Legion: When the Apocalypse Comes, at Least This Movie Will Be Destroyed, Too.

Not only is Legion by far the worst movie of the budding new year, it is the most morally reprehensible film of the decade, and quite possibly of my lifetime. Was I the only one expecting the filmmakers to subvert expectations and make a film about shooting Angels with guns somewhat conscientious by the end?

Apparently so. Here’s a lousy cameraphone photo of the theater where I saw Legion at my local megaplex:

This wasn’t some special afternoon matinée or a post-bomb-scare trick; this is a large, 16-screen theater, in a relatively major suburb of Boston, on a Saturday night, at about 11:30 PM. As you can see, not a single one of its 300+ seats is filled, and this shot was taken just as the previews ended, moments before the film began. Arriving, as I like to, a full 10 minutes early, I fully expected some idle foot traffic to filter in during the trailers, but no. Surely, I thought, this movie must play well to some demographic, even if it’s the drunken fratboy crowd, the popcorn-wielding stoner posse, or the conspicuously unchaperoned 14-year old mobs that swarm this particular theater every weekend night; but, no. I sat aghast as the lights went down, the shoddy lens change was perpetrated against the screen, and the horrorshow of a voiceover started (and Legion‘s voiceovers are real horrowshow, my friends), with me, and only me, as the movie’s sole audience, splayed out across several seats.

Where was everyone? Try as I might, I was unable to convince any of my cadre of movie fanatics to come with me, possibly because I had bludgeoned several of them recently into seeing the horribly confused Daybreakers (sorry, Tim), possibly because, as one of them put it, “That movie looks like something I flushed down the toilet this morning.” What did they know that I didn’t? I began to get nervous, creeping fear soon giving way to outright terror, as the debacle of a movie unfolded before my lonely eyes.

I’ve managed to lower my expectations to the point where I’m able to enjoy a truly terrible film plenty of times – GI Joe: The Rise of Cobra being the most recent one that springs to mind – simply because I know what I’m getting into, and decide to strap myself in anyways and surrender to the filmmaker just for the ride. This willingness to accept utter trash for its cultural and pure entertainment value is one of the many reasons we founded I’ll Watch Anything – because when you pour a few million dollars, a few months, and a few hundred man-hours into making a film, there’s usually something interesting worth discussing about it. Expectations, and the choice to enjoy an experience, are as much a conscious decision as is the often-unconscious one to hate it.

As Calvin says to Hobbes, (paraphrasing) “When you lower your expectations to the point that they’re already met, you’re sure to have a good time.”

Legion is really something of a masterpiece in this regard. It’s not even that it’s simply a bad movie – it’s a near-total failure of every craft found in the industry, from acting to directing to set design to screenwriting and so on – it’s that they’ve somehow managed to get a film so entirely devoid of self-scrutiny, and replete with amorality, through the industry process, that I seriously question the direction Screen Gems – and the industry as a whole – is heading.

The director, Scott Stewart, made a name for himself as a “Senior Staff” member of the visual effects outfit The Orphanage, responsible in part for a slew of fantastic (or, at least, not terrible) movies: Blade Runner, Mars Attacks, Sin City, Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End, to name a few. It’s an interesting lesson in Hollywood filmmaking that someone like this would be given the helm of a sprawling disaster of a script as his first project; it’s truly a shame that working on some of those classics didn’t seem to teach him anything about what makes a movie good. It’s not the visual effects, Scott – I can assure you of that. The co-writer, Peter Schink, probably deserves more of the blame, for the writing anyways; his earlier credits include screenwriting on the likes of Detroit Rock City, Barb Wire, and The Chase – films I’m quite certain required a superhuman influence or a pact with the Devil to push through the industry pipeline.

But that’s about what we could expect from a film whose essential goal seems to be turning God into a villain. The plot (if it could be called that) amounts to a revenge story, jammed together with a misguided morality play. Taking a cue from the Old Testament, we revisit the time when God’s anger turns him from the modern-day interpretation of a loving, accepting God whose goal it is to shepard our weak souls through a lifetime of struggles so that we may arrive, healthy and sin-free at the gates of Heaven, back into the vengeful, apocalypse-unleashing, plague-infecting, flood-unfurling diety whose chief concern lies in wiping the slate clean of the human mistake. But whereas the Bible might profess some larger purpose to the destruction, Schink and Stewart introduce their villian’s intentions with a voiceover:

“What changed to make God so angry with us?”
“I guess He just got tired of all the bullshit.”

From there we learn that a renegade Angel, Michael (Paul Bettany), has decided to subvert God’s plan and save humanity because he alone believes potential good that lies hidden in the human race. Michael seeks out a single mother-to-be, and her small band of friends, and stages a mutiny against God, attempting the save her child, who is humanity’s only hope for survival (why a single infant can foil God’s plan, is never made clear) by holing up in a truck stop and attempting to outlast the tests God throws their way. The film’s penultimate action scene revolves around Michael fighting God’s archangel Gabriel, the outcome of which apparently decides the fate of humanity. It is this contempt for religion, taking centuries-old religious allegories and distilling them into literal action scenes, that makes the film so entirely unwatchable. Luckily, angels seem to have terrible aim.

The attempts at foreshadowing are so clumsy, from the truck stop locale shamelessly named “Paradise Falls”, to the pregnant, trailertrash heroine Oracle (“He’s been kicking all night. He must know something I don’t.”) and the good ole’ Southern boy that has inexplicably decided to protect her (“I can’t explain it Dad, it’s just something I gotta do.”) that by the time the ominous, hymnal, you-should-be-saved music kicked in, I was sincerely hoping the story would turn into a Zombieland-style tongue-in-cheek comedy, holding its own pretensions boldly at arm’s length. No such luck.

In place of humor, the film trots out every tired metaphor and transparent religious symbol it can muster, in an orgy of self-righteousness that would make even a revival-tent preacher blush in embarrassment. It moves from cliché to cliché as easily as a late-night infomercial, and with astoundingly less tact. I expected more from a film brave enough to take God as a bad guy, a premise that is ripe with philosophical possibility. But where I hoped for honest introspection, I found only a loathsome moral irresponsibility.

The actors wear their flimsily constructed screenwritten stereotype-straightjackets with pride, but like a child dresses its toys in doll clothes, each is cheap and textureless, speaking more about the screenwriters’ obvious racism and disdain for middle America than speaking to the universal human condition it fumbles after. The film gives us these incredibly complex characters: the Southern drawl country son, his self-obsessed father, the slutty teenage daughter, her fur-laden bitch of a mom, the one-armed short order cook, and the gun-wielding, rap-singing, African-American man just trying to get to the courthouse so he can connect with his estranged son. Given this lackluster cast of characters, it’s not surprising no one finds any redemption. The characters wander around the 1000, square feet that serves as the film’s entire location with a mind-numbing calm as the Apocalypse descends around them, content to torture each other (and us) with banality and ignorance. It’s unclear whether the abrupt shifts in personality are meant to be character development, or merely the screenwriters’ substitutes for imaginative plot devices, but in either case, amount to simply dramatic cop-outs.

“I couldn’t pull the trigger, Dad… I froze. I saw what I needed to do, but I couldn’t.”
“Not everyone can play the hero, Son.”

The movie could have been a lot of fun if it didn’t take itself so damn seriously, jamming transparent religious symbolism into every potentially moving scene; it feels as if someone in the studio was assigned to comb through the script trying to punch up the drama by inserting platitudes and clichés on every other page. It recycles well-worn visual effects, plagiarizing a Jacob’s Ladder style rapid head spin to identify the human->demon conversion, a fight scene involving spinning karate chops and bullet-reflecting armor (which, of course, is what angels’ wings are made of), to a vision of Heaven that looks like the director tried to reproduce Superman’s icy Cave of Solitude with only 1/10th the budget.

The ending doesn’t even really address the premise of the plot, that the Apocalypse is coming; while the last villain the heroes encounter is vanquished (kind-of) it somehow manages to avoid the issue of whether or not the world is still on the brink of imminent destruction. Clearly, whole sections of the final act were slashed in the cutting room to allow for the possibility of (wait for it…) a sequel. Yes, a sequel to a movie about the world ending. What, doesn’t that make sense to you? Maybe you’re not being creative enough. Walking out of the theater, I kept prophesying Legion: Nunchucks in Heaven, a Steven Segal martial arts genre piece where he gets to storm the gates of Heaven and beat God to a pulp with his holy water-enchanted, culturally-appropriated weapon of choice.

Seriously though… I think this movie may actually have been financed by a tentful of religious extremists determined to undermine the anti-religious, athiestic sentiment in the country by making those who would create a film about God-as-a-villain seem even more buffoonish. The film disregards the notion that God is omnipotent, in possibly the most glaring plot hole of all; if God wanted to exterminate the human race, or, as the movie professes, just a single pregnant waitress, why unleash wave after wave of completely ineffective demon-angels to do his bidding? Given that God holds the power over life and death – that he can create and take over souls with merely a thought, why not simply turn everyone in the truckstop against her? For that matter, why not just smite her with a lightning bolt? Why? Because then there would be no movie.

Instead, God shows his strength in a series of escalating bad guys, much like a cheap video game; to test their strength, He sends a caravan of fat guys in rusted sedans, easily despatched with automatic weapons fire (which, Michael, conveniently foresaw the need to steal in the first scene), to test their will, He sends a family fleeing from a biker gang to gas up at their station (in the middle of the desert), and to test their faith, He sends them the thrice-reiterated “moral crisis” of the father-son relationship and an anxiety over how pride can conflict with duty. It seems the screenwriters (who are clearly working through some Daddy issues) simply sat in a mall parking lot one day and observed the Ultimate Horrors That Plague Humanity Today for inspiration, from all the creativity on display in these ‘tests’.

When it doesn’t know what else to do, the script turns to dishonest moral uncertainty like a wretch-inducing refrain of self-indulgence.

The trailer managed to steal the only two memorable scenes (shots, really), that of the grandmother who decides to insult the pregnant heroine, and then lunges for her flesh, and the balloon-loving child who (surprise!) isn’t quite so wholesome. In true Hollywood fashion, the best lines and shots are co-opted for the promotional process, revealing the film’s only real twist, and rendering it toothless in the process. When imagination fails, Hollywood turns to the same tired tactic that is found so blatantly in the movie itself: give away the good parts before any dramatic tension can actually build.

We can safely throw this one right into the studio wastebin that is a January release.  Like everyone who wasn’t in the theater with me that night, if you’ve seen the trailer, it’s safest to stay away from The Legion – unless you want to visit a Hell conceived of and constructed right here on Earth.  Leaving the theater, I felt like a sinner.

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