I have finally seen Vanished: Left Behind--The Next Generation. I had planned on putting a short little review at the beginning, then leaping back into Kingdom Come, but I wound up having more to say. So this week, we're going to take a break from talking about what a Nice Guy™ Kenny-boy is and talk about the movie. Spoilers ahead for anyone who cares about this sort of thing.
First of all, a thank you to Firedrake for making it so I could watch Vanished: Left Behind-the Next Generation. I don't know how you gained access to it, but I'm not judging in the slightest. I'll assume you know a guy who knows a guy and leave it at that.
But now, I find myself at a loss. Y'see I had planned on reviewing said movie at some point on this blog, planned on being all snarky and tearing it a new one like I normally do, but the movie...It was actually kind of decent.
Oh, will you people put down your torches and pitchforks and listen for a bit! Why do you even have those? Maglites are way more practical and given that few, if any of us, work with hay, I can't figure out why you would need a pitchfork in the first place!
Don't get me wrong: I still think the Left Behind series is a repugnant series guided by a repugnant philosophy and written by repugnant people. But I had repeatedly said that no matter what, however bad the movie may be, it will still be better than the books. And it was. Sometimes even if you don't agree with the philosophy of a film, you can still get drawn into the power and resonance of the story. I cite as example, the eighties Red Dawn. Yeah, it's cheesy and the people involved were paranoid and legally insane by any definition of the word, but at the same time, there is some emotional power to be drawn from it. You really do believe the teens are cold, hungry, and afraid, even if you can point out about a million flaws in their military strategy and in the communists. The people involved were insane, but at the same time, they did really believe in their story, put forth all their effort into creating a compelling film. Which makes it so much better than the remake with Chris Hemsworth, which was a soulless "Let's cash in on Eighties nostalgia" project from beginning to end. Plus, in the original, the Soviet Union invading had a degree of plausibility. It wasn't a lot, but it was a degree, unlike the remake which has freakin' North Korea as the bad guys. Maybe if Chris Hemsworth had been shirtless from beginning to end, I would view the remake a lot more positively, but since he wasn't...
Anyway, I had planned on making some crack about how Vanished had some actual money behind it, which enabled them to actually produce a better, more aesthetically pleasing film than the Kirk Cameron Left Behind, but then I looked it up. Vanished was made on an estimated budget of $2 million dollars, while Kirk Cameron's was made on a budget of $4 million, which boggles my mind, because Vanished actually looks much more polished and sleeker than Left Behind. It is still low-budget, but it doesn't scream it the way Left Behind does. Of course, now I wonder how much of Left Behind's $4 millions went towards paying Kirk Cameron's salary.
And of course, another reason Vanished is actually kind of decent: the main cast actually has some acting chops, unlike Left Behind, where only Brad Johnson and Clarence Gilyard were putting forth any effort. Yeah, it was basic acting 101, but in trying as best as they can to flesh out the limited characters they were given, it makes Rayford's scenes and Bruce's scenes easier to watch. Because Kirk Cameron couldn't act like he was falling off a cliff if you physically shoved him off of one. He would just smug his way down until he hit the ground, leaving a smug-shaped impression in the earth.
But again, the cast is surprisingly decent. Mason Dye and Dylan Sprayberry had worked together on Teen Wolf, so they play nicely off one another. The actress who plays the protagonist, Amber Frank, her most notable role was on a Nickelodeon teen sitcom, but she handle herself quite well. And I was kind of impressed with the actress, Keely Wilson, playing her younger sister. Because few things are worse than bad child stars and Christian films usually have the worst, but Keely Wilson actually did a decent job, didn't fall into the "mugging for the camera" trap that befalls so many child actors, like the kid who played Raymie Steele in the version with Kirk Cameron.
No matter what happens, the main cast keep their reactions grounded in reality and well, their reactions feel genuine. They actually react like kids would in the situation and don't just do things so the plot will move along. Plus again, the characters did show more sense than anyone in the Adult books or the For Kids! books. When the shit has hit the fan in that spectacular a fashion, GTFO. Get the hell out of Dodge and try to track down someone who might be able to help you.
Of course, a large reason the movie works is because for the most part, it strays away from the rigid template of the books. It focuses its attentions primarily on the Rapture and the effect it would have. The books were in such a hurry to lay out the rise of Nicolae, that they fast-forwarded through the whole, y'know, Every Child on Earth is Missing! bit. The movie does make some nods towards the books. On their way out of the city, they stop by a church run by Bruce Barnes, who gives them a USB key with Vernon Billings's "In Case of Rapture video," and clips from said video are shown, and Nicolae Carpathia makes his appearance in the last few minutes, but for the most part, it does its own thing, focuses on the protagonist and how she and her friends are confused and scared.
I'm not saying the movie doesn't have its faults. Obviously to really capture what would happen in the wake of the Rapture, it should be a lot closer in tone to Children of Men, which constantly drives home the misery and suffering inherent in a world that has no hope. I also would have liked some more development with the Doomsday Prepper-guy. The actor playing him, Tom Everett Scott, did a good job playing him, managing to convey some twitchy, off-kilter aspects even before he was revealed to be crazy, but I still think there should have been more build-up, before the guy revealed himself to be all Ax Crazy. Felt like more could have been done with it, with Gaby and her friends noticing the strained "Everything's Okay" atmosphere and how people keep "running off" and maybe those guys with guns aren't there to just protect them from outside marauders. I was also a bit confused by the whole "He was keeping Gaby's father hostage" twist. Where exactly was Doomsday Prepper keeping him, before Gaby spied on his guys? It looked to be an adjourning property, but we never really saw Doomsday Prepper doing anything over there. It seemed like his security was doing most of the villainy, while he was unaware, so I was a bit confused by the revelation.
Though as something of a Doomsday Preppers buff, I was kind of impressed with his set-up. Too many of the people on NatGeo's show, you're like, "Boys and their toys." Because yeah, you've got plenty of canned goods and bullets, but all that doesn't mean much of anything, if you don't have a resupply plan and you can only get so far with the "Shoot up your neighbors and take their stuff" resupply plan. If any of the whole Doomsday, End-of-Civilization scenarios come to pass, the people who will survive, are the ones with skills, the ones who know how to garden and build things with a minimal need for power-tools or other stuff tied to the grid. And of course, what would happen, is people banding together in collective tribes. Occasionally, said tribes might for some kind of loose Iroquois Confederation, where they let each other do their own thing, live how they see fit, unless it intrudes upon the lives of others, but still work together against shared enemies.
So that in mind, I was a little impressed with the guy's setup. He does have guns, but they aren't just Assault Weapons that serve no real purpose except to take as many human lives as possible; they are more the kind of weapons to be used to hunt wild game, aka the kind you that would be most useful at the End of the World. Because in addition to serving no real purpose except to kill as many people within a short interval as possible, assault weapons are also fussy weapons with quite a few specialized moving parts that make it more prone to jamming and harder to find replacements for.
Also the dude had a hydroponic set-up, which was kind of nice. Though while hydroponics is cool, me, I always thought that aquaponics is an even cooler idea, though I suppose only a geek like me would care about that sort of thing, and it was probably too much to expect the movie to go into details on permaculture. Though again, even though the guy turned out to be crazy as heck, characters still demonstrated a lot more sense than anyone in the books. In a crisis situation, you'd understand why the characters would flock desperately to this guy; when everything's gone to hell, yeah, it'd probably make sense to hook up with a Doomsday Prepper. And of course, they are kids; however much teenagers may consider themselves adults, when a crisis happens, they become kids again, desperately hoping that someone older and wiser knows what's going on and will set everything right again.
Heck, even the "Accept Jesus" parts feel a lot less obnoxious. In the books, it's totally spell-casting where it doesn't matter if you believe in God; what matters is if you say The Prayer with the precise amount of sincerity demanded. And again, another one of its strengths is that the characters don't immediately leap to "God did it!" but consider some scenarios like bioterrorism or alien abductions, both of which would be pretty out there, but when every kid on Earth below a certain age is gone, yeah, you're going to start considering those kinds of scenarios. So the fact they didn't act like they had read the book jacket and knew exactly what was going on, also gave the film some strength.
Though again, given the strengths of the main story, you actually do find yourself going, "Dang it!" when they pause to put something in from the actual books. Though I will say even though we got only one scene with Bruce Barnes, I did like him so much more than his book counterpart. The people involved were smart enough to realize that in the wake of such a catastrophe, people aren't going to wait until Sunday rolls around to start flocking into church. Major event happens and everyone seeks comfort. Though we don't hear Bruce's tale of woe or see much of him at all, what little we do see, already makes him a more appealing character than his book counterpart. In the wake of the Rapture, he's gotten out food, bottled water, and other supplies, and gotten the people gathered to get to work distributing it. He's also got a basket full of USB keys to hand out to people explaining what had happened. Which again, proves he has more compassion and better leadership skills than his book counterpart.
If you're wondering about how Randy LaHaye, Tim's grandson, did as Nicolae Carpathia, well, he doesn't appear or do anything until the last few minutes, when he gives a speech seen via electronic billboard, so I can't really make any judgments on how he did. But he does do a decent job with what he's given, though a large reason is that the writers knew that having Nicolae recite a bunch of facts isn't stirring oratory. It is standard politician "We will rebuild" speech, but it's more believable that the characters would follow that. And according to IMDB, Randy LaHaye has acted before, mostly in bit parts, so he may not have solely gotten the part based on nepotism.
Reading the trivia section on Vanished, Randy LaHaye does seem to genuinely believe the message of his film and actually cared about creating a decent product. No matter how much Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins may claim otherwise, we all know that the Left Behind books and by extension, the movies were created to serve as revenge porn for RTCs, rather than as tools for evangelizing. The trivia lends credence to the idea that this project was a labor of love for him and again, while you may not support the dumb-assed convoluted PMD beliefs, again, there's something to be said for the people involved putting forth actual effort and passion into their work.
Though one of the trivia bits has this:
His grandfather, Tim LaHaye was able to see a screening of Vanished before his death where he responded positively: "One of the proudest moments of my life was when my grandfather saw the movie and told me afterwards, "Finally, there's a movie about Left Behind that captured what made the books so successful."" Randy also revealed that the working titles of the next two movies were "Rise of the Deceiver" and "The Rebellion Awakens". He stated that the first sequel was planned to begin filming in 2017.
It's touching, but I am wondering if Tim LaHaye had gone a little senile towards the end. Because a large reason why Vanished works is because, like I said, they follow the books very loosely. And I have to say, the trivia does provide a handy out as to why Nicolae doesn't have a Romanian accent.
When asked why his portrayal of Nicolae doesn't have a Romanian accent, Randy explained that they have given the Antichrist the supernatural ability to cause those who listen to hear him in their own native language. This is the reason why Nicolae sounds American to the American characters in the film. This power is not directly brought up in Vanished, but will be an element explored in future sequels.
It's an out, but it's one that actually make sense. Because sometimes laziness, if done properly, pays off. The whole concept behind X-Men came about out of sheer laziness. Stan Lee was tired of inventing reasons for why his characters have powers, so he just threw up his arms and said, "They're mutants, that's why!" Again, lazy, but it had unexpected metaphorical payoffs and basically gave the writers the ability to create infinite numbers of characters without having to explain their backstories too much, because it was interwoven into the universe.
And I must admit, however shallow it may be, Randy LaHaye is actually quite easy on the eyes. Not Chris Hemsworth-level, but still.
Regarding those sequels mentioned, if they ever came to pass, unlike the sequels John Travolta promised to Battlefield Earth, I might actually be willing to watch them. Though I'm not sure how long they can keep up the "It's a surprisingly decent, resonating film despite being adapted from terrible books" bit up. Future sequels may force them to follow the events of the books more carefully and like I said, one of the strengths of the movie was that it barely touched on book stuff: just had the rapture happened and went from there.
I do hope they don't draw out the love triangle between Gaby and the two dudes, Josh and Flynn. It is a trope I'm getting tired of in YA fiction: the love triangle. I won't bring up the Twilight series, because that series was just a mess, but I thought it somewhat worked in The Hunger Games trilogy. I saw the triangle between Katniss, Peeta, and Gale, more because however much Katniss may like Peeta, she didn't like the idea of being forced to marry him, having the choice forever taken from her, in order to keep her family alive. So she rebels, drawing closer to Gale, as means of asserting her will. The series had its flaws, especially in the last book, but for the most part, The Hunger Games series is a decent read.
But it's a danger with love triangles: draw them out too long and the heroine (it's usually a heroine at the center of these) comes across as a flaky mean-spirited idiot who enjoys toying with the feelings of others, and the guys come across as complete dopes for continuing to crush on her. Vanished mostly kept the Love Triangle thing on the wayside, realized that Gaby has more important stuff to worry about than her sex life.
Anyway, tl;dr, while Vanished is hardly Casablanca level in greatness, it is a decent film that does manage to have some kind of emotional resonance. Don't know if I would pay theatre-level prices for it, but if you want to rent it on Amazon, it might be worth your time.