Sunday, May 13, 2012

Director Spotlight #7.5: Ridley Scott's Legend

In the world of film, it is not the actor, nor the screenwriter, nor the producer who makes or breaks the movie. Whatever their contributions, it is ultimately the director who is the sole author of the film. Every month, Director Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on a few items in the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. May’s director is the eternally meticulous Ridley Scott.

Grade: 49 (C+)

If a director is great at science fiction, shouldn’t it follow that he’s great with fantasy as well? As Ridley Scott’s career shows, perhaps not. The director scored a pair of artistic triumphs with Alien and Blade Runner, but he was on less sure footing with Legend, a big budget fantasy film which, like Blade Runner, has a complicated release history. Scott spent years preparing his fantasy opus, only to recut the film when test screenings went poorly (Scott has learned to distrust test screenings in the years since). Made in 1985 but not released stateside until 1986, Legend was a critical and commercial bomb, and it added to Scott’s reputation as a terrific visual stylist inattentive to story or performance.

It’s not an entirely fair charge, but there’s a reason the 93-minute theatrical cut was such a disaster: it stinks (Grade: 35, C-). Beset with an ill-placed Tangerine Dream score, choppy editing, a confusing story, and frequently goofy fantasy clichés, the film was a complete mess. The film developed a cult following, however, and Scott had a second chance with the film’s Director’s Cut, released on DVD in 2002 to more admiring reviews. Scott’s preferred version of the film is a decided improvement: it removes the terrible opening scrawl, tells a more coherent story, gives the material more room to breathe, and replaces the electronic score with the beautiful, lush score Jerry Goldsmith had originally composed for the film. But the extended version only makes the film an admirable misfire rather than an all-out dud. The box office receipts aren’t comparable, but Legend was the Avatar of its time: visually astonishing but besmirched with a goofy world, a clunky and often painfully simplistic story, one-dimensional characters, and damn near every genre cliché in the book.

Princess Lily (Mia Sara) loves the forest more than anything else in the world, both for nature’s wonders and for her forest-dwelling love Jack (Tom Cruise). Jack takes Lily to see the unicorns, the purest of all creatures, despite the fact that it is forbidden. But something sinister lurks beyond all the sunshine and whimsy- the evil Lord of Darkness (Tim Curry) sends his goblins to kill the unicorns so that he may rule the land. When Darkness kidnaps Lily and the lone surviving unicorn, it’s up to Jack and his forest friends to save the day from his reign of everlasting winter and darkness.

Anyone with the slightest lack of patience for high fantasy likely had some trouble with that last paragraph. Hard to blame you. This thing more or less looks like the layman’s nightmare of what fantasy is like- the good princess is named Lily. The villains name is literally Darkness. The forest and the light represents good. Darkness and winter represents evil. Jack is assisted by forest friends: an elf named Honeythorn Gump, a fairy named Oona, and two dwarves named Brown Tom and Screwball. Darkness’ goblins are named Blix, Pox, and Blunder. I’m reminded of Paul Rudd’s line about Live Action Role Playing in Role Models- “I just spent the afternoon in Middle-earth with glee-glop and the floopty-doos”.

If nothing else, Legend does look amazing. Scott brings the same atmospheric style and deliberate pacing he brought to past triumphs The Duellists, Alien, and Blade Runner. Shafts of light illuminate the forest beautifully, while Scott’s use of shadows as contrast is striking, as always. Darkness’ lair, meanwhile, is a den of horrors filled with fire, smoke, and never-ending shadows. The production design on the film is equally impressive, particularly in the character design for Darkness. Tim Curry is nearly unrecognizable under all the Satan make-up and devil horns. He looks like Hellboy’s evil brother.

Scott goes way over-the-top on love of catching particles of dust, mist, and other miscellanea in the shafts of life: there’s always something or another floating through the air, be it snow, rain, flower petals, dandelions, or even bubbles when the elves arrive. It’s at this point where Scott’s stylistic flourishes go from being astonishing to annoying and distracting. At a certain point, it’s hard not to yell, “Ok, we get it, nature good, winter bad. Do we need all the floaty shit to remind us just how wonderful nature is or how awful darkness and winter is?”

Scott is at his best when working with Curry’s Lord of Darkness. Painfully simplistic as these characters are, Curry at least creates a menacing and memorably creepy villain. Whenever he’s on screen, the film at least moves a little bit. In fact, everything that has to do with the evil side of the film (Darkness, his lair, Sara’s seduction to the side of darkness in a memorably creepy dance) is so fascinating that it makes the lighter bits of the film so much more boring. Cruise is a good actor, but he’s asked to do little more than play a painfully sincere rendition of a naïve nature boy. Sara doesn’t fare much better as the painfully pure princess, whose songs of goodness and love are so sickeningly sweet it’s difficult not to side with Darkness on these matters. As for the goblins and elves and dwarves: they’re pretty much unbearable. They speak in rhyme and irritating fancy prose (“we’ll meet back here in five-hundred beats of a bluebird’s heart”). They’re easily the worst bits of the film.

The problem with Legend is that Scott doesn’t do anything new or interesting with his fairy tales. There’s bits from other old tales- Jack’s armor is reminiscent of Arthurian Legend, Darkness is made up to look like Satan, and numerous references to The Lord of the Rings- and the way Scott blends influence from Grimm’s fairy tales, Disney movies like Peter Pan and Snow White, Old Hollywood escapist films like The Wizard of Oz, and the practical magic of Jean Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast is kind of neat. But it’s all in service of a story that has nothing new to say and no new ways to say it. Good is good. Evil is evil. Nature is good. Darkness is bad. Scott might have had better luck bringing in a real-world framing device. The Wizard of Oz did that well in the past, The Neverending Story pulled it off a year earlier, and Guillermo Del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth nailed it most recently. Hell, he might not have needed one had he grounded the film a bit more, a la Peter Jackson’s more successful Lord of the Rings films. There’s no strong center to pull this flight of fantasy together, and all the gorgeous imagery in the world can’t quite save it.

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