Wednesday, November 14, 2012

It Came from the '80s: Legend

Fantasy was so acceptable -- nay, DESIRABLE -- as a mainstream movie genre in the '80s that even A-lister Ridley Scott signed on to direct a fantasy film with a real movie star, the backing of a major studio and a big budget at his disposal. Scott, perhaps sensing that he had created two of the definitive sci-fi films of the 20th century (Alien and Blade Runner, like you didn't already know), set out to make not just a fantasy film but THE fantasy film -- the one by which all other fantasy films would be measured. He did not succeed.

Ridley Scott's intentions in making Legend are clearly to create both the definitive fantasy film of the decade and a brand new, instant-classic fairy tale. He has said that, in preparing to make the movie, he and screenwriter William Hjortsberg studied all of the classic Grimm fairy tales and discovered that many were either too short or too simple or both. Their reaction to this discovery was to go another way, and make a movie that is neither short (in its original cut, anyway) nor simple. In doing so, they ensured that Legend would fail as a traditional fairy tale. Fairy tales deal with big, simple themes. They have basic but iconic characters. Many involve a quest, the purposes and goals of which are clearly outlined. Legend has none of this. It offers a hero, Jack (Tom Cruise), who is in love with a young girl, Lily (Sloane Peterson); together, the pair are perfect innocents. Things get all fucked up when Lily leads two goblins to a unicorn (she just HAS to touch it, even when she's told she shouldn't) and they steal its horn, plunging the world into total darkness. When Lily is kidnapped by the evil Lord Darkness (Tim Curry, unrecognizable under makeup), it's up to Jack to rescue Lily and  recover the unicorn's horn to restore light and prevent the rule of Darkness. In this quest, he enlists Honeythorn the elf, Oona the fairy and two dwarves, Screwball and Brown Tom. Yes, Legend is the kind of fantasy movie that turns people off of fantasy movies just based on the characters' names.

So the movie throws around big concepts like LIGHT and DARK and INNOCENCE, but without fleshing out any of those ideas, they just become buzz words -- shorthand for the mythology the film wants to create. Legend doesn't really have anything to say about these concepts. What it does have is a ton of voice modulation. Pretty much every actor that isn't Tom Cruise or Sloane Peterson (who play the only real humans in the movie) has a voice that's been electronically manipulated in some way, and the cumulative effect is almost punishing in how grating it becomes.
Legend has a tortured production history, from the entire set burning down with 10 days left of shooting to the massive cuts that took out roughly 35 minutes and jettisoned composer Jerry Goldsmith's lush orchestral score, replacing it with dreamy new wave instrumentation courtesy of German synth-pop band Tangerine Dream. Like a few other Ridley Scott movies, it becomes impossible to talk about Legend without clarifying which version is being discussed -- I like this version, or I like this aspect from this version but the rest of the other version and so on and so on. But I'll go out on a limb here and say that I prefer the 89-minute U.S. theatrical version to the longer director's cut. I will freely admit that the European cut makes more sense, creates a stronger narrative and works better as a movie. Jerry Goldsmith's score has more of an epic feel and is less incongruous with the images on screen. It helps tie all of the fantasy elements into a more cohesive whole. But I've seen Legend a half dozen times in each of its incarnations, and I still couldn't really tell you exactly what it's about -- not because it's totally confusing (though a case could be made), but because I'm never able to force myself to actually follow along to what is happening. At some point in every viewing, I find myself zoning out of the narrative and just allowing the aesthetics to wash over me.

Because the narrative is sloppy even in the 113-minute cut, Legend is never going to feel tight or make much sense. And if that's the case, I'd rather watch the 89-minute theatrical cut -- not just because it's shorter, but because the leaps it takes over large parts of the story make it feel even more dreamlike. Ditto for the Tangerine Dream score (because "dream" is IN THE BAND'S NAME), which trades in the majesty of Jerry Goldsmith for ethereal synthesizer atmosphere. The theatrical cut also removes a lot of the dialogue, which is for the best because Legend plays better as a silent movie. The opening third, in particular (before the movie shifts into one long snowy nighttime scene populated by swamps and rubber faces), is arguably the most beautiful fantasy movie ever made -- Dungeons & Dragons by way of Terrence Malick.
What Legend will be forever remembered for is Rob Bottin's makeup on Tim Curry, one of the single best makeup designs and executions since Jack Pierce turned Boris Karloff into Frankenstein's monster. His makeup designs every in the movie are terrific, but Curry's the showstopper. It's so simple on the surface -- red body, long chin, GIANT horns -- and yet so striking that it has become the standard for what many of us imagine the "devil" to look like (assuming one believes in such things). What's even more amazing about the makeup is that someone correctly guessed what we've collectively always thought the devil looked like but never knew it. Seeing it for the first time was a revelation: YES, that is EXACTLY what I have always pictured, but I never told you that, Rob Bottin, so what are you doing IN MY HEAD? The nine year old me also couldn't wrap my mind around the fact that it was Tim Curry behind all that makeup. You mean that underneath that giant, scary, badass motherfucker is the butler from Clue (my only frame of reference at that point)? So THAT'S what acting is! Lots of people have said that movies are only as good as their villains. By that logic, Legend should be one of the best movies ever made. It is not.

As an actor, Tom Cruise has an impressive ability to either drive the movie in which he's appearing (I've said it before -- he drags them towards success through sheer force of will) or separate himself from the material so that at least he stands out as a movie star, often times to a distracting degree. What makes Legend such a curiosity in his filmography is that he's totally stranded without a character to play or a performance to give. While it speaks to his ability to align himself with visionary directors (in addition to working with Ridley Scott, he was worked with Scorsese, Coppola, Kubrick, Sydney Pollack, Cameron Crowe, Paul Thomas Anderson, John Woo, Brian DePalma, Brad Bird, Neil Jordan and Oliver Stone, among others), it marks the only time in his entire career in which Tom Cruise is a total nonentity. Yes, Jack sets the story in motion by telling Lily where to find the unicorns, and he ends the story by defeating Darkness, but everything in between is vague and shapeless. It doesn't help that he has to look at some unicorns and say lines like "They express only love and laughter -- dark thoughts are unknown to them." There might not be a good way to deliver that bon mot.

Lots of the dialogue in the movie is bad in a VERY on-the-nose way. Among Sloane Peterson's last lines in the film are "I learned something about myself. And about you." Um, WE KNOW THAT, Sloane Peterson. THAT IS WHAT DRAMA IS. Characters learn something new about themselves and the other characters -- they just usually have the decency not to come out and explicitly state it. Because the theatrical cut has to get rid of a lot of the dialogue, it just starts with a title crawl that not only includes all of the beats that are no longer explained through dialogue, but also plainly states the themes of the movie. It's a real time saver. The theatrical cut also doesn't fuck around and make you wait over an hour to get your first look at Tim Curry as Darkness. It puts him right up front. In theory, I'm opposed to all the changes in the theatrical cut, because they basically pander to '80s audiences -- adding in contemporary music and pop songs (especially at the end), fucking with the pacing, throwing out exposition and adding back in more stuff that's "cool" -- but it's also hard to argue with the results. The theatrical cut of Legend is a lesser movie, but it's the one I return to year after year.
The movie almost introduces one interesting idea. Just before he SPOILER is killed by being launched out into space (basically blown out of the airlock, because Ridley Scott doesn't want to fix what ain't broke from Alien), Darkness starts asking questions (not what I would do right before I died) about "What good is the light without darkness?" It's the same kind of "You need me!" stuff that Jessup shouts to Tom Cruise at the end of A Few Good Men before being hauled off to jail. Getting rid of guys he maybe shouldn't is apparently a thing for Tom Cruise. But Darkness's words suggest a deeper meaning for Legend, which spends so much time being a "dark" fairy tale that I started to wonder if maybe that was Ridley Scott's point -- that fairy tales are good lessons in morality to pass down to children, but that they cannot be devoid of darkness (lower case 'd'). The original Grimm fairy tales, in particular, are filled with things that are horrifying, but to a point: without the darker elements of the stories (like monsters, dark magic or the constant threat of death), there is no lesson to be learned. Children will not choose the light without understanding what awaits them in the dark -- it is, by definition, a necessary evil. But because so little of Legend actually bothers to deal with this theme at all, Darkness's final warnings come off as the angry, last-ditch rantings of a big red asshole.

Legend holds a very special place in '80s genre cinema. It tries to do what so many low-budget (often European) films were doing on a larger, more expensive scale, but it fails to understand what makes many fantasy movies work. Yes, fantasy provides enchanted forests and fairies and unicorns and swords and magic and monsters, but those are the dressing on what should be a classical hero's journey. Scott, a former commercial director, is often accused of focusing more on images than on story. Legend might be the movie to which his critics are referring. It's is a very, VERY beautiful movie -- one of the most beautiful of the '80s -- but it's clear that much of the attention has been devoted to the photography and not the narrative. The movie has so much imagination and atmosphere, but without those things being in the service of something tangible or concrete, they just float around without a chair to sit in when the music stops.

It is a movie that could really only exist in the 1980s, when genre movies burned bright and eventually flamed out, in part thanks to movies like Legend. It is a movie I can't really defend liking, even though, despite much of what I've said, I kind of do. It is an ambitious failure. A beautiful mess.

Got a movie you want to see covered in It Came from the '80s? Let us know in the comments below.


  1. You're kidding when you keep calling Mia Sara "Sloane Peterson", right?

    And Tim Curry was brilliant in that role.

  2. There was an article in "Entertainment Weekly" once where Tim Curry in 'Legend' was deemed the best performance in a bad movie of all time, and I tend to agree. He is magnetic, though.

    Curry is such a wonderful performer because even when he is completely covered in makeup, he is still distinctly Tim Curry because of those lips. It's the same thing in "It".

  3. I feel bad - this was one of the DVDs I won in the F This Movie draw awhile back and I STILL haven't watched it - will do so post haste!

  4. I love this movie