I usually avoid explaining the plots to films in my reviews, but just this once, here’s my summary of the story of Ridley Scott’s Legend:
The beautiful Princess Lily is never seen in her castle, nor do we ever see her royal parents, for some reason. Instead, she prefers to spend her time with the lower class or out in the woods for some reason. Lily is a completely innocent girl, yet she likes to pull cruel tricks on friends of hers for some reason. She’s madly in love with a boy named Jack for some reason, and he’s a wild, beastly jungle boy who likes to be among nature and talk with the animals for some reason. Jack decides to take her to see some unicorns, which are very rare creatures for some reason, but then she decides to touch one for some reason. Unicorns must never be touched by mortals – even innocent mortals like Lily – for some reason. She touches it anyway, and in her pride, she challenges Jack to retrieve her ring from the bottom of a deep pond so that he may earn the right to marry her … for some reason.
Meanwhile, a devilish character named Darkness is forced to live down below in the shadows (with limited power) during a period of goodness and light for some reason. He sends his servants to kill and de-horn the only two living unicorns, which will give Darkness his power back for some reason. Then an elf shows up to yell at Jack for some reason, and in one version of the film, he challenges Jack to solve a riddle for some reason. Then the elf says that Jack specifically, a jungle boy he just met and knows nothing about, has to be the hero who goes to the castle of Darkness to save the unicorn, for some reason – and I really would have liked this reason explained to me. Then a little fairy, whom the elf assumed was just a formless, bodiless ball of light for some reason, reveals herself to be … well, a real fairy with a body and wings and all that, but she makes Jack promise not to tell anyone, for some reason – and I really would have liked to have all this explained to me. Then she wants him to kiss her for some reason? And then Lily dances with her sin for some reason as Darkness walks out of a mirror for some reason and reveals that he’s in love with her for some reason?
I know it sounds like this must all make sense in the film. It sounds like most of this would just seem perfectly natural and unquestioned in context, but there isn’t much context. In fact, the theatrical cut – the version of the film the studio made to keep people from getting too confused – is more confusing because it has less context. I understand more about these characters in the director’s cut just because it adds little scenes that give them more dialogue, even when their dialogue isn’t particularly important to the plot. The director’s cut is unfortunately lacking in some scenes that strengthen the film, including a better ending, but overall, it makes a little more sense. It’s still pretty darn weird, and I often have no idea what the director’s trying to do, but it makes a little more sense – unless I just felt like it did because it was my second time watching the movie within a few days. (The director’s cut also has a score that’s surprisingly a bit better – the theatrical version has a cool ‘80s synthesizer score by an electronic band, which I thought I would love, but the director’s cut’s orchestral score by Jerry Goldsmith uses an unusual amount of synth as well.)
With this said, I should clarify that this movie is, somehow, really cool. That’s the best adjective to describe it – “cool.” It feels like I’m seeing something fascinating, captivating, hypnotic, artistic, impressive, innovative, and a little bit naughty in nearly every scene. The problem is that these scenes don’t connect well together. If watched with the American version of the soundtrack, filled with synth music, the movie might as well be a compilation of ‘80s music videos, because it has that same kind of aesthetic and that same amount of narrative. It’s safe to say that, if my introduction to the film had been a video clip from any individual scene on YouTube, I would immediately be very eager to watch the whole film because of how awesome it looks, sounds, and feels, not realizing that the context of each scene does not enhance its power in the slightest.
This film has no psychological or emotional logic to it, and it hardly makes sense according to surrealist “dream logic.” While it remains a cult classic because of how it sticks with the people who watched it as kids, and its imagery is indeed difficult to forget even for adult viewers, it has never been hailed for its story – it hardly has one. It lacks drama, tension, or any sort of emotion because its pieces feel so arbitrary no matter how they’re put together. Obviously, I don’t ask to have everything explained to me in detail like in Dark City, nor do I ask for everything in a story to be logical, but it is almost impossible for an audience to become invested in a story if it has bland, lifeless characters that act without clear motivations, scenes that take place without clear purposes, events that unfold without clear causes, and rules that must be followed without clear logic to them. Other films can get away with a sense of arbitrary anarchy because of a fast pace and/or a sense of intense urgency, such as Big Trouble in Little China, but even with a vague “ticking clock” scenario, Legend never instills the right kind of empathic anxiety in the viewer. Because of its immensely pleasing artistry and its successful transportation and immersion of the viewers into its distinct, yet familiar, fantasy world, it works very well as a film – just not as a movie.