Theological thrillers are tough genres because they can seemingly work in two modes: as stories steeped in the logic of the religion, or with elements diluted to basic good vs. bad conflicts, and some heavy body counts.
In terms of the latter mode, the most simplistic version (and most successful) is the Omen films because they deal with a villain (Satan’s child) out to rule the world, corrupting weak humans as he tries to acquire dominion over mankind – a goal that works as a parable of corporate, ideological, or despotic villainy. It’s also a simple story that ensures creative deaths and a high body count, culminating in a one-on-one battle in the finale.
The former mode is where things get sticky, because the filmmakers have to rely on audiences being fully or at least passingly familiar with the Bible’s main characters, which in the case of Legion, are angels Michael and Gabriel. For average horror fans wanting a few good scares and a satisfying resolution, the filmmakers have to ensure the story works within the horror realm, and director/co-writer Scott Stewart manages to pull it off for the first forty minutes with creepy imagery and clichéd characters that straddle the border between earnest and hokey.
Like The Reaping (2007) or The Seventh Sign (1988), there are bugs, a gradual loss of technological safeguards, and a theological strand that drives the respective stories of impending disaster gone global. Legion’s premise is simple: angel Michael disagrees with God’s decision to wipe out humanity, so he rebels by falling to Earth, shearing off his wings, and driving to a truck stop where a common waitress will bear a child that’s destined to counteract the holy SS troups headed by rival angel Gabriel.
The truck stop, much like the mall in The Mist (2007), the diner in Feast (2005), or the truck stop in Maximum Overdrive (1986), for that matter, is where disparate characters converge through accident, and barricade themselves against a legion whose sole goal is to kill them all. Amongst the holed-up innocents is Michael, armed to the teeth after raiding a Los Angeles Police armory, and he has three goals: convince the mortals the sharp-teethed zombies outside are real, ensure the baby’s birth happens, and don’t do anything stupid.
Former effects expert Stewart directs the film with complete sincerity, and it sort of works for the first half as the surreal elements and character clichés manage to co-mingle.
Jeep (Lucas Black) is driven by an unknown desire to protect pregnant mother Charlie (Adrianne Palicki) even though the child isn’t his, and Jeep’s father Bob (Dennis Quaid) wants his son to leave the truck stop and make a more promising future for himself instead of following blind the faith as he did when Jeep was a child.
Cook Percy (Charles S. Dutton, again spouting Words of Wisdom like his ‘lost soul’ convict in Alien 3) is the token believer whose faith in God is tested when the good ideas he cherishes in the Good Book are flipped around as God’s ire at mankind is followed by a mass species extermination.
Herein are the hurdles: we’re not really sure why mankind has to die, nor why one baby can change everything that’s gone wacko. The script makes sure virtually everyone dies except for Jeep, the token Joseph handily entrusted with bad boy Michael's tattoos which will ‘guide’ him to raise the baby as a Special Child; Charlie, the token Mother Mary, will presumably live out God’s new mandate because the opening and closing narration is from their child – a daughter – who explains the dark chapter in contemporary history was the result of God being tired of mankind’s “bullshit.”
Director Stewart crafts an eerie atmosphere and makes good use of the film’s isolated location, but there’s always the problem of why several hundred possessed killers just don’t use their massive numbers to rush the truck stop, smash through windows and doors, and kill the 8 people inside. They can do it – they manage to snatch a father from inside, proving there’s no ‘moral force field’ surrounding the building – and by the finale there are least a thousand possessed out there, dying to tear at some flesh. What keeps them at bay is never clarified, except that the final killing spree is reserved for bigwig Gabriel.
There are also several discontinuities in the film's sloppy finale. Angel Michael (Paul Bettany) has a massive ammo stash, and yet when he steps outside to save a character, he fires off a few rounds from two massive (and rather useful) guns before tossing them aside and using a knife, purely for a contrived hand-to-hand battle.
The finale where Michael and Gabriel (Lost’s Kevin Durand) go hand-to-hand feels tacked on because the footage was clearly shot in a soundstage with fake rocks, sand, bad dawn lighting, and terrible CGI backgrounds, all of which clash with the otherwise elegant ‘scope cinematography at the truck stop.
Cinematographer John Lindley (Money Train) knows how to pack action and atmosphere within the 2.35:1 ratio; the colours are beautifully saturated in soft greens, amber, and sandy browns, and the lighting in each scene always infers an unseen, dangerous force is slowly devouring the few truck stop survivors.
The fight scenes are tightly edited, but as a character, Gabriel really has no resonance; he’s an enforcer with a smidge of remorse for being pitted against a former ally; Durand tries to impart some nobility to Gabriel as a loyal functionary in a supreme army, but Bettany is much more successful with Michael, often giving his trite dialogue emotional weight, such as a quiet work room scene between Michael and Jeep, as the latter seeks some clear explanation for his intense devotion to unwed mother-to-be Charlie.
John Frizzell’s score is a solid balance of impressionistic liturgical choir and full orchestra, and the heavy brass sounds heighten the film’s creepiest moments – including the pinhead ice cream man’s appearance. The music also smoothens the clumsiness of the closing scenes where Gabriel fights Michael, Michael dies, but Michael suddenly reappears in an absurd ‘I was God’s test for you all along’ twist.
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Stewart wanted to carve out his own theological thriller, mixing doctrine and horror into a shocker hybrid, but the results only work in the setup. The final product was sufficiently problematic for Screen Gems that Legion was held back until a January 2010 release – far off from the implied release in the fall 2009 trailers which, quite frankly were awful. Rather than edit an impressionistic trailer – emphasizing the film’s strong images and sounds – the compacted drama looked plain silly, which is the likely impression most will leave after giving the film a spin.
Sony’s Blu-ray sports a sharp transfer with a broad-sounding surround sound mix, and the added extras above the SD-DVD cover the film’s production and effects. The picture-in-picture commentary track (part of the MovieIQ feature) has periodic windows of the speakers, production sketches, and behind-the scenes footage, and it’s been handily chapter indexed, making it easy to skip to the next facet.
To read an interview with composer John Frizzell, click HERE.
© 2010 Mark R. Hasan