Angels and dust on the set of the supernatural Legion

SCI FI Wire took a trip to the New Mexico about a year ago to the set of Legion, the upcoming supernatural thriller about God's having enough of the 6 billion ape descendants roaming this planet and sending, ... well, ... legions of angels to wipe us out.

BAFTA-nominated actor Paul Bettany plays the Archangel Michael, who decides to go AWOL (that's Angel Without Leave) against God's orders and defend humanity from the seraphic onslaught. Other cast members include G.I. Joe's Dennis Quaid, Transformers' Tyrese Gibson, Friday Night Lights' Adrianne Palicki and genre fave Doug Jones. Visual-effects expert Scott Stewart makes his feature directing debut with Legion, after years of heading up effects house The Orphanage.

"My objective in this film is to save the human race," says Bettany in his trailer, addressing how one goes about playing an archangel. He's covered with tattoos crafted by the makeup department in the Enochian language of angels devised by the 16th-century necromancer John Dee. "Which is impossible to play [as an actor], so you have to come up with substitutes. I have two children and a wife who I'm, you know, quite fond of," he says with profoundly British understatement. "I simply wouldn't want anything awful to happen to them. So I mix my fascination with the mythology of angels with my real-life objective to keep my children safe, to keep them as happy as possible, ... with the attitude of a warrior. One can only deal with one's fantasies of what an angel is. I began to sort of ... create something a little more concrete."

If T.S. Eliot said he could show you "fear in a handful of dust," then the makers of Legion seem to be taking that notion to heart. The set, off in the desert outside Albuquerque, is coated with fine sand like red flour. The stuff gets into everything, and you can't help but pity the freaky-looking extras huddling around heaters during down time on the night shoot, who have to endure the impossibly fine dust while wearing spooky contact lenses.

Bats swoop, eating bugs attracted by the lights surrounding the set of the off-the-beaten-track diner where Michael and a small group of human survivors are holed up for an apocalyptic siege. The unreality of the set is accentuated by flashes of dry lighting on the horizon, making everything feel apocalyptic without the benefit of special effects.

Which might be exactly what effects-specialist-turned-director Stewart might be going for.

"[I'm trying to] build sequence after sequence, which hopefully just sort of ratchets up the suspense and which doesn't necessarily do it with visual pyrotechnics, but which tries to do it quietly in an increasingly brooding kind of way, and then we have all hell break loose," Stewart says during a break in filming. "There's Paul Bettany running around with machine guns trying to kill bad guys. He said something really funny the first day. He had an MP-5 and an M-16 in his hands, and he's running out of the diner firing away, unloading full magazines. And he said, 'I was in the Royal Shakespeare Company, but THIS is why I became an actor!'"

Legion opens Jan. 22, 2010.

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