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JUST PRAY FOR IT TO BE OVER

The spiritual lesson of the Rapture disaster Left Behind is simple: If actors pray enough, they can get out of this movie.

Lo and behold, the first faith-baseless movie, conceived primarily for churchgoers then not doing much religiously besides passing the collection plate. Director Vic Armstrong covers only the first couple of chapters of the popular book, leaving all the Antichrist stuff for a sequel that may not come to pass.

All we have here is a typical airliner catastrophe waiting (and waiting) to happen. In the pilot's seat is none other than Nicolas Cage, proving that he will indeed do anything for money. Cage hasn't looked this uncomfortable on a plane since Con Air, which was a lot more fun.

Cage plays Rayford "Ray" Steele, whose marriage is rocky because his wife Irene (Lea Thompson) is too much of a Bible zealot for his taste, or anyone's with a rational approach to religion. Ray prefers the company of a long-legged harlot, flight attendant Hattie Durham (Nicky Whelan). Ray's daughter Chloe (Cassi Thomson) doesn't approve, getting flirty support from crusading journalist Buck Williams (Chad Michael Murray), who's a passenger on Ray's next flight.

That trans-Atlantic flight gets dicey after strange turbulence and the disappearance of several passengers, leaving only their clothes. This is eventually surmised to be the Rapture, conjuring the mental image of millions of naked people lining up for heaven. Ray sees the light, Hattie gets dumped, Chloe considers jumping off a bridge and Lea Thompson smiles because Irene is out of the picture.

We don't see much Armageddon on the ground, just a little spontaneous chaos among extras and some suspiciously superimposed flames. The movie pays nearly all of its attention to the plane's engine trouble and imminent crashing, more The High and the Mighty than the Almighty. I watched Left Behind on a computer screen, which is the largest format it deserves.

But there are cheesy pleasures found in Left Behind's ineptness: the sappy musical interludes, actors lurching to feign turbulence, and the list of passengers that apparently can't get into heaven, including a Muslim, a surly dwarf, a junkie, a UFO geek and a rich dude. Cage's too-somber approach to the material is priceless at times.

At the climax of Left Behind, survivors stare into the distance, at the Armageddon we expected to see here but producers are saving for a sequel. "It looks like the end of the world," one says. "No, I'm afraid this is only the beginning." God help us.

Contact Steve Persall at spersall@ampabay.com or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall.

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REVIEW

Left Behind

Director: Vic Armstrong

Cast: Nicolas Cage, Cassi Thomson, Chad Michael Murray. Lea Thompson, Nicky Whelen, Jordan Sparks, Lance E. Nichols, William Ragsdale

Screenplay: Paul Lalonde, John Patus, based on the novel by Jerry B. Jenkins, Tim LaHaye

Rating: PG-13; mature themes, mild violence, brief drug content

Running time: 110 min.

Grade: D

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