A Kind of Magic #1 - Examining the Immortal Appeal of Highlander
They are Princes of the Universe, filled with blood of kings. Caught in a game of death, their long lives are violent and tragic. They walk among us unseen, fighting in the shadows. In the end, there can be only one.
If for no other reason, Highlander deserves a big place in pop culture history for introducing a living, breathing world inhabited by interesting characters with deep histories. In many ways, those characters are just like us, but with one big exception. In the world of Highlander, mysterious immortals fight for the prize, and our world is their battleground. The promise of the 1986 cult classic movie starring Christopher Lambert, Sean Connery, and Clancy Brown was eventually fulfilled in the television series that ran for six seasons and quickly transcended its syndicated brethren, exploring complicated issues and immortal problems at great length. Subjects like the pain of losing mortal loved ones to illness and old age, the boredom that comes with living for hundreds of years, and the nature of morality when there are no consequences for doing evil are all explored at great length on the TV show. Both the cinematic forays and television series tackle some weighty issues, but balance these thoughtful topics with lots and lots of sword fighting, violence, and mysticism. They're thoughtful, but with pop sensibilities.
Maybe there are a few reasons for this. The concept owes to the original movie, Highlander, which successfully blended historical action with a science fiction concept against a modern fantasy backdrop. Highlander the feature film was never going to be an Academy Award darling; it was destined for midnight screenings and holds appeal to people who also enjoy Conan the Barbarian and high-concept eighties films like Krull or the live-action Masters of the Universe. Truthfully, there's a lot more substance to Highlander than the initial film is able to really explore in under two hours, and that feeling that we're only getting the tip of the iceberg and that there's so much more waiting to be explored permeates that initial outing. Unfortunately, it seems like you had to be there, and if a viewer didn't catch up with Highlander during the 1980s or the 1990s, it doesn't seem very likely that there would be much appeal now, when high-budget genre entertainment is more polished and accessible.
The fact is, Highlander is pretty specific. It's underground. It's cult by definition. By its very nature, it seems designed to avoid the mainstream and appeal to a very narrow audience, but that audience holds on. There are many strikes against Highlander: terrible sequels, a dated aesthetic, and too many trips to the well that is all but dry. This should all add up to a franchise that peaked with the first movie and then died a slow death. Strangely, though, that isn't the case. Though every Highlander fan will admit to the shortcomings of the property, they will also tell you that there is just something about the adventures of Connor and Duncan MacLeod that capture their imaginations and won't let them go. There is something about Highlander that endures to this day.
In the next installment of "A Kind of Magic," we'll take a look at the movie that started it all. Until then...don't lose your head.