Action-Horror Meets Postmodern Angelic Apocalyptic
In 1975 evangelist Billy Graham first published his book Angels: God’s Secret Agents. The book would go through numerous printings and inform popular angelology for Protestant Christians for years. In the 21st century angels are still the subject of interest in popular culture, but they are no longer secret, and with the film LEGION, they are not necessarily agents working in tandem with the Divine.
LEGION begins with the coming to earth of Michael the archangel, in rebellion against God because he has lost patience with humanity and has decided to destroy them. Michael decides to fight on the side of humanity, and as a part of that process he removes his collar (perhaps some kind of divine domestication device?), cuts off his wings, and thereby loses his immortality. After arming himself with the latest weaponry, Michael heads to a small diner in the middle of the desert where a waitress is pregnant with a special child. It is here that the battle for humanity will take place as God sends his angelic forces who possess humans and who thereby act as his agents of divine judgment. The end of the film brings a confrontation between Michael and Gabriel, instances of individual sacrifice both human and angelic, and lessons for God himself about mercy and compassion.
Prior to viewing this film the trailers gave the impression that LEGION would be more about action and gun-play than horror. It was a pleasant surprise to see that the film included a little more horror than hinted at prior to its release, but even so, almost all of the horror moments in the film were presented in the trailers leaving little for audiences to experience in theaters and in homes with the DVD release. Two of the more unsettling horror scenes are found in an old woman with razor sharp teeth who rips the throat out of a diner patron before climbing the walls and ceiling and dying from a shotgun blast, as well as an possessed ice cream man that turns into a monstrous creature with elongated limbs (played by veteran sci-fi, fantasy, and horror actor Doug Jones). The ice cream ma creature is scary enough to make any child think twice before flagging down the ice cream truck in the neighborhood this summer. Yet even with these horror elements the filmmakers seemed more interested in emphasizing action in this action-horror drama.
As might be expected in a film that draws upon characters taken from a religious tradition, in this case Judeo-Christianity, there are plenty of religious elements here for reflection beyond the obvious in terms of the angelic figures of Michael and Gabriel. This includes symbolism such as a cross-shaped hole that forms after an explosion in the door of a building from which Michael takes his weapons for battle, as well as one of the victims from the diner who dies while hanging in an inverted cross position, the same way in which Christian tradition says the Apostle Peter was martyred. Other religious elements include the name of the diner, Paradise Falls, and the inclusion of a child who somehow is desired by both of the archangels, one desiring to save the life of the child and the other wanting to kill it. The meaning of the child is never fully developed in this film, which is depicted more as possessing prophetic significance in terms of telling future humanity how to live rather than in messianic terms of deliverance. But this failure to flesh out an important element of the story, and one with religious significance, is a problem throughout this film. Numerous religious elements are included but they presented without much significance, indicating that perhaps they are intended to do little more than tap into the viewers lingering sense of cultural religious memory rather than being part of a new coherent framework for storytelling or a re-envisioning of traditional religious elements for late modernity.
This leads to consideration of the late modern or postmodern context of the film, particularly in the way in which it incorporates apocalypticism. Apocalyptic stories of humanity’s demise are expressed frequently in popular culture as we wrestle with the conditions that threaten our existence, from rogue nations connected to nuclear weapons to environmental challenges to the possibility of global economic collapse. Each culture and the religions within them include stories of beginnings as well as endings, and the West has been influenced by the Judeo-Christian tradition in its consideration of how the end might come and what this might involve.
With post-modernity comes a new twist: traditional sources of cultural narrative are reworked, and the source of the narrative itself is critiqued. As noted previously, LEGION draws upon the Judeo-Christian tradition, and it provides variations on its elements as well as critique of the religious narrative itself. One major example of this in is the way in which the character of God is portrayed. In traditional Christian theologies God is viewed as perfectly just and unchangeable, needing nothing from his creatures, but existing with all of his attributes in perfection. However, in LEGION Michael has rebelled because God has forgotten or is neglecting important moral aspects such as forgiveness, mercy, and sacrifice. Through Michael’s actions, especially in the giving of his life for humanity in his battle in the diner with Gabriel, he claims to have reminded God of these important moral qualities. Beyond this, Michael’s rebellion is more valued than Gabriel’s blind obedience to Divine wrath. Such a depiction of God’s nature will be unsettling for Christians who have a basic knowledge of traditional theologies, but it does provide a window into a postmodern critique of conceptions of God found in traditional apocalyptic.
In this reviewer’s opinion, LEGION is an average action-horror film that could have been better, but it could also have been far worse given the state of affairs in contemporary horror. Regardless of its quality as a horror film, it provides an interesting contemporary perspective on an apocalyptic narrative courtesy of the angelic-religious figures that have fascinated us for centuries.
Blu-ray & DVD Bonus Material:
- Creating the Apocalypse
- Humanity’s Last Line of Defense
- From Pixels to Picture
Blu-ray Exclusive Bonus Material:
- Bringing Angels To Earth: Picture-in-Picture
- movieIQ+sync and BD-Live connect you to real-time information on the cast, music, trivia and more while watching the movie
- A Digital Copy of the film (for PC, PSP, Mac or iPod)
LEGION (Copyright 2010; theatrical release January 2010; home video release May 11, 2010). Directed by Scott Stewart. Written by Peter Schink and Scott Stewart. Cast: Paul Bettany, Lucas Black, Tyrese Gibson, Adrianne Palicki, Kevin Durand, Jon Tenney, Willa Holland, Kae Walsh, Charles S. Dutton, Dennis Quaid, Doug Jones.