Thoughts on life after the PhD
I’ve long had a soft spot for truly bad films, an appreciation gained mostly through episodes of Mystery Science Theatre 3000, that television show which elevated bad movies (and the normally annoying habit of talking during a film) to an art form. Certain bad films have a beauty to them. Especially when, as one of the MST3K writers put it, there was clearly an intention to produce something great, even if things went horribly wrong somewhere along the way.
Mediocre films don’t typically have the same effect. You know the type–not painfully bad, not good enough to recommend, just bland, occasionally entertaining, and (usually) inoffensive. But every now and then a mediocre film is so shrouded in lore, so intriguing in the little nuggets of nostalgic gold that it can provide, and, in my case, so central to my adolescent life that it must be defended and dusted off for occasional re-viewings. Such a film is Ridley Scott’s 1986 film Legend.
Legend is a collection of fairy tale clichés held together by a frayed thread of a plot (or too much plot, depending on your point of view). It’s a good-versus-evil story in which a demon (Tim Curry) attempts to plunge the world into never-ending winter/darkness by killing the last two existing unicorns. Aided by a group of fairies and elves (and an elaborate finale involving a huge collection of mirrors), our hero Jack (Tom Cruise) manages to save the world and vanquish the demon, and rescue his girlfriend (Mia Sara) in the process. The film received lukewarm and occasionally scathing reviews and was a box-office flop, but it would be a stretch to call it truly bad. It’s mediocre, and it’s garnered a cult following more for the stories surrounding its development than for its own merits (or lack thereof).
Long before the Internet devoted endless web pages to discussions of random films, the rumors of Legend’s pre- and post-production drama were, well, legendary. Fans across the web bemoan the movie that could have been, citing Legend as a victim of the eternal battle between creatives and producers—the former wanted a dark fairy tale, the latter wanted a family-friendly money-maker. The original script contained graphic sex that bordered on bestiality (screenwriter William Hjortsberg recalls his first meeting with an aged, chain-smoking producer, who told him with characteristic bluntness that “you can’t have the villain fuck the princess”). Further worried that the film was too gloomy for families or teenagers, at the last minute Ridley Scott replaced Jerry Goldsmith’s score with the vaguely New Age sound of Tangerine Dream, along with two pop songs by Bryan Ferry and Jon Anderson. The film was also severely edited from its nearly two-hour running time to only 89 minutes. The end result was a movie that, clichéd premise aside, clearly showed evidence of being pulled in too many directions.
While it mostly meanders along in the style of a typical fantasy film, Legend’s frequent forays into oddballery make for amusing viewing. Along with the Tangerine Dream score, script doctors apparently tried to make the film “cooler” by adding bits of contemporary dialogue (a goblin falling into a pit cries “Adios amigos!”, while one elf threatens another by saying, “Any more noise, and you’re shish kebab!”). Everything—humans, elves, trees, food—is frequently covered in glitter (making Tom Cruise in particular look like he’s ready for a night of clubbing). And then there’s the cottonwood. Ridley Scott seems to have an affection for bits of white fluff floating through a landscape, an effect that I’m guessing is supposed to inspire nostalgia and a sense of the beauty of nature. Before everything turns wintry, Legend’s forest is a blizzard of pollen. Actress Mia Sara commented that almost all of the film’s forest dialogue had to be dubbed over, so loud was the din of fans blowing a mixture of cotton, chicken feathers (?), and fluff through the air. Ridley Scott used a similar effect in Gladiator, and even in his director’s cut of Blade Runner (where the visions of the unicorn seem to be a direct copy of the scenes shot for Legend). In the latter film, things get weirder when neon-pink blossoms start falling from the trees, shrouding a dying unicorn in a shower of what looks like plastic confetti.
Legend’s crowning achievement of goofiness, though, is surely the casting of a 23-year-old Tom Cruise in the role of the hero who hops around in a leafy tunic and booties, trying his best to ACT but ultimately coming across as baffled. He probably is baffled—at least by his agent. Cruise was coming off of the success of Risky Business and All the Right Moves and was all set to be the next “it” boy—and then he was forced to grow his hair past his shoulders, put on green scraps of fabric, and wander around forests and castles looking bewildered as a lost puppy. Where Keanu Reeves’ facial expressions at least run the gamut from “very surprised” to “fierce,” Tom Cruise here seems limited to “confused” and “fiercely confused.” No surprise that he doesn’t really talk about this film anymore.
Legend has its genuinely saving graces, though. Entertainment Weekly perhaps put it best several years ago when they listed the film in the category of “best individual performances in bad films,” citing Tim Curry’s performance as the Lord of Darkness. Though buried under mountains of makeup, Curry’s rich voice (amplified, but only slightly), magnetic on-screen presence, and the raw sexuality that made him so irresistible to men AND women in The Rocky Horror Picture Show combine to turn a potentially ridiculous character into something memorable. Who else could utter lines like “The evil seed of what you have done germinates within you” with complete conviction? And shoot fire from his fingers so naturally? By the final battle you’re not really rooting for Tom Cruise. Not that anyone ever really roots for Tom Cruise.
(Additional note: Legend is also saved (if only for about five minutes) by the brilliant performance of character actor Robert Picardo, who gave a whole generation of children nightmares with his portrayal of Meg the lake-hag. Green, clawed, fanged, dripping with slime, and covered in a foam-rubber suit that almost drowned him several times during filming, Picardo is truly terrifying.)
More than anything, though, Legend is a time capsule of the “tactile age” of fantasy filmmaking, a time when an army of orks or a massive space cruiser would have been chiseled, sculpted, painted, latexed, and fitted with animatronic radio controls by a team of hundreds. Like The Dark Crystal and the early Star Wars films, it represents an era when fantastical creatures and objects were things that could be touched. They were imperfect in a way that was endearing. When the unicorns’ horns wobbled, when Tim Curry’s massive foam-and-rubber head slipped out of place during his climactic swordfight, it was all a reminder that we were watching a movie, that this was a land of costumes and play and make-believe that could never attain the level of reality that seems to be the goal of modern visual effects. In the polished, utterly untouchable creations of contemporary CGI there is a feeling of emptiness, of a vast machine that churns out fantastical images with the precision of an assembly line. Gone are the days when hundreds of creative bodies lent their formidable skills to rubbery creations that moved onscreen with the occasional human awkwardness that revealed their costume nature. Now everything is shiny, precise, perfect, untouchable—and strangely hollow. Yes, there is still artistry and vision—those CGI creatures don’t design themselves, and they are the product of many hours of creative labor. But they’ve never stayed with me with way those animatronic creations did. I miss the days of the Creature Shop.
In the end, my own defense of Legend can’t really be backed up in terms of its artistic merits, or its position as a cultural touchstone, or the greatness that might have been (the original script, while definitely more interesting, wasn’t exactly stellar). No, it’s about little things—the nostalgia for adolescence, the strange mix of serious and silly, the remnants of a movie-making world long gone. As I watch the camera pan through Legend’s oddly lit forest scenery, there is another important footnote that I always remember –it was shot almost entirely indoors. Those massive trees and cliffs were man-made, at the time part of the largest set ever created—a set that, tragically, burned to the ground before extensive tracking shots could be filmed. The lighting didn’t look natural, but that was all right—it wasn’t supposed to be natural. This was a movie. A movie that failed on a fairly grand scale, and in its very failure somehow became more memorable than many a great film.
(some data and quotes taken from the Legend: Ultimate Edition DVD, Wikipedia, and the online Legend FAQ)
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