In “Legion,” Hawley takes pages from his own “Fargo” playbook. The ostentatious use of classic rock on the soundtrack, scene and spatial transitions that call attention to themselves with graphic design or camera trickery, the sense (borrowed from the Coens) that reality is a sheet of thin ice that could crack and immerse you in the chaos beneath at any moment. It’s as fearless a creative statement as the genre has seen since Tim Burton’s original “Batman” movie in 1989. Whether it’s successful is yet to be decided.
Based on the titular comic-book character created by writer Chris Claremont (the architect of many of the X-Men’s most memorable story lines during his long tenure on the title) and the expressionistic artist Bill Sienkiewicz, “Legion” follows the enormously powerful and unstable David Haller. Played by Dan Stevens (“Downton Abbey”), Haller is secretly a mutant. But when we meet the character, this aspect of his identity is a secret even to him. Yes, he’s aware that strange psychic phenomena seem to haunt him in times of stress, from disembodied voices to “Poltergeist”-style flying household objects. But a lifetime of psychiatric evaluation, medication and, finally, institutionalization have convinced him that “crazy” and “crazy, but with caveats” is a distinction without a difference.
The government, however, knows better. Through the course of a story structure that unfolds like an origami flower, we slowly piece together that David has been captured following a horrendous incident at Clockworks (as in “Orange”) Psychiatric Hospital. While held there, Haller has been able to make both progress and friends, from the wisecracking “Girl, Interrupted” cosplay character, Lenny (Aubrey Plaza), to the psychiatrist Dr. Kissinger (as in Henry) to his girlfriend Syd Barrett (as in Pink Floyd), who has haphephobia, a fear of being touched.
Syd is played by the “Fargo” Season 2 standout Rachel Keller, and David’s puppy-love attraction to her — he initiates the relationship by asking, “Do you wanna be my girlfriend?,” — inspires many of the premiere’s most magical, and musical, moments. Their initial flush of love gets no less a soundtrack than the Rolling Stone’s marvelously sappy psychedelic ballad “She’s a Rainbow,” and he later hallucinates an entire French-sophistipop dance routine with her in the episode’s big showstopper sequence.
Which is no small risk where superhero audiences are concerned. Tobey Maguire’s Evil Peter Parker disco routine was easily the craziest and funniest thing in Sam Raimi’s “Spider-Man” trilogy, but to this day fans talk about it as if they were personally betrayed. Moves like this, or like opening the episode with a coming-of-age montage set to the Who’s post-mod masterpiece “Happy Jack” like something out of a Wes Anderson movie, demonstrate Hawley’s willingness to attempt actual wit, rather than self-seriousness or rip-roarin,’ old-fashioned fun, the genre’s two acceptable poles at the moment.
But this is a show about a crazed psychic with godlike powers, so of course the telekinesis hits the fan eventually. The episode is punctuated by three escape sequences that offer mainline doses of C.G.I.-enhanced mutant mayhem. When David finally touches Syd, her own power to swap minds with people who make physical contact with her kicks in; David finds himself in her body (he grabs his newfound breasts in disbelief), while she finds herself in his and unleashes his full power by accident, killing Lenny and sealing all of the other inmates behind the walls of their rooms.
After David is captured, he bursts free of his initial interrogation by sending every person and object in the room flying in slow-motion to the tune of Jane’s Addiction’s alt-rock anthem “Up the Beach” in a scene that plays like a riff on the climax of Antonioni’s “Zabriskie Point.” And when knockout gas and electric wires give his captors the upper hand once again, a team of other mutants — including Syd, long since back in her own body — wipe out the government goons in a protracted gun-and-superpower battle that litters a swimming pool with charred corpses and tosses soldiers into the sky through sheer psychic strength.
Hawley’s attention to detail throughout the episode is impeccable. He and his collaborators make design choices that delight and discomfit effortlessly: the rectangular indentations in the table at which David and his interrogator are ensconced, pink accents in the uniforms of his sinister handlers, a prominent goon whose throwback perm and wardrobe make him look like he should be breaking legs for Bob Hoskins in “The Long Good Friday.” Amid the camp and the chaos, Hawley introduces a note of truly frightening horror, too, in the form of the hairless and corpulent “devil with yellow eyes,” who occasionally pops up on the periphery, as mute and menacing as a David Lynch demon.
The same praise cannot be leveled at the script. Ultimately, it’s tough to blame Hawley for not taking the mental-illness angle particularly seriously. Why should he, when we all know David really is hearing voices and really can make objects move with a thought? But the result is one of those unbearable “quirky mental hospital” scenarios, an odiously cutesy aesthetic made worse by the glib slacker sarcasm of Plaza’s manic witchy nightmare girl, Lenny, and Stevens’s unconvincingly twitchy handling of the conflicting signals in David’s brain.
There’s something equally flimsy and phony about the final scene. Shot in a long, continuous tracking-shot take, it appears intended to evoke similar knockout scenes, from the shootout in “True Detective” Season 1 to the seemingly endless one-take blood baths of “Children of Men.” But with each soldier who goes flying hundreds of feet through the air when a character waves a hand at him, the digital enhancement gets more obvious and the feat grows less impressive. For all its visual splendor and its “pull out all the stops” approach to thrills, it’s too airy to feel like a real technical achievement, and insufficiently involving to feel like an emotional one. So far, the same can be said of “Legion” itself.
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