Perversely, with a new year inevitably comes a new ho-hum horror flick—think of previous January releases like 2009’s The Unborn or 2007’s remake of The Hitcher or 2005’s White Noise—that immediately causes moviegoers to lapse back into hibernation mode. This year’s first scare package out the gate is Legion (Screen Gems/Sony; 100 minutes; R; widescreen; 2010), a run-of-the-mill doomsday thriller that adds machine guns and the undead to its too-familiar menu.
It’s Christmastime in the Mojave Desert, and the TV set at the desolate greasy spoon known as Paradise Falls boasts a snowy image of apprentice angel Clarence attempting to get his wings from the 1946 movie It’s a Wonderful Life. This ironic nudge-nudge gag from co-writer and director Scott Stewart riffs on all the mayhem noted in the prologue, as a mavericky tattooed angel named Michael (Paul Bettany from The Da Vinci Code) lands in Los Angeles, rips his wings from his body and proclaims to a pair of hapless cops who try to arrest him, “It’s started. There isn’t much time.”
Stewart’s script, co-authored with Peter Schink, isn’t strong on meaningful exposition, but viewers will quickly pick up what passes for a plot. God, perturbed with the profound disappointment that is humankind, has decided to level the playing field by literally wiping them out, with loyal angel Gabriel (Kevin Durand) spearheading the operation. The humans—and please don’t ask why—morph into dentally challenged ghouls (they physically shudder themselves into evil forces, a visual effect taken from The Matrix) as part of Gabriel’s terror team. But Michael still keeps the faith with the mortals, as he heads to Paradise Falls for the apocalyptic showdown, along with the usual motley assemblage that always ends up at a dead-end joint.
There’s the luckless owner Bob (Dennis Quaid), still bitter that a promised Congel-like destiny wasn’t constructed nearby when he bought the truck stop; his sad-sack son Jeep (Lucas Black); hook-handed grillmeister Percy (Charles S. Dutton); upscale customers Howard and Sandra (Jon Tenney and Kate Walsh) plus their slutty teen daughter Audrey (Willa Holland); and gun-toting Vegas dad Kyle (Tyrese Gibson), on his way to an LA custody hearing. Let’s not forget Charlie (Adrianne Palicki), a knocked-up waitress about to deliver her baby, whom Michael determines is actually the chosen one who will continue civilization and must be protected from harm.
Stewart is a special-effects guy that got promoted to the director’s chair for Legion, and it clearly shows in the action sequences, where he gets a visual kick from Michael and company blasting away at the zombiefied folks who embark on periodic sieges against the café. But Stewart has far less success whenever there’s a cease-fire. Paradise Falls could have been another cinematic way station for oddball lost souls, like in The Petrified Forest and Shack Out on 101, yet the backstories that the writers have penned for these characters are just downtime cliches. (Perhaps taking a cue from the 1944 Preston Sturges comedy The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek, the child’s paternity is never addressed.)
Jeff Higinbotham’s production design lends the appropriately sleazy textures, ensuring that Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives guru Guy Fieri will never make a pit stop at Paradise Falls, while scene-stealing bits essayed by Jeanette Miller (as a possessed foulmouthed granny) and Doug Jones (as a satanic Mr. Softee-esque driver) alleviate the tedium. Still, Legion borrows too much from The Terminator, The Evil Dead and Night of the Living Dead to really stand on its own, and the hazy theology doesn’t help matters, either. If this is what the end of the world looks like, wake me when it’s over.