Nicky Whelan and Nicolas Cage

For some time Nicolas Cage seemed capable of enlivening any lousy film. No matter how routine it felt, you never knew exactly what Cage might do from one scene to the next. He might break out some bizarre mannerism, as though channeling the outsize freaks he played so memorably in Peggy Sue Got Married (1986) and Vampire’s Kiss (1988). Or he might deliver his lines so sincerely as to suggest an undercurrent of genuine feeling apparent in no other part of the movie. Cage’s flights of fancy are pretty much the only reason to watch Neil LaBute’s disastrous remake The Wicker Man (2006) or Jerry Bruckheimer’s soulless kid’s feature The Sorcerer’s Apprentice (2010). The actor brings to these films (as well as slightly better ones, like Alex Proyas’s 2009 feature Knowing) a sense of spontaneity that’s become rare in American genre cinema.

David Gordon Green’s recent indie drama Joe showed that Cage hasn’t lost the ability to act, and Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance (2011) showed how inventive he could still be when matched with the right directors. But in many of his recent outings Cage looks too haggard even to pretend he’s engaging with the material; he seems visibly drained by his much-publicized financial troubles. The laughably generic titles of Cage’s recent flops (Seeking Justice, Trespass, Stolen) suggest they were meant to be forgotten as soon as he got paid for making them, and Cage’s deflated screen presence suggests he’d prefer it that way.

I wonder if Cage forgot about Left Behind before the production even wrapped—he often looks as if he’s just been prodded awake. The film is based on the first in a series of best-selling novels (which had been filmed before in 2000) that take place during the End Times as described by Christian eschatology, which holds that all righteous Christians will ascend into Heaven before God throws the world into chaos. Cage plays an agnostic airline pilot who has the misfortune of being in the middle of a trans-Atlantic flight when the End Times begin. After several of his passengers disappear and the plane loses connection with air traffic control, Cage starts praying in earnest and resolves to bring his flight back to the States.

The movie feels like a cross between Airport (1970) and an educational video for an evangelical Sunday school class, though the borderline-incompetent filmmaking more often evokes the latter. Cage seems to have been recruited to make the film appeal to mainstream audiences, or at least to fool them into thinking it’s just another cheesy disaster movie. Ironically, Left Behind doesn’t even work as a religious statement, because Cage’s successful landing has nothing to do with faith. The actor still looks desperate to be saved, though probably not in the way the filmmakers intended.