The term “failed masterpiece” is rather loosely thrown about because the so-called one bad element that ruins or more often simply detracts from an otherwise work of pure genius by a director many consider a god can vary greatly depending on the project.
James Cameron’s “The Abyss” remains one of, if not the most emotionally resonant movie of his career – a film with a perfect mix of character, story, action, FX, themes, etc. and yet in the last two minutes a cheesy and somewhat perplexing ending takes away slightly from what is otherwise quite frankly one of the best science fiction films ever made.
Francis Ford Coppola’s “Bram Stoker’s Dracula” is the most visually lush and certainly the most accurate adaptation of the classic horror tale and yet there’s problems ranging from Keanu Reeves’ awful acting and a not so great romance subplot to an overall lack of direction and narrative jumbles.
Pretty much every great director has a project which for the most part clicks but never really translates all that well on screen or with an audience and leaves many scratching their heads why. For Ridley Scott, a man who had just come off the brilliance that was “Alien” and the overrated but still excellent “Blade Runner”, “Legend” was that failed masterpiece.
“Legend” remains to this day one of the most richly visual movies you’ll ever see – every scene is filled with so much colour, movement and astonishing natural and magical imagery its overwhelming and is rightly considered “music video” in appearance – production design and cinematography in this film are Oscar calibre. Indeed Scott’s aiming was high – here is a pure fairytale movie but with a mean streak.
Sure there’s cutely distorted voice goblins, a somewhat dimwitted but beautiful singing heroinne, a dashing young hero and lots of little kids as magical fairy like creatures – all in all quite cliched Disney-esque things. However also in this are some quite sinister elements which certainly rule out the kids ranging from the goblin’s maiming a quite beautiful unicorn to Darkness, the devil but one who is more human in personality than any other character in the film which makes his persona more frighteningly effective and gives the film a real bite which separates it from the family friendly fantasies of the time like “The Neverending Story” or “Dark Crystal”. The visuals, the sound, the lighting all are used to brilliant effect to establish different moods.
Yet the problems are very quick to spot – not only is the story unoriginal to the point of boredom, the fact is there almost is no story – Scott’s concentration on visuals has given us (aside from Darkness) very one-dimensional and unengaging protagonists (Sara easily outshines Cruise but even she comes off as a bimbo), truly woeful dialogue, an awful and overly pervading score by Tangerine Dream and one of the worst editing jobs in history which has left an already narratively challenged film in a woeful mess that even the most dedicated filmgoer will have a hard time finding some coherence too.
Heavily visual reliant films like “2001” lacked story sure, but its no-dialogue scenes were filled with a building sense of awe, tension or power – Kubrick played with us yes, but it always feels like he was in control and showed us exactly what he wanted to. Here there’s long gaps of no dialogue but other than setting mood it feels more like filling in time than anything else.
This is a world where at one can dive in a lake and half a minute later come up to find the world has changed from mid-Summer climate to an Ice Age, a world so full of drifting pollen that all hayfever sufferers would’ve died off long ago, and its all part of a film which seems to be struggling to make a pointed and grown up philosophical statement about fantasy and the themes but never does more than scratch the surface. Its style works, its substance falls flat on its face.
Thank god for things like DVD and Director’s Cuts. The ‘Special Edition’ of the aforementioned “The Abyss” cleared up a LOT of the problems and showed the film for the true modern classic it is. DVD in the last year has brought out re-edited Director’s Cuts of films like the first “Star Trek” movie and showed how just some snipping here and odd new FX scene there cleared up a similarly troubled project into a very good and epic tale.
The new 2002 Director’s Cut of “Legend” restores Scott’s original 112-minute cut of the film along with Jerry Goldsmith’s acclaimed original score. Does it save the film? Sort of, “Legend” remains an astonishing looking but a still somewhat empty mess. Does it improve the film? Absolutely – the film makes a LOT more coherent sense and both looks and sounds more alive than ever before.
Distinct differences appear right from the start – the introduction of Darkness is now much more effective, instead of a cheesy UV-lit scene in a well lit torture chamber the new version never shows us more than his claw and the back of his throne whilst the cavern looks a lot darker and creepier – this helps make the mirror revelation that much more effective as you don’t know what to expect. Some other scenes are completely changed such as his attempt to tempt Lili which is now trying to make her sit on a throne rather than eat the food (the throne itself pulses with sinister life).
The score is also a big improvement – after seeing a scene like the dance of the black wedding gown with Goldsmith’s tune, there’s no way you can go back to hearing the Tangerine Dream version without wincing. Its one of Goldsmith’s better scores, despite elements from it being used in other films. The original cut will remain a disappointing mess, the Director’s Cut is a quite astonishing fantasy which, whilst can’t compare with say a “Lord of the Rings,” at least finally holds its own a lot better.