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Left Behind: World at War (2005)
Secular viewer quite likes it actually...
Having been baptized as Roman Catholic and given a Roman Catholic education until I entered sixth form then university, I have a reasonable grasp of the theory behind the Left Behind series of films and books. I have my own views of organized religious institutions (well, all right, I'm completely opposed to most of them and believe they do more harm than good in today's societies, but I don't especially have the energy or the judgmental nature required to condemn people who hold strong beliefs; in all sincerity, it's a personal choice IMO), and I do find the plots vaguely interesting in terms of addressing the Rapture.
But, having no interest in the religion behind it, I have to say that I watched all three movies (I got a good deal on all three DVDs as a box set as I wanted to see what the fuss was) with an eye for the filmic qualities. And I did enjoy them! I found the second ("Tribulation Force") excessively preachy, since it seemed to me that the first film ("Left Behind: The Movie") did quite well in conveying its message with a more subtle approach, but I still liked it well enough. I found that the acting was at least convincing, and in some parts inspired (I must confess, if you forgive the pun, which you should be able to if you're a Christian, that the anti-Christ is lip-bitingly sexy!), and any weaknesses in the cast improved in each film, as did the production values.
I found the plots of the first two linear and sufficiently involving to hold my interest without effort on my part, but "World at War" I actively liked and enjoyed - the story moved at a faster pace and in a generally more cinematic way, perhaps a result of the straying from the books that has been complained about? The protagonists were, for the most part, less stereotypical than in the earlier movies, possibly through a plot which is based more on story than character and so they aren't given the chance to be tedious. Kirk Cameron's character, Buck Williams, thankfully got his hair cut and seemed more confident; Brad Johnson's character, Rayford Steele, remained a bit cold and motiveless for me; Janaya Stephens' Chloe Steele seems to mature; Chelsea Noble's Hattie Durham, though given less screen time, is probably one of the more useful, interesting and better constructed characters; Bruce Barnes, whether played by Clarence Gilyard or Arnold Pinnock is a bit of a non-entity as a leader, but I think Pinnock gives the stronger performance.
The only exception is, unfortunately, Nicolae Carpathia. I felt it was a shame that only his 'true' aspect was in evidence, given how good, and enjoyable, Gordon Currie was in the first film at progressing from innocent and genuine to homicidally evil; it would have been nice (and fun!) to see Nicolae's public and private personae, as Currie plays charismatic and charming so well! Of course, it would also illustrate why he is in power and a popular figure (I assume he doesn't attempt to maim and kill *everyone* he comes into contact with), which I suppose does make the film rather insular and sadly means that as the other characters develop (sort of), he is reduced to something of a caricature, whereas given more scope, I feel Currie could make Nicolae the most well developed character in the whole series - I mean, he's the anti-Christ! I've always held the impression that both a literary and cinematic exploration of the figure of an anti-Christ would be fascinating, but I suppose that would require at least one entire film devoted to that single character's development, and to be fair, that isn't what any of the three films are trying to achieve (they'd probably be better served and more popular if they were). Of course, IMO, they don't achieve what Kirk Cameron asserts they are trying to either: at no point during viewing did Jesus tap me on the shoulder and show me 'The Way' (wish Nicolae had though).
I'm very impressed with the DVDs - if only all films were released with so many special features, and the "WaW" DVD is probably the best for seeing the actors having a laugh behind the scenes (my favourite type of extras), and the commentary is fun.
Perhaps strangely, I feel that these films could have been of a higher quality if made by a big name studio with no interest in the religious content, which I think is suggested by "WaW." And certainly with respect to the music (and I use the term in its loosest sense)...
Generally, IMO, these aren't great films, and there are some moments that are a bit cringe-worthy (after all, they are religiously driven films made by a religiously driven film company), but they aren't terrible. The first was a bit ropey but interesting, the second was OK with better potential than the first but suffers from the volume of Bible quotes in the script (but I feel this is an acceptable risk given the film's theme), and the third is fairly cool but could do with more dimensions of Nicolae to make it more comprehensive and just a better rounded film.
One thing I'm a bit surprised at is the apparent lack of worldwide offence at the Ben-Judah character's 'conversion', which seems like it would be far more offensive to me than Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ." Maybe this is simply a matter of media exposure?
Ultimately, I would recommend that if you're not a Christian (or maybe even if you are), don't take these films too seriously, relax, and just see what you think. You might still hate them, but you might not get so annoyed about it!