Skip to main content

Not even darkness lasts forever.

Legend
(1985)

(SPOILERS) Despite being nearly as much of a creative and box office bust as the majority of family fantasy epics made during the ‘80s (Willow, Krull, Labyrinth, The Dark Crystal, Dragonslayer, Ladyhawke) – the lustre of sepia-tinged childhood nostalgia notwithstanding –  I’m fairly charitably inclined towards Legend. It doesn’t really work, but I can’t help but admire (Sir) Ridley Scott’s attempts to make it float. Part of the problem is his lead, a whippersnappery Tom Cruise on the cusp of mega-stardom who just cannot make anything of such a bland character and so whose perma-curtained hair and cheese-devouring grin become continually irksome signifiers of forest child Jack’s entire personality. But a bigger issue is that, as gorgeously visualised as this is (and it is by far the most impressively rendered fantasy world of its era, even given the pop video-style bubbles floating freely through the studio forest set), Scott has absolutely no feel for his milieu. It is at once too simple and too challenging for him; he’s not a fantasist, and he’s very far from a humourist, which means that, for long stretches, the picture is curiously flat and disengaged. The immersive quality of the production design and photography (and, sporadically, Jerry Goldsmith’s score) is unable to seep into the tale itself.


It’s curious that, in Scott’s account, the idea for Legend was born during The Duellists period, as it feels very much a response to what was going on in cinema during the early ‘80s, and that, having achieved success through distilling one half of George Lucas’ sci-fi/fantasy blend, he should now attempt the same with the other half. While the simple polarities of good vs evil undoubtedly have their basis in the Lucas-verse, they had inherited additional currency through the mostly flailing attempts by less-rigorous creative forces to replicate such iconography subsequently. 


One obstacle is that, when evil only is, when the elements are emboldened in their broadest, purely-silhouetted sense (Scott claimed to have read “all the fairy tales” prior to formulating his premise) and you’re dealing with the very literal, you have to either embrace a dream-like environment (Cocteau-esque, which Scott, to give him his due, occasionally summons), such that the tone is more sensory than it is didactic, or you must opt for juxtaposing it with humour, in order to offset the demand on credulity involved.


On that score, it isn’t all together surprising that Scott took the material to Disney (which considered it too dark, despite this being their uncertainly-footed dark period), since the studio was, from the off, mixing such elements in Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. But Scott lacks the unbounded imagination for either. The out-of-focus creations of JF Sebastian in Blade Runner succeed entirely because they’re footnotes Scott isn’t obsessively deliberating over; when he tries the same thing with Jack’s entourage, the sidekicks are painfully leaden, with all the charisma and personality of a stand-up comic dying on stage.


And you can see exactly where he’s taking sidelong glances for inspiration: at Terry Gilliam, who instinctively knew how to treat the elements of dark and light, of fantasy questing and unlikely heroes. Imagine Time Bandits made by someone with zero sense of humour. Scott presents himself with quite a task, one that has defeated many who were hoodwinked into thinking it would be  a breeze: the fashioning of pure, unadulterated fantasy with no room for nuance, the most basic of humour, basic, black and white perspectives –  particularly when, as here, it isn’t overtly directed towards a children’s audience (the first draft screenplay from William Hjortsberg, who would later provide Angel Heart for Alan Parker, is in places more suggestive of Walerian Borowczyk than the wonderful world of Walt, while Scott picking Alex Thomson as his DP, who had recently worked on distinctly adult-hued fare such as Excalibur, The Keep and Eureka, is also illustrative of the way the director was leaning). None of the supporting characters, good or bad, are memorable, even given Rob Bottin’s prosthetic work, with one real exception.  Although, David Bennent (The Tin Drum) is accomplished as Honeythorn Gump, in spite of the elf’s lack of gumption.


Jack: You don’t really want to eat me. Ma’am.
Meg Mucklebones: Oh, indeed I do!

It’s only really a brief sequence with Joe Dante regular Robert Picardo as hideous crone Meg Mucklebones that offers a taste of what might have been, if its director had been able to mine a consistent sense of fun and twisted threat. Suddenly, we’re in a Sam Raimi movie – or the kind of thing Sam Raimi would be putting into Evil Dead II two years later – as Picardo’s leering, vain hag is sweet-talked into having her head lopped off by young, brave, feckless Jack.


But that’s about the best the picture has to offer in its first hour (I’m revisiting the Director’s Cut here). The most consistently impressive material only occurs after we descend with Mia Sara’s Princess Lily into the lair of Tim Curry’s Darkness (who arrives through a mirror in imagery John Carpenter would later appropriate for Prince of Darkness), leaving behind the Timotei forest (which is beautifully lensed as these things go, but not with the conviction, the sense of depth and recesses, of say Dagobah in The Empire Strikes Back).


The trigger for the drama may sound a bit twee, even given the way it lends itself to obvious eco-parable (breaking the natural order by killing a unicorn brings on an ice age), but stories have succeeded on more slender premises; the problem in the early stages is that, Mia Sara aside, no one gives the proceedings any lift But, when she is brought before Darkness, despite the essentials of the conflict being unchanged (he has been told to woo her by his father, so he won’t be getting all brutalist immediately), we get what the picture has been desperately missing up to this point; two actors really making the most of the material and interacting with each other.


Darkness: What is light without dark, and what are you without me?

And it’s also here that the set design comes into its own. Lily running through a vast room/hall of ornate columns, or engaging in a dance with her shadow self, where she is tempted to “become one of us”, suggestive of Scott being influenced by Powell and Pressburger, is the closest we get to a true artistic flight of fancy. 


Lily emerges in a sexualised outfit and sporting black lippy (and a trace of uni-brow), suggesting an entirely different proposition to her slightly cheeky, playful-at-worst prior persona. It’s a pity, then, that she instantly rejects Darkness’ overtures – since this isn’t actually that sort of film –  and it’s left to this conception of evil, a visually extraordinary creation that completely immerses Curry yet cannot suppress the quality of his performance and silk of his vocalisation, to point the finger of relative complicity (“Was it not your sin that trapped the unicorn?”; “We are all animals, my lady. Most are too afraid to see it”; “The dreams of youth are the regrets of maturity… Through dreams, I influence mankind”).


Darkness also presents, as his ethos, one backed up by the contrasting visual palette of the picture, an apparently Zoroastrian vision of this realm, one in which light and dark are co-dependent and interlocked. It’s an engrossing take, particularly as savoured by Curry, but one disavowed entirely by the good forest folk, and effectively by Legend’s conclusion (although Darkness makes a reappearance in the US cut before the end credits). Which is a shame, as again, Scott’s invocation of the fairy tale fails to fully trade in its more unwholesome elements, or explore them as it might. Of course, design-wise, Scott’s touchstone is Christian imagery for Darkness (as filtered through the pagan horned god); Darkness is red-skinned (the fires of hell), cloven-hoofed and has a pair of enormous and unwieldy horns extending from his forehead, which requires a singular and complete victory by the forces of goodness.


So it’s an additional shame that these forces are embodied by slack Jack, charging in to save the day, with a bright idea about bringing light to darkness as he does a whole lot of jumping about in a giant’s kitchen before confronting big bad Tim. Who is ejected into space much in the style of a xenomorph. That, in the Director’s Cut, Jack and Lily don’t end up together isn’t really enough to subdue the sickly feeling of Goldsmith’s score washing over the hand-waving forest folk as Cruise runs into the sunset (the Tangerine Dream contribution to the US version is a different story; some of it is entirely synth-tastic, but it also lacks the enduring, entrancing quality of Vangelis’ work on Blade Runner; Scott was no doubt thinking of the latter’s phenomenal contribution to that film when he gave them the call).


Hjortsberg’s account of the writing process is suggestive of a director, if not as hare-brained as say producer Peter Guber (his demands for the aborted Superman Lives have become infamous), who really doesn’t know his storytelling arse from elbow. Particularly amusing is his suggestion that Jack be green, to which Hjortsberg asked for clarification and Scott replied “Absolutely! Lizard boy”. The writer had to point out “how do we explain why the princess would fall in love with a lizard boy?” to which Sir Ridders concluded “Right. Fuck me. Forget about it”. Alas, once a terrible idea like that is out there, it can never be put back in the bottle. This is the same Scott now feeding poor, unfortunate scribes his defective inspirations for the continuation of the Alien franchise.


Legend was, of course, a box office bomb, one that sent Scott into a tailspin, retreating into the respectable safety of contemporary thrillers. As a cap to his unofficial “other worlds” trilogy, it’s a disappointment, but more so is that it seemed to break something within him, ambition-wise. For all that Legend is a failure as a piece of storytelling, it does create a world, and a world with form and embellishment, that is striking and exotic. After this, Ridley would be less and less willing to let his landscapes breathe, more and more focussed on the next cut than letting us linger.







Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

Dude, you're embarrassing me in front of the wizards.

Avengers: Infinity War (2018)
(SPOILERS) The cliffhanger sequel, as a phenomenon, is a relatively recent thing. Sure, we kind of saw it with The Empire Strikes Back – one of those "old" movies Peter Parker is so fond of – a consequence of George Lucas deliberately borrowing from the Republic serials of old, but he had no guarantee of being able to complete his trilogy; it was really Back to the Future that began the trend, and promptly drew a line under it for another decade. In more recent years, really starting with The MatrixThe Lord of the Rings stands apart as, post-Weinstein's involvement, fashioned that way from the ground up – shooting the second and third instalments back-to-back has become a thing, both more cost effective and ensuring audiences don’t have to endure an interminable wait for their anticipation to be sated. The flipside of not taking this path is an Allegiant, where greed gets the better of a studio (split a novel into two movie parts assuming a…

I don't like bugs. You can't hear them, you can't see them and you can't feel them, then suddenly you're dead.

Blake's 7 2.7: Killer

Robert Holmes’ first of four scripts for the series, and like last season’s Mission to Destiny there are some fairly atypical elements and attitudes to the main crew (although the A/B storylines present a familiar approach and each is fairly equal in importance for a change). It was filmed second, which makes it the most out of place episode in the run (and explains why the crew are wearing outfits – they must have put them in the wash – from a good few episodes past and why Blake’s hair has grown since last week).
The most obvious thing to note from Holmes’ approach is that he makes Blake a Doctor-substitute. Suddenly he’s full of smart suggestions and shrewd guesses about the threat that’s wiping out the base, basically leaving a top-level virologist looking clueless and indebted to his genius insights. If you can get past this (and it did have me groaning) there’s much enjoyment to be had from the episode, not least from the two main guest actors.

When two separate events occur simultaneously pertaining to the same object of inquiry we must always pay strict attention.

Twin Peaks 1.5: The One-Armed Man
With the waves left in Albert’s wake subsiding (Gordon Cole, like Albert, is first encountered on the phone, and Coop apologises to Truman over the trouble the insulting forensics expert has caused; ”Harry, the last thing I want you to worry about while I’m here is some city slicker I brought into your town relieving himself upstream”), the series steps down a register for the first time. This is a less essential episode than those previously, concentrating on establishing on-going character and plot interactions at the expense of the strange and unusual. As such, it sets the tone for the rest of this short first season.

The first of 10 episodes penned by Robert Engels (who would co-script Fire Walk with Me with Lynch, and then reunite with him for On the Air), this also sees the first “star” director on the show in the form of Tim Hunter. Hunter is a director (like Michael Lehman) who hit the ground running but whose subsequent career has rather disapp…

An initiative test. How simply marvellous!

You Must Be Joking! (1965)
A time before a Michael Winner film was a de facto cinematic blot on the landscape is now scarcely conceivable. His output, post- (or thereabouts) Death Wish (“a pleasant romp”) is so roundly derided that it’s easy to forget that the once-and-only dining columnist and raconteur was once a bright (well…) young thing of the ‘60s, riding the wave of excitement (most likely highly cynically) and innovation in British cinema. His best-known efforts from this period are a series of movies with Oliver Reed – including the one with the elephant – and tend to represent the director in his pleasant romp period, before he attacked genres with all the precision and artistic integrity of a blunt penknife. You Must Be Joking! comes from that era, its director’s ninth feature, straddling the gap between Ealing and the Swinging ‘60s; coarser, cruder comedies would soon become the order of the day, the mild ribaldry of Carry On pitching into bawdy flesh-fests. You Must Be Joki…

Luck isn’t a superpower... And it isn't cinematic!

Deadpool 2 (2018)
(SPOILERS) Perhaps it’s because I was lukewarm on the original, but Deadpool 2 mercifully disproves the typical consequence of the "more is more" approach to making a sequel. By rights, it should plummet into the pitfall of ever more excess to diminishing returns, yet for the most part it doesn't.  Maybe that’s in part due to it still being a relatively modest undertaking, budget-wise, and also a result of being very self-aware – like duh, you might say, that’s its raison d'être – of its own positioning and expectation as a sequel; it resolutely fails to teeter over the precipice of burn out or insufferable smugness. It helps that it's frequently very funny – for the most part not in the exhaustingly repetitive fashion of its predecessor – but I think the key ingredient is that it finds sufficient room in its mirthful melee for plot and character, in order to proffer tone and contrast.

He mobilised the English language and sent it into battle.

Darkest Hour (2017)
(SPOILERS) Watching Joe Wright’s return to the rarefied plane of prestige – and heritage to boot – filmmaking following the execrable folly of the panned Pan, I was struck by the difference an engaged director, one who cares about his characters, makes to material. Only last week, Ridley Scott’s serviceable All the Money in the World made for a pointed illustration of strong material in the hands of someone with no such investment, unless they’re androids. Wright’s dedication to a relatable Winston Churchill ensures that, for the first hour-plus, Darkest Hour is a first-rate affair, a piece of myth-making that barely puts a foot wrong. It has that much in common with Wright’s earlier Word War II tale, Atonement. But then, like Atonement, it comes unstuck.

Ain't nobody likes the Middle East, buddy. There's nothing here to like.

Body of Lies (2008)
(SPOILERS) Sir Ridders stubs out his cigar in the CIA-assisted War on Terror, with predictably gormless results. Body of Lies' one saving grace is that it wasn't a hit, although that more reflects its membership of a burgeoning club where no degree of Hollywood propaganda on the "just fight" (with just a smidgeon enough doubt cast to make it seem balanced at a sideways glance) was persuading the public that they wanted the official fiction further fictionalised.

Well, who’s going to monitor the monitors of the monitors?

Enemy of the State (1998)
Enemy of the State is something of an anomaly; a quality conspiracy thriller borne not from any distinct political sensibility on the part of its makers but simple commercial instincts. Of course, the genre has proved highly successful over the years so it's easy to see why big name producers like Jerry Bruckheimer and Don Simpson would have chased that particular gravy boat. Yet they did so for some time without success; by the time the movie was made, Simpson had passed away and Bruckheimer was flying solo. It might be the only major film in the latter's career that, despite the prerequisite gloss and stylish packaging, has something to say. More significant still, 15 years too late, the film's warnings are finally receiving recognition in the light of the Edward Snowden revelations.

In a piece for The Guardian earlier this year, John Patterson levelled the charge that Enemy was one of a number of Hollywood movies that have “been softening us up f…

Like an antelope in the headlights.

Black Panther (2018)
(SPOILERS) Like last year’s Wonder Woman, the hype for what it represents has quickly become conflated with Black Panther’s perceived quality. Can 92% and 97% of critics respectively really not be wrong, per Rotten Tomatoes, or are they – Armond White aside – afraid that finding fault in either will make open them to charges of being politically regressive, insufficiently woke or all-round, ever-so-slightly objectionable? As with Wonder Woman, Black Panther’s very existence means something special, but little about the movie itself actually is. Not the acting, not the directing, and definitely not the over-emphatic, laboured screenplay. As such, the picture is a passable two-plus hours’ entertainment, but under-finessed enough that one could easily mistake it for an early entry in the Marvel cycle, rather than arriving when they’re hard-pressed to put a serious foot wrong.