`Legend' may signal end of fantasy era. Fairy tale as icy artifact

Is the fantasy bandwagon running out of steam -- or rocket fuel, or pixie dust, or whatever has fueled this juggernaut for the past few years? My guess is a hopeful yes after seeing ``Legend.'' If a movie can have so much money and talent poured into it, and still come out this stale and tedious, something larger may be happening than the failure of one misbegotten project.

Ridley Scott, the director of ``Legend,'' has made his fortune in fantasyland: ``Alien'' and ``Blade Runner'' are on his rap sheet, and the new film follows in their wake. It's obvious that lots of high-powered talent and high-tech equipment were involved in making it, and the story -- about a struggle between the forces of light and darkness, with a young heroine caught between them -- has his usual high quotient of physical and emotional violence. (The rating is PG, stretched to its breaking point.)

That the picture goes totally, fatally off course can be traced to a pair of problems. One is the screenplay, which traffics in boring elves and pointless demons and trite heroics long after the fantasy-hooked entertainment industry has milked those commodities bone dry. The other is Scott's oddly cold approach to his material, which seems to petrify even as it hits the screen -- as if the ideal fairy tale were an icy artifact, not a warm and living outgrowth of universally shared dreams.

How did such an ambitious, big-budget film come to be dogged by two fundamental flaws, either of which would be enough to sink it? I think part of the answer lies in cynicism about the moviegoing public, which has swallowed so much Hollywood gibberish for so long that some filmmakers think they can pawn off anything as long as it's big, colorful, and fantastic.

But the time for such an approach may be drawing to a close. A small but encouraging crop of recent releases is nudging us in the ribs just now and hinting at a renewed maturity in the movie world.

Nobody expects quiet, literate entertainments like ``On Valentine's Day'' and ``Desert Bloom'' and ``A Room With a View'' to be blockbuster hits or wipe the legacy of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg off the screen; but it's no coincidence that a few such intelligent, grown-up productions have arrived at more or less the same time. Moviegoers have intelligence as well as eyes and ears, and they have been hungering for substantial fare during the long reign of fantasy that ``Star Wars'' touched off and ``E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial'' cemented in place. The movie world has started to respond -- with even a fantasy honcho like Spielberg shifting gears into the real-life realm of ``The Color Purple.''

I may be pointing to this trend too early. The warm-weather months are just around the corner, and they always bring a deluge of frivolity and stupidity with them. It's also possible that the Spielberg-Lucas axis (or one of its clones) has a truly ingenious entertainment up its sleeve -- as rich as ``Close Encounters of the Third Kind,'' perhaps, or as fresh as the first ``Star Wars'' episode -- and that even fantasy-glutted curmudgeons like me will have to admit there's life in the old genre yet.

But if a loser like ``Legend'' represents the best that today's cinema-dreamers can come up with, audiences are going to seek out very different fare -- and that fare is available right now, just waiting for us all to reach out and support it. After years of devoting himself to the stage, Oscar-winning screenwriter Horton Foote has judged the time right for a return to film, giving us such thoughtful works as ``Tender Mercies'' and ``The Trip to Bountiful,'' as well as the new ``On Valentine's Day,'' one of his very best. The venerable firm of Merchant Ivory Productions is in high gear, following up its 1984 version of ``The Bostonians'' with ``A Room With a View,'' one of this season's most delightful diversions. A new filmmaking talent, Eugene Corr, has arrived on the scene with ``Desert Bloom,'' a spectacular directorial debut that's as removed as can be from the teen-adventure-fantasy mold.

If mature audiences can overcome their skepticism about today's film scene (as understandable as that skepticism is) and support these pictures, the new breed of thoughtful dramas will have a chance to survive and grow. If young audiences also give them a try, taking at least a temporary vacation from the zap-zap school of cinema, that chance will be a very good one -- and will have served a useful purpose.

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