In the 2007 Nicolas Cage film “Ghost Rider”, there is a scene where somebody says to Nicolas Cage’s character, “I’m worried about you because you’re filling your head with all this comparative exponential religiosity crap!” or something of that nature. One would imagine that Nicolas Cage hears this sort of thing a lot in day-to-day life, but that’s beside the point. It is easily the best line in an otherwise profoundly forgettable movie, and I guess you could say it served as something of an inspiration to me (kind of).
Today I am starting a series that is an idea that I have been kicking around for a while now, and with no movies that I’m really excited about coming to theaters in the near future, I decided now would be as good a time as any to tackle it.
In this series, which shall be titled “Comparative Exponential Religiosity Crap”, I will be examining some movies that deal, however obliquely, with the concepts of faith and religion.
A word of warning: this series will not be to everyone’s tastes. The subjects of faith and religion are always controversial. It is not my intention to anger anyone, what I want to do with this series is take a look at some different modern movies to see what they make me think about these concepts, basically. Please do not assume from the title of this series that I think all religion is crap, because I don’t. It’s just a silly quote from a bad movie that I thought would make a good title. Who knows, maybe Ghost Rider will show up in this series at some point down the road.
Now that all of the introductory stuff is out of the way, let’s move on to the movies, shall we?
And yes, I wrote “movies” as plural intentionally, because for the first installment of this series we’ve got a double feature: 2010’s “Legion” and 2011’s “Priest”, both directed by Scott Stewart and starring Paul Bettany.
Let’s start with Legion, because everything has to start somewhere.
In Legion, Paul Bettany plays the archangel Michael, who has come to Earth to save mankind from…uh…angels possessing people.
Wait, what? Well, it seems that the big guy upstairs has lost faith in humanity, and has decided to send his army of angels to exterminate us. Michael was one of those ordered to destroy the humans, but he didn’t want to so he decided to protect us instead.
In the first scene of the movie, Michael falls to Earth and proceeds to slice off his angel wings with a big knife. He then pulls a classic Kyle Reese and mugs some dude, steals his trench coat and somehow finds a whole bunch of machine guns, which he takes with him. All of this is admittedly pretty badass, but what happens next is exemplary of the problems with the movie as a whole.
And what happens after this pretty badass opening scene, you ask? Well, the answer is: 20 MINUTES OF FRICKING NOTHING. After the opening scene, the movie shifts to some diner in the middle of nowhere, where we meet a whole bunch of annoying characters: there’s the guy who owns the diner, Bob (played by Dennis Quaid), his son Jeep (I hope that’s a nickname) who is in love with the diner’s waitress Charlie (what is up with these names?) even though she’s eight months pregnant with some other guy’s baby, the cook who is a big black guy with a prosthetic arm named Percy (again with the names), three rich douchebags (a mom, a dad, and their daughter) stuck at the diner because their BMW broke down, and a black dude (Tyrese Gibson, playing the exact same character he always plays in every single movie he’s ever been in) who got lost on the way to a custody hearing for his son, or something.
Whew. The movie crams all this into 20 incredibly boring minutes. The boredom is broken up when a sweet-looking little old lady comes into the diner, and promptly starts spewing profanity and telling everyone in the diner they’re going to burn, and then bites the rich dad on the neck, starts crawling around on the ceiling, and gets shot by Tyrese Gibson, who is of course packing heat (has Tyrese Gibson ever played a character who isn’t packing heat?).
Uh…what? Evil Grandmothers? Yup. In the immortal words of the great Dave Barry, I Am Not Making This Up.
So after all that, Michael FINALLY shows up again (after being gone from the movie for 20+ minutes after the opening scene), hands out the machine guns, and tells everyone to get ready.
He then tells everyone that God has lost faith in humanity and sent His angels to destroy us, and that he, Michael, still believes in us and is here to protect us. Oh, and the baby that Charlie the waitress is carrying is somehow the key to the survival of mankind. Why? I dunno. Because the movie had a low budget and could only afford to film at this diner in the middle of the desert, and the writers had to find some plot reason for Michael to come there, would be my guess.
But here’s the kicker: despite what the film’s trailer might lead you to believe, God does not just send his angels to destroy us. He, um, has them possess people (like the grandma) and turn them into zombie-like murderers, complete with shark teeth and black eyes (again, like the grandma).
I have many problems with this.
Okay, I get that this movie probably had a limited special-effects budget, and probably couldn’t afford to show Michael duking it out with legions of angels in midair (although that would have been cool), and so the filmmakers had to find some other way to convey this. And that’s fine. Not every movie has a Michael Bay budget.
But the solution they came up with just flat-out doesn’t make any sense. Angels are supposed to be, you know, good, right? I simply cannot fathom why being possessed by one would turn a person into a foul-mouthed zombie-like murderer. Seriously, if the grandma is possessed by a freaking angel, then why in pluperfect hell does she start spewing profanity??? Are all angels secretly potty-mouthed or something? Did God just say to His legions, “Eh, go nuts”? Why would the symptoms of being possessed by an angel so closely mimic the symptoms of being possessed by a demon, like in The Exorcist??? “Possessed by an Angel” sounds like either a Hallmark channel movie or the name of a Nicholas Sparks “novel” (I hate you, Nicholas Sparks) for crying out loud!!!
And wouldn’t it be more efficient to send actual angels rather than using them to possess people? Michael even says at one point that the possessed people are just vessels and that weak-willed people are easier to possess. I can buy that if we’re talking about demonic possession, but we’re not! Why is the whole possession thing even necessary at all?
But even setting aside all of the movie’s profound theological issues, Legion is a film that simply cannot decide what it wants to be. Is it a horror movie? Is it an action movie? Is it an examination of what it means to have faith despite the odds? Is it a family drama? It wants to be all of these things, but it ends up being none of them because it doesn’t do any of them very well.
Compounding this problem is the movie’s wildly jarring tonal shifts. It has a cool, action-y opening scene, followed by 20 minutes of talking, then the grandma shows up, then Michael shows up, then ACTION SCENE, then exposition, then ACTION SCENE, then more talking, then another action scene, some more talking and then it’s pretty much over. Nothing in the movie flows well at all and it sometimes feels like three or four different movies stitched together haphazardly.
The action scenes are actually pretty decent, and there’s a good fight scene between Michael and Gabriel, the other archangel, who still has his angel wings and a pretty cool mace thing.
So yeah, the action scenes aren’t half bad, but they’re not woven into the rest of the movie well at all, and they make up a very small portion of the movie’s running time. Between action scenes, we get to learn all about the various boring backstories of literally every single character in the freaking diner, all of which are just about as boring and clichéd as you could imagine. The movie is like 90% TALKING, and all of the talking is BORING.
Let’s do some math. Legion is 100 minutes long, which makes it easy. It’s basically 10 minutes of action and 90 minutes of boring backstory and speechifying by every single boring supporting character.
The only thing in the movie that works consistently is Paul Bettany. He’s a really good actor, and he brings an air of credibility and gravitas to every scene he’s in. He singlehandedly makes the movie far more credible than it deserves, and without him it would be entirely unwatchable.
At one point he gives Jeep (the guy who’s in love with the waitress) a long speech about how he (Jeep) is the reason he (Michael) still has faith in humanity, and Bettany makes the whole speech very believable and even comes close to being effecting, and you get a glimpse of what the movie might have been. This is especially impressive considering that Jeep is a guy who looks (and sounds) a hell of a lot like Ellis from Left 4 Dead 2.
On the left: Jeep. On the right: Ellis. Or is it the other way around?
The sad thing is that there is a decent germ of an idea to be found buried deep within the movie’s concept, and there’s maybe even a decent movie to be made from this concept, but Legion is not that movie.
In one of the special features on the DVD (NO I DON’T HAVE THIS MOVIE ON DVD SHUT UP) director Scott Stewart talks very seriously about how he believes that the suspense leading up to a scare is almost as important as the scare itself. Okay, sure. The problem is that the “scare” Mr. Stewart is referring to is the evil grandma (I forgot to mention that there’s also an evil ice cream man later), and that evil grandmas (in this movie at least) are not scary. I get the idea that you can take things that are usually good and turn them evil, and that can be scary (Stephen King is good at this), but in Legion, evil grandmas and evil ice cream men aren’t scary, they’re just chuckle-inducing.
Legion is a movie that wants to be many things, and it ends up being none of them. It really has nothing interesting to say, and comes off as being pretentious more often than not.
Wow, that ended up being really long. I was originally going to cover both movies in one post, but for ease of readability I think I will split it into two parts.
Please join me for part two, which will be up soon (hopefully no later than tomorrow).