- The Washington Times - Friday, February 2, 2001

1 and 1/2 out of four stars

TITLE: "Left Behind"

RATING: PG-13 (Sustained ominous atmosphere; fleeting episodes of violence and social disorder)

CREDITS: Directed by Vic Sarin.

RUNNING TIME: 95 minutes

''Left Behind" should not be mistaken for an overnight Hollywood response to President Bush's educational policies and slogans. However, there are aspects to this curiously inconclusive allegorical-apocalyptic thriller, the possible prototype for a series, that might lend themselves to conventional Hollywood grandstanding and disaster-mongering.

For example, the dire prospect of seven bleak years for a depleted and endangered planet mere weeks into a Bush presidency. Don't be surprised if doom and gloom thrive in the next few years, along with the timely choice of villain previewed in that towering howler "Vertical Limit": a ruthless Texas oil tycoon.

More interesting as a business proposition than a crackerjack entertainment of the ominous kind, "Left Behind" derives from a popular novel of 1996. It was the first in a series by a Christian evangelical team, Tim F. LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins.

Their eighth installment, "The Indwelling," cracked No. 1 on the New York Times' best-seller list in June. Only the new Harry Potter book got off to a faster start.

Released as a home-video attraction several months ago, the film version of "Left Behind" will challenge the usual distribution pattern for movie features.

The pretext would seem to make more sense as a television miniseries. Almost by definition, "Left Behind" cannot prove satisfying as a self-contained movie. Its plot is contrived to introduce an ongoing struggle, which may or may not be resolved after the authors reach Book 14 of their epic-in-progress.

The title alludes to the biblical prophecy known as the "Rapture," which provided Hollywood filmmaker Michael Tolkin with both the theme and the title of a singular, haunting allegorical film of 1991.

Rather unsettled between panoramic and intimate perspectives, "Left Behind" doesn't end moments after the crack of doom. It hopes to set the stage for an extended seven-year struggle between salvageable survivors and corruptible minions of an antichrist after millions of believers have been transported to heaven in the blink of an eye.

Strange days are anticipated when Kirk Cameron, as Buck Williams, crack international reporter for a cable news service, observes a vast Arab air armada approach Israel and then suddenly vanish ominously in midflight.

The principal characters converge when Buck shares a commercial flight out of O'Hare Airport in Chicago with pilot Rayford Steele (Brad Johnson) and attendant Hattie Durham (Chelsea Noble, Mrs. Kirk Cameron in real life).

Suddenly, passengers are missing the loved ones who were sitting next to them. Only their clothes and jewelry remain. To ease the panic, Capt. Steele returns to Chicago with a skeleton crew and reduced list of traumatized passengers.

The plot follows a double-track game plan that works more effectively with small-scale, intimate repercussions than the sinister big picture. Capt. Steele and a teen-age daughter, Chloe (Janya Stephens), discover that Mrs. Steele and her little boy have vanished among the elect.

Although Chloe remains a hard sell, the captain concludes, "The believers are being spared what comes next" and vows, "I won't live without faith any more."

Director Vic Sarin is astute enough to shoot such moments with admirable restraint. Mr. Cameron finally gets a similar one as Buck, but his character seems destined to frequent corridors that teem with high-stakes evil, identified with a U.N. figurehead called (no kidding) Nicolae Carpathia (Gordon Currie).

It would be easy to fault the movie for recurrent groaners and missed bets. Not that spectacles such as "Independence Day" or "Stigmata" commanded any more respect from skeptical moviegoers, and it's always diverting to hear lines as creaky as, "This is insane. People just don't disappear." Or ones as non- authoritative as "Unofficially, the agency's running scared." I guess that one's off the record.

Nevertheless, by sending an estimated 142 million souls to heaven during their rapture, the authors invite a certain curiosity. How undermanned does a departure of such magnitude leave the remnant of good but not quite good enough folks as they face diabolical evil?

How many celebrities or prominent members of government ended up among the elect? I can't say "Left Behind" left me confident of the yarn-spinning ingenuity or authority of subsequent chapters.

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