25 January 2010

DIE ENGEL SIND UNTER UNS

There is a conceit whose origination I have never quite been able to track down: "Mythology is religion that nobody practices any more". This little quote has quite a lot of utility, for besides being pithy, it provides an aid and comfort to we atheists and agnostics - give it another few centuries, and schoolchildren will read the foundational texts of Christianity and Islam with much the same literary eye as they now read of Pygmalion and Arachne and Narcissus. As famously observed by Bertrand Russell in Am I an Atheist or an Agnostic? "There is exactly the same degree of possibility and likelihood of the existence of the Christian God as there is of the existence of the Homeric God. I cannot prove that either the Christian God or the Homeric gods do not exist, but I do not think that their existence is an alternative that is sufficiently probable to be worth serious consideration."

Still, you just don't expect to see a movie like Legion, which seems blithely unaware of the fact that Christianity is still a living, breathing religion practiced by billions of people now living in the world; for Legion goes right on ahead and bends the central notion of Christian monotheism just as happily as, say, Clash of the Titans does to the Olympians, and it does so without apparently trying to flip off Christianity whatsoever. In this film, God is an irritable old tyrant who decides to wipe out humanity, but the angel Michael (Paul Bettany) doesn't want any part of this, so he comes to earth and cuts off his wings so that God can't control him, and comes to aid Charlie (Adrianne Palicki), a woman stranded in the Mojave Desert whose unborn baby will be the savior of humanity against God's army of killer angels who possess human bodies and become some sort of zombie demons, this army being led by Michael's brother Gabriel (Kevin Durand). You can go ahead and spend some time squaring that with anything to be found anywhere in any Christian text, and I shall busy myself with daiquiris.

So, "God is evil, but the rebellious angels knows that He will come around if they just don't make with the killing of all humanity." I've spent hours trying to figure out what the hell to make of that, and I can't. It's certainly not a film written by religious people, for it has been my general impression that religious people are not terribly sympathetic to the idea that God is a small-minded warlord, but you can hardly call a film that hinges on the existence of a specifically Christian God to be even slightly atheistic. Basically, this is a film made by and for that particular breed of agnostic who actually believes in God, but wants not to, because they think He's an asshole. Fair enough, every niche needs its entertainment. And thus we end up with a strange mash-up of Woody Allen and George A. Romero, like the world neither asked for nor wanted.

Sorry for harping on the theology, but at least it's weird enough to be interesting, like The Book of Eli, another film currently in theaters. That is true of no other element of Legion, which is pretty much just bad in every way, also like The Book of Eli. The plot is yet another riff on the template provided by The Birds and Night of the Living Dead: a group of people holes up in an isolated building that they secure against the implacable onslaught from outside, and thanks to their own idiocy they die one by one. You can get a lot of mileage from that concept, which is why we have The Birds and Night of the Living Dead. But the screenwriters, Scott Stewart (who also directs) and Peter Schink, respectively a special effects artist and an editor, don't have anything remotely like the training, talent, or the apparent inclination to do anything with this material that is in the least bit entertaining or insightful. It's a peculiar paradox: the film buzzes along much too quickly for me to feel right in calling it "boring", and yet not a damn thing happens. It's stupefyingly talky, interrupted at fairly regular intervals by an attack by the evil zombie angels, who are fended off much too readily for us to believe them as a valid threat.

Certainly, Stewart's background in visual effects promises that the movie is to be nothing but a string of setpieces hung on a terribly unengaging story, and lo and behold, that's exactly what we get. For all the effort put into making the stock characters specific, with all sorts of details both explicit and implied, Legion wastes no time in pursuing them as anything more than routine horror film body count padding, in addition to setting up a central premise that is hamstrung by the fact that we never, ever are given a hint as to the stakes: Michael assures us that it is very important that Charlie's baby is born, but he does not explain why. Apparently he has also seen The Terminator, and trusts that we can connect the dots on our own.

So the story has no real drive beyond a single character asserting without evidence that "this matters", and the characters are plainly beneath the film's notice, leaving some fine actors like Dennis Quaid and Charles S. Dutton to stand around looking visibly embarrassed, and if the film delivered on the nightmare-fuel horror and bad-ass action promised in the ads, this might have almost been excusable. But Legion is made up of countless scenes of talking, of character building that goes nowhere, more talking, some confused exposition, and lots of hopelessly bland cinematography, and then, rarely, is there a brief scene with characters on a roof shooting at the angel zombies. And in these scenes, we also see Stewart's remarkable lack of facility with a camera: for while he cannot and should not be expected to do a fine job building the dramatic [sic] moments in the film, we might hope that he could at least make the action ping, or the violence and horrifying make-up effects sufficiently queasy. He does neither: the scenes of people standing on a roof shooting are just as dull as I've made them sound, and all the blood and hideously deformed human bodies are given very little visual emphasis or emotional weight. There's nothing here but so much painfully flat moments banging up one after the other, in a film about the end of the world with so little inflection that less than a day later, I can hardly remember everything that happened.

And they wonder why Avatar still has the #1 spot, six weeks on.

2/10

6 comments:

Stephen said...

I spent too much time laughing at this piece of trash to not have enjoyed it. I think the biggest reason is that it's so straight-faced; it doesn't seem to realize how stupid and ridiculous it is. Not "so bad it's good," perhaps, but I was amused by its ineptitude, and I seemed to be the only person in my rather full theatre who was. I couldn't see or really hear them, so I don't know if they were simply bored or enraptured.

And the idea that this was supposed to be a horror film never crossed my mind until I heard other people describe it as such.

Aye-K said...

Huh, well I guess it didn't hold up to your expectations? In your 2010 Jan preview, you stated Legion as the only movie you want to see...
Well, that means I'll wait for it on MCHD then.

Oh, no, wait...I have the Internet.

Tim said...

Stephen: it sounds like you saw the movie I was hoping to see. 'Cause the one I saw was just too damn boring for words, even though Bettany's intensely stern performance was good for some giggles.

Stephen said...

I think I wanted to like it so bad that I convinced myself I did. And I'd be lying if I said there weren't any sections where I was bored to tears.

jjjonatron said...

man i was totally hyped for this

Kata said...

God sending legions of zombie angels to destroy humanity?

This is a must see for me.