Unhappy Endings

We are being bombarded by a legion of apocalyptic movies. Be afraid, be very afraid

Film
Hokum at its purest: Paul Bettany as the archangel Michael in "Legion"

The End of the World has always been Nigh in the movies. At certain times, it appears more Nigh than at others. We’re in one of those doom-laden phases right now. We’ve seen universal death by a mutating cancer cure (I am Legend), mass infertility (Children of Men) and a deadly virus (28 Days Later). And maybe just when you thought it was safe to venture out, the darkness has intensified. In the past couple of months alone, audiences have witnessed the end of civilisation as predicted by the Mayan calendar (2012), life on earth after an unspecified cataclysm (The Road and The Book of Eli) and implied environmental burnout (Avatar). And now with Legion, Hollywood goes back to scripture itself, and brings on a plague of flies, some festering boils and a couple of archangels.

The apocalypse, and its slow-burning younger brother dystopia, are simply great fun for art directors and production designers: all those brooding skies and half-ruined but still recognisable national monuments, all that combat gear. You can prettify the future nightmare with splashes of 1940s retro-chic, as in Ridley Scott’s classic Blade Runner, or make it macho-cool, as in the Mad Max series. Rarely, however, do we get to see a pair of giant fluttering, feathered wings, especially when connected to the back of an action hero.

In Legion, Paul Bettany is the archangel Michael, who descends to earth — Los Angeles, actually — intent on thwarting God’s plan to throw in the towel and obliterate humanity. Clipping off his wings and taking on a kind of man-with-no-name persona, he goes in search of an as yet unborn child who, we are told, is mankind’s only hope. This leads him to a small, greasy diner in the middle of the desert, where an assortment of characters presided over by the owner, Dennis Quaid, are holed up as the world outside goes seriously off-kilter.  

This is hokum at its purist. Legion is nominally a horror film. It has its share of splattered blood and ghoulish zombies, although probably not enough for dedicated fans of this hugely popular cinematic sub-culture, who will doubtless also view the spectacle of Michael fighting the archangel Gabriel, who’s been sent to make sure God’s intentions are carried out, as unintentionally funny. Mindful of not being taken seriously, such apologists for horror and science fiction always justify their beloved genres by claiming that they tap uniquely into the anxieties and preoccupations of any given time. Well, there’s certainly something different going on in Legion.

That would be religion. On the whole, this has been absent from the apocalypse business, although it appears to be creeping in lately — the existence of the last remaining Bible is an integral part of the narrative in The Book of Eli. Legion goes further. We even hear what I assume was meant to be the sound of God — a massive reverberating foghorn in the sky. This is, in other words, the apocalypse not by environmental or viral means but, quite literally, by the Book. 

As such, it makes all the silliness oddly intriguing. The sheer nerve displayed by the director, Scott Stewart, in assuming we might take on board the very premise is admirable in an odd sort of way, even to an agnostic. And it certainly makes a refreshing change from having one’s ear bent by movie characters telling us why we’re simply terrible for not listening to warnings about climate change. 

Legion begins and ends with the same monologue, when one of the characters tries to explain why God has gone from loving to vengeful: “I don’t know. Maybe He was just tired of all the bullshit.” Which brings us neatly to Avatar. What is there to say about James Cameron’s futuristic epic about the lovely Na’vi people of the planet Pandora and the nasty, grabbing humans who interfere with them which hasn’t already been said? It’s been seen by billions, has taken trillions at the box office and websites have been set up for the thousands who have apparently found it difficult to readjust to the real world after having been immersed in its 3-D-enhanced universe for two-and-a-half hours. I saw it in good old ordinary 2D, which laid bare the banality of the whole enterprise. Having ruined our own world, we’re plundering others, so yes, it appeals to ingrained Western self-hate, and yes, it seemed pretty darned anti-American to me. The fact that this movie should sweep all before it says something depressing to me: that here we have the perfect epic for an infantile age. Even the much-praised look of it seemed child-like and, considering the amount of time and money expended on new technology, oddly old-fashioned. 

Over and above this, I kept thinking to myself, what the hell is the attraction of Pandora anyway? It looked like the sort of place in which any New Age disciple or self-proclaimed Citizen of the World would feel at home. It was full of inhabitants who were in thrall to mystical gods, spiritual energies and mass rituals. There were no good restaurants. I think I’d rather be in that diner.