Legion Review: Humanity’s Moody, Low-Tech Last Stand

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Old. School.

That’s what I found myself thinking, marveling at the retro pulse  of Legion, right around the time that some critic behind me sighed – deliberately loud – and mumbled: “What a preposterous premise.” I shot him a dirty look (I’ll make up my own mind, thank you very much), he returned the favor, and there you have it in a nutshell: Legion is probably only for those of us who are geeking out to see a new twist to the winged avenger spectacle. That’s who the movie is going to win over; the rest of the “mainstream” can return to Twilight.

But back to my euphoria: There’s a moment in Scott Stewart’s film where you have two angels dueling, metal flail versus shotgun, in an abandoned desert café. There’s even an analog TV that gets thrown into the fight – bunny ears and all – amid some heated talk of fire and brimstone, faith and rapture. It’s a trippy scene, stripped down to the essentials. In my interview with Stewart, he talked about this being an old-testament view of religion. But the story’s isn’t just old-school in its orthodoxy, it’s old school in its vision of what it will take to survive. From weaponry to geography, morals and technology, Legion goes the opposite direction of movies like this month’s Daybreakers, thinking less futuristic than archaic. The most supernatural element of the film: A tattoo that somehow writes itself. (Read Techland’s Daybreakers interview with Ethan Hawke)

The premise: God’s had it with us. In a scene lit by flashlight, a fallen angel, Michael (Paul Bettany, giving us his best dose of stoic righteousness), explains that He has showered us with love, and that we’ve returned the favor by warring over dirt and oil and “words in old books.” Last time he got fed up, he sent the flood, and this time he’s sending down his angels. Their mission: Kill an unborn baby residing within a chain-smoking waitress (Adrianne Palicki). She doesn’t really want the kid, but she explains later that she couldn’t quite go through with the abortion. Now Michael says that her boy will be the savior of humanity. The second coming of Christ? It’s never quite explained – though this all takes place around Dec. 24 and 25 – and it doesn’t need to be. Legion isn’t about the days to come, but the danger of the present, and the last stand that occurs in the least likely spot: A remote diner on a back-country road, with a fallen angel who pulls up in a stolen cop car. (More at Techland: 18 Androids Apps to Get You Started)

What is perhaps most striking about Legion is how low-tech this whole standoff feels. It could almost be an indie film really. And I think this is the very reason it’s so effective. The way this battle plays out is more about the concept than the façade. In a rushed prologue, we sort of get the dynamics figured out: Michael has ditched heaven, a general who no longer believes in the mission being passed down by his Commanding Officer, and he slices off his neck collar that doubles as his halo. He runs into two cops whose bodies start to jerk and twitch, their faces morphing into some odd demon heads. Angels talk smack to him through these human bodies, you see, and then try to shoot him using one cop’s handgun. Michael shoots back and takes them down, steals their car, and winds up at that far-away diner where the mother-to-be is waitressing. They batten down the hatches, and sure enough, possessed humans show up one by one – at first a couple, and then by the hundreds. Seeing the headlights of all these cars crest the nearby desert hill is damn creepy – almost as creepy as the cute little boy who turns out to be a knife-wielding maniac with bloodshot eyes.

The battle strategy here is freaky in its utter simplicity: Gunshots will take down the angels, who conduct primarily a frontal assault, but the supply of angels is limitless and the ammunition supplies are dwindling. It’s just a matter of holding off the hordes until the baby can be born, Michael says, and then the game changes. Given how straight-forward this whole thing is, the warfare is not so much suspenseful in a conventional sense than sobering. The angel-zombie army amasses almost in silence, and they seem less ravenous that resigned to the fact that they are here to clean up a mess. For their part, the humans are equally subdued. There are lots of tears here among our diners – over lives left, mistakes made, potential unrealized. As they fight to save humanity, they cannot help but also come to grips with the way their lives have represented humanity. There’s a lot of guilt here, over the way they’ve used their gift of life. And in one stirring scene, Michael explains why he has sacrificed everything for such flawed creatures. His brother Gabriel, Michael says, wants to give Father precisely what he asks for, but Michael believes he should be giving his parent not just what he wants but what he needs: Compassion for a flawed, but eternally hopeful, species. (More at Techland: The top 10 gadgets of 2009)

But I digress…The plot jumps the shark near the end of Legion, as the film suffers through two false endings as we move outside that beautifully-designed diner. But I must admit that until the whole thing gets bogged down too heavily in the specifics of the mythology, Legion is a moody and sparse variation on the apocalypse – a doomsday launched at the behest of God and arriving less as a cataclysm than as some sort of parasitic infection. Humans are overtaken by their inner demons. With no phones, televisions or cars working, people scan the radio, flipping between emergency signals for any word from someone who survived the first wave of carnage. And it all comes down to who has the gun, who has the baby, and how many bullets Michael managed to snatch up in Los Angeles before he fled the city. It’s all pretty black and white, sketched starkly, and it’s this mournful, hopeless atmosphere that sucked me in. It’s a remote tit-for-tat with the fate of humanity hanging in the balance.

And while some might see it all as a little drab and dull, filled with too many moody speeches that border on preachy, I kinda liked the way it skewed against our expectations. Sure, there are sub-machine guns and rocket launchers, but not nearly as many explosions as you might be expecting. Legion is less about who dies than who lives – who is able to rise above their failings to survive this first shockwave from heaven. And while things get a little heavy, Stewart never toys with our emotions. When the tears flow, they seem pretty damn real.

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