The movie Legend has all the tools to be a completely fucking dope (bad) 80’s fantasy movie, and in certain ways it actually is, both bad and good (?). Considered to be a significant failure at the time, it derailed Ridley Scott’s directing career for a decade-plus and was largely forgotten, with good reason. The shooting script seems to get misplaced about halfway through the movie and the lack of exposition gives the film a context-less quality; there is a deficiency of world-building. Legend was one in a slew of fantasy movies churned out at that D&D-crazed time and Ridley Scott and William Hjortsberg weren’t able to get escape the confines of the genre, and producers probably figured the young audiences just wanted to see their favorite pewter figurines and imagined table-top battles reflected in cinematic form. Now Legend has a cult following and showings at arthouse cinemas and dorks spend time thinking about its aesthetic significance and multivalent readings. It also has some weird dialogue about dreams.
Dreams make perfect sense when it comes to fantasy. Legions of hardline neckbeards aside, the fantasy genre is fantasy because it involves entirely made-up, mythical and surreal worlds of spectacular wonder etc. and the world of Legend is no exception. Ridley Scott and crew’s elaborate set at Pinewood Studios is replete with babbling brooks and purple grass and sparkling unicorns and cost Universal an exorbitant $24.5 million. The cinematographer Alex Thomson, who also filmed Excalibur and Labyrinth, worked with Scott to give the film an ethereal, fairy tale look- until the forest set burned down three days before shooting wrapped (thanks, it would seem, to Thomson’s extensive rigging of HMI lamps to create the idyllic forest). What they were left with was a jumbled film that takes place in a disgusting S&M-style black castle.
The main antagonist is Darkness, played by Tim Curry, who appears to be the traditional Christian representation of Lucifer/The Devil, but there is no reference to Christian doctrine- he’s just the figure of absolute evil (w/o which, as he continues to mention, good can’t exist). He emerges from a mirror and speaks to an unseen “Father” but very little is explained as to the structure of their cosmos. Instead, he’s the psychosexual image of “evil”, and a monumental achievement for make-up designer Rob Bottin, replete with blood red rubber skin, bulging muscles, enormous gait, and cloven hooves- the Devil as imagined by the WWE, with phallic horns and libidinal aggression. He’s gone on to have a cult status as one of the “Top Movie Demons”.
Darkness’s sexual obsession of Princess Lily is at once violent and repulsive and unbridled in its primitive masculinity. He is antagonism itself, whereas the Princess is innocence and virginity, and Tom Cruise’s forgettable Jack is youth + good. The film’s deconstruction of fable, without much plot or context, is “movies” as (bad) dream- there’s no logic to keep the viewer tethered to ‘reality’, i.e. there are few reminders through plot machinations that it is a narrative film, except for its obvious elements of the “Hero’s Journey”. Through lack of traditional diegesis and exaggerated mise-en-scene, Legend taps into a well of subconscious nightmare, the kind which emerge without context during sleep. There are minimal winks at the camera and little need for logic, transporting the viewer into a dreamlike stupor in the context-less world constructed by Ridley Scott and co.
It is ironic that the film would turn out so oneiric, as it would be half-remembered by Gen-X’ers who’ve hunted it down on DVD and Blu-Ray twenty years later- “what was that movie with the huge demon and Tom Cruise again?” Movies and dreams are adjacent- they both require a shutting down of motor functions which results in a suspension and forgetting of reality, followed by reawakening into the light, bleary-eyed and disoriented. Darkness says: “dreams are my specialty- it is through dreams that I influence mankind”- a non sequitur which surpasses the boundaries of its filmic context. The key difference between movies and dreams is that the viewer is aware they are watching a movie- movies like Legend, perhaps in part because of shoddiness and extended producer-initiated edits, lack the reality principle-logic of most contemporary and Hollywood film, where a Barthesian “third meaning” seems to emanate contemporaneity and reality throughout.