good Lie. The former is a rebooted film adaptation of the best-selling evangelical book series about the rapture; the latter is a dramatization of the Lost Boys of Sudan. Both are pinning their hopes on their Oscar-winning stars: Nicholas Cage in Left Behind and Reese Witherspoon in The Good Lie.

Ten years after The Passion of the Christ revealed a substantial audience of Christian moviegoers hungry for doctrinally reverent films, 2014 has been the Year of The Christian Movie. After a steady stream of titles in the spring (Son of God, God’s Not Dead, Noah, Heaven Is For Real, Mom’s Night Out), this fall we’re seeing a flood of releases, including When The Game Stands Tall, Holy Ghost, The Remaining, The Identical, The Song, and Believe Me. That’s nearly one Christian movie opening per weekend, with the final two debuting on the same day. The 2014 domestic gross of Christian films so far has been over $360 million dollars, a total that expands to over $630 million when you add international receipts. Still to come during the holiday season are Lionsgate’s Mary, Mother of Christ (tentative) and Fox’s Exodus: Gods and Kings (confirmed).

Until general audiences can walk into a publicized Christian film without assuming that it’s a cheesy Multiplex Gospel Tract, Christian Cinema will continue to do little more than screen to the choir.

But Christian filmmakers shouldn’t be popping bottles of sparkling grape juice over their high-profile year in Hollywood. The long-term viability of Christian movies is yet to be determined — not just financially, but also in terms of cultural impact — and it will ultimately depend on the quality of the product. Thus far, with few exceptions, the quality has been tenuous. Even as production values have improved, most of the movies have continued to lack narrative or thematic complexity and nuance. They depict the world as Christians wish it were, caricaturized with pious heroes and pagan villains, where good and right always prevail.

Plus, most faith-based movies — like the Christian bumper stickers, t-shirts, and music before them — do nothing more than offer copycat alternatives to pop culture trends. Consider what’s happening this coming February with the release of the film adaptation of the S&M pop-lit phenomenon Fifty Shades of Grey. To counter, a group of evangelical producers have pulled a long-languishing Christian Romance screenplay from the seventh circle of development hell and fast-tracked it for release on February 13, 2015 — the same day as Fifty Shades. This Christian alternative is titled Old Fashioned, and well, that basically says it all, doesn’t it? Until general audiences can walk into a publicized Christian film without assuming that it’s a cheesy Multiplex Gospel Tract, Christian Cinema will continue to do little more than screen to the choir.

So October 3 looms as a pivotal moment for the Christian movie marketplace, and for its core audience especially. One film represents the kind of movie Christians have patronized for lack of better options; the other is the kind that Christians have genuinely prayed for. The faithful long for movies that are more than Evangelical propaganda, for ones that open conversations with non-believers rather than closing them. Left Behind is the former; The Good Lie is the latter.

Yet even if Left Behind turned out to be a fine movie, the source material’s rapture theology and underlying “we told you so” implication remain.

Based on the New York Times 1990s bestseller (arguably the biggest Christian fiction success of all time), Left Behind is an “End Times” thriller about what happens after The Rapture, a future event at which (according to doctrine inspired by modern readings of Bible prophecy) Christ removes the faithful from Earth in the blink of an eye. The non-believers “left behind” must suffer the travails of a world in which the Antichrist reigns and Armageddon erupts. It’s Christian fiction based on much-debated Christian prophecy. The Good Lie, meanwhile, is a dramatization of real-life modern day Sudanese Christian refugees — commonly known as the Lost Boys of Sudan — who fled persecution during the Sudanese Civil War around the turn of this century and were provided asylum in the United States through the coordinated efforts of U.S. faith-based organizations.

It’s important to disclose that, as of this writing, I’ve only attended a press screening for one of the two films, The Good Lie. My exposure to the new Left Behind, on the other hand, has just been through trailers and clips. But the impression they leave only inspires apprehension — and Guilty Pleasure hopes of Nicholas Cage going gonzo. A friend who attended a press screening told me that the common consensus among the critics and editors in attendance, all of whom were affiliated with Christian media outlets, was that it’s worse than the 2001 original.

Yet even if Left Behind turned out to be a fine movie, the source material’s rapture theology and underlying “we told you so” implication remain. Left Behind has all the portents of a big(ish) budget Christian B-movie, the kind that strains so hard to scare the skeptic through its Armageddon contrivance that it ends up slumming in a Christian subculture ghetto. The fact that its producer, Paul LaLonde, was also behind the original Kirk Cameron adaptation is enough to produce eye-rolling wariness.

In stark contrast, The Good Lie boasts laudable creative merits across the board, comes from Oscar-winning producers Ron Howard and Brian Grazer (A Beautiful Mind), and has the 10-year development support of a major studio. Some types of Christians may be suspicious of such “secular” credentials, but the final product actually embraces the Christian faith of the Sudanese refugees it depicts. Warner Bros. didn’t spend a decade watering it down; they were getting it right. The refugees’ Christianity is not merely alluded to; it’s kept front and center, integral to the story’s narrative and thematic arc (in which, for example, drawing strength from Moses’s own exodus across the African desert is a natural and potent parallel).

Left Behind looks to provoke viewers through hypothetical fear, while The Good Lie hopes to provoke through authentic experience.

The business model driving Left Behind and The Good Lie are similar: target evangelicals, then hopefully expand beyond that base. But these two films’ artistic, thematic, and doctrinal ambitions could not be more opposite. One looks to frighten viewers into conversion through an apocalyptic What If. The other dramatizes an all-too-real example with resonant veracity (and tragic relevance) of how Christianity helped strengthen and rescue those caught in the most severe forms of modern-day persecution.

And while The Good Lie’s characters are fictional creations, they’re based on real (and ongoing) events and personal testimonies. Perhaps most importantly, they’re portrayed by actual Sudanese refugees who endured their own hardships and tragedies at the hands of violent militants.

Left Behind looks to provoke viewers through hypothetical fear, while The Good Lie hopes to provoke through authentic experience.

In our era of faith-based films, many American Christians have come to see the purchase of movie tickets as “sending a message to Hollywood.” While I would encourage a more open and artistically adventurous approach to movie watching, our choices do indeed shape studio production decisions. The choice between Left Behind and The Good Lie is ultimately a message of what Christians want the Christian movie genre to be: something that simply exists as a didactic alternative for evangelical moviegoers, or one that actually expands beyond that niche because of its cinematic merits to show a broader mainstream audience not just what Christians believe, but also how most Christians live those beliefs out in the real world.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

Jeffrey Huston
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  • Pee Jay

    Well I saw left behind last night, and I genuinely don’t think it would be possible to make a worse film, I like sci-fi films and have seen some bad ones in my time, but as far as junk goes left behind is out there on it’s own

  • Teresa Neisler Krueger

    I was really hoping it would be a decently made movie. The first half hour/45 minutes were just filled with the cheesiest dialogue that I felt embarrassed for the writers. I thought Nicolas Cage did a good job, but you can only do so much with that kind of dialogue. I actually did think it got better as the film went along, but all in all, it was pretty disappointing.