There’s a lot wrong with Ridley Scott’s Legend. But instead of writing it off as an outright failure, it’s deserving of admiration because Scott and his creative team made a movie completely devoid of cynicism, which is commendable. The filmmakers set out to make pure fable come alive through the magic of the silver screen. There are too many problems with the final product to warrant calling it a success, but the effort of all involved is worthy of respect.
The first sign of trouble comes with the opening text crawl. The most famous example of this device, those floating columns of exposition from the original Star Wars films, set the scene quickly. That’s not the case with Legend. The informational paragraphs here are interminable and artless. So much information is crammed in, it’s like a nervous studio executive worried that audiences would be confused by the lack of explanation in the rest of the film. We’re told Darkness ruled the universe before light came to the world. It was the light, protected by unicorns, which drove him into hiding. To protect the light, only a true innocent can find the unicorns. The rest of the movie makes all this abundantly clear, calling into question why the opening explanation is needed at all.
The movie itself concerns the innocent Lily (Mia Sara) as she unwittingly puts the unicorns in danger when she touches them. She does this in the presence of goblins sent by Darkness (Tim Curry) to catch and kill the sacred protectors of light. Jack (Tom Cruise), a forest dweller, brings Lily to the unicorns because he loves her, not realizing that she will endanger the creatures. The rest of the movie is an uneven mix of boring plotting, awkward comic relief, one performance that is particularly mesmerizing, and incredible make-up and special effects.
Ridley Scott has had a long and varied career as a filmmaker. His latest two releases are great examples of the range possible in his output. Produced within a year of each other, Scott climbed dizzyingly high peaks in The Martian and crawled along depressingly low valleys in Exodus: Gods and Kings. Scott is a visually striking and inventive director, but his talents can’t compensate for a poor screenplay. So, when he gets his hands on a script as strong as Blade Runner or Alien, his masterful visual flair perfectly enhances the story. With a substandard script, like the aforementioned Exodus, the movie turns into a muddled mess.
With Legend, that visual flair is manifested by his collaboration with cinematographer Alex Thomson. The film’s look is ethereal. The forest that Jack and Lily inhabit shimmers with the green of the trees and the bright blue of the sky. When one of the unicorns is felled, a snow storm engulfs the world, and Thomson dazzles the screen with stark white. The scenes showcasing Darkness’ lair are plunged in deep blacks and fiery reds. The team Scott hired to create Legend’s intricate make-up effects contributed greatly to the movie’s look as well. The character design for Darkness – impossibly huge black horns being the most striking part – is horrifically beautiful. Blix (Alice Playten), the goblin sent to hunt down the unicorns, is a disgusting creation of pre-CGI practical tools like latex and good old-fashioned slime.
While the goblin’s look is unique and arresting, he talks in nothing but rhymes that are laugh inducing, and he isn’t above being punny. The worst example is when Blix asks Darkness what his prey looks like. Darkness picks up a metal rod, thrusting it angrily onto Blix’s forehead, symbolizing the single horn on the beasts. “I think I get the point, lord,” is Blix’s response. This kind of misplaced comic relief is scattered throughout the movie, but the weaknesses in screenwriter William Hjortsberg’s script are showcased in other ways, too. Brown Tom (Cork Hubbert) and Screwball (Billy Barty), two dwarves who help Jack in his quest, fall victim to Laurel-and-Hardy-like antics that are so farcical the former inexplicably falls asleep at a crucial, climactic moment. This is the epitome of manufactured false drama.
Yet, most of the actors are engaging. The weakest of all is Cruise, who gives a vacuous performance as Jack. It’s not all his fault, though, since Jack is a cypher and a prime example of the bland romantic hero common in fairy tales. Jack is only notable because he’s Tom Cruise. Otherwise, he exists primarily as a plot device to introduce Lily to the unicorns, thus setting the movie on its dramatic trajectory. The real object of wonder in Legend is Tim Curry as Darkness, essentially Satan himself.
Under the massive amounts of make-up Curry had to endure for the role, the actor takes the challenge of playing evil personified to the highest levels imaginable. Curry uses his sensual bass register to deliver lines like, “Oh, Mother Night! Fold your dark arms about me. Protect me in your black embrace. I sit alone, an impotent exile, whilst this form, this presence, returns to torment me!” Each word drips with dark portent. If you think his Dr. Frank-N-Furter in the cult classic The Rocky Horror Picture Show is campy, then his scenery chewing here will shock and awe. The performance and make-up combine to create a hypnotic effect that is one of the most memorable of Curry’s career.
The Darkness character and Curry’s portrayal of him serve as a great metaphor for why Legend is deserving of respect, despite all its flaws. Whether it’s the creative special effects, Alex Thomson’s dreamy cinematography, or Curry’s mesmerizing performance, Ridley Scott and company tried their hardest to create a universe wholly unique and not easily forgotten. Because of that, Legend is worth seeing.
Why it got 3 stars:
- The visuals are great, and the make-up is magnificently realized, but the story is shallow, the plotting is down right boring at times, and the use of comic relief is a disaster.
- Tim Curry's performance, though, is worth the price of admission alone. In a word, it's glorious.
Things I forgot to mention in my review, because, well, I'm the Forgetful Film Critic:
- The U.S. release of Legend features a score by the electronic band Tangerine Dream. Parts of it are effective, but a lot of it consists of what Mike Nelson of Mystery Science Theater 3000 fame once quipped as "banal noodling." I actually enjoy synth/new age style music, and Tangerine Dream's score for Legend is iconic for that genre.
- Robert Picardo as Meg Mucklebones is a prime example of the great creature effects in Legend. Just Google the character name. Yeah.
- It seems like I'm obsessed with Ridley Scott. I haven't even been writing reviews for a full year yet, and already I've covered three of the director's films. Weird. I promise it hasn't been a conscious decision, and I'm not obsessed with him (at least I don't think I am...)
- In the first draft of this review, I called Legend a "guilty pleasure". I was forced to refine my definition of that term, mostly because of the sage wisdom of Rob, my editor. I used to think the guilt was a product of taking pleasure in something so deeply flawed that you ought to know better. Rob set me straight: "Normally we reserve guilt for things that are actually bad for us, that we do anyway. Nothing bad can come from liking a poorly made movie." His argument won me over, but I'm not ready to abandon the term "guilty pleasure" entirely. After some pondering, I've decided a guilty pleasure is simply something you are embarrassed to admit you enjoy, because you know the reputation for the piece of art in question is awful (especially within your own circle of friends). I haven't decided if Legend qualifies as a guilty pleasure under this new definition, because it has quite a loyal cult following. But really, pretty much anything not in the mainstream has a cult following of some sort. What do you think? Do you have a take on what constitutes a guilty pleasure, and does Legend qualify?