I decided to watch it anyway, for two reasons – firstly, it has Paul Bettany in it, an actor compelling enough to make Wimbledon entertaining. Secondly, I adore dark fantasy films, particularly ones with ridiculous weaponry and conflicts. I will watch anything with repeating crossbows and pious-yet-pithy one liners.
Legion, directed by Scott Stewart, flips the script slightly on the general formula. Unlike other films in the same genre, humanity is not under attack by vampires. Nor yet werewolves, or zombies, or demons. Instead, mankind is under assault by the heavenly hosts.
Angered by humans and their history of sin and violence, God decides to wipe them all out. Last time, he sent a flood; this time, the angels possess the weak-willed, and use them to kill the rest of mankind.
That’s the big picture. The smaller set up is that a diverse cast of characters – disillusioned teen, pregnant waitress, one-handed cook – are stranded in a gas station when things start to get weird: murderous pensioners, aggressive swarms of flies, unreliable electronics. Paul Bettany arrives as a mysterious stranger to help fight off the apocalypse, and together they wait as the possessed close in.
The film starts off sloppily, with an overly gritty and escalated initial scene. However, immediately after this, Legion regroups and refocuses: the scene changes to the gas station and tension is built up slowly. Characters are effectively established, and little hints of wrongness are scattered throughout. The opening scene is so clumsy compared to those that follow it that it almost feels as though it should be in a different film; it sets the viewer up for a much trashier and more tedious experience.
The middle of the film is the strongest part. It does everything right. The gentle tedium of the setting contrasts well with the supernatural elements that start to appear, creating an overall feeling of expectant wrongness that Legion teases out as long as possible. The actual confrontation with the possessed is delayed for a while, and the deadpan, emotionless nature of the first attacker is extremely creepy. I’m easily terrified by horror, but I wasn’t expecting to actually end up scared at any point in this film; Legion surprised me.
However, after that slow-burn and tense middle section, Legion does start to bloat and lose polish as the film progresses. This is a film at its best when juxtaposing the banality of life on a remote gas station with the alien horror of the possessed, and it runs out of banality a little too early. From the remote station, the scene changes to heaven, at which point the lack of an infinite budget becomes an issue.
Heaven is not a great place to set a scene, because heaven needs to look amazing; you can’t have a paradise that seems only alright, or the angel’s wings looking plastic. Deities and their direct servants need to look impressive, or they look stupid. It exposes all of the rough edges, and squanders whatever tension had previously been built up.
That’s Legion’s overall downfall, really – it sets up something good ( a well-constructed setting, an engaging snippet of exposition) and then it tries to expand upon that positive. If the film constrained itself to a smaller scale then it could be quite a good film, but Legion doesn’t do that. It won’t focus on a group of normal people in a tough situation when it could make that group the central figures in a vast war. It won’t stay in a café when it could be at the heavenly gates.
And that drags it down from a good film to a weak film, skipping through the other ratings upon the way. You can see the wires, fully lose the suspension of disbelief as it becomes obvious that it’s all paint and special effects. This is particularly noticeable in the final climactic scenes of the film – what should be a tense and engrossing scene just becomes cartoonish.
Plot is also an issue – I took two paragraphs above to explain the main ideas, and I missed out rather a lot of them that are central to the plot. The plot is big, and complicated, and messy, with all sorts of details that don’t come back into relevance and ideas that aren’t fully explored. At points, it seems obvious that Legion wanted a sequel (which apparently it now has – a TV series called Dominion), and is trying to jam in plot hooks that set it up for one.
The actors manage to make you forget the bloat and mess though, most of the time. Paul Bettany is well-cast, acting with a rough intensity that really fits the dangerous stranger archetype, and the rest of the ensemble manage to differentiate their roles from each other clearly, engagingly, and quickly, not an easy task for a film that is trying to do so much in a short time. Special mention should be made of Jeanette Miller, who in real life is almost certainly a sweet old lady, and in Legion is absolutely terrifying.
In the end, Legion is a film that is almost good. The early scenes in the gas station are beautifully put together, but that promise isn’t lived up to throughout. An overly complicated plot, various visual rough edges, and sightly choppy camera angles get in the way of what seems to be, at the core, an interesting idea with interesting actors.
I can see why it has so many negative reviews, but I think that many of those verdicts are rather too damning. I’m not saying that I was impressed by the whole thing, but there were definitely aspects that belonged in a tighter, more focused film, and those aspects are still enjoyable even if the rest of it doesn’t meet the same standard. On the one hand, it’s got great acting, a slightly more original idea than usual, and some really polished scenes. On the other, a bloated plot and visible seams. It was watchable, but it could have been so much more.
Buy it here. It’s also available on Netflix.