The Theory of Chaos

Thursday, January 10, 2008

MOVIE REVIEW - I Am Legend

Full review behind the jump

I Am Legend

Director
: Francis Lawrence
Writers
: Screenplay by Mark Protosevich and Akiva Goldsman, based on the screenplay The Omega Man by John William Corrington & Joyce Corrington, based on the novel by Richard Matheson
Producers
: Akiva Goldsman, James Lassiter, David Heyman, Neal H. Moritz, Erwin Stoff
Stars
: Will Smith, Alice Braga, Salli Richardson, Charlie Tahan, Dash Mihok


In a way, once you cast Will Smith, this becomes inevitable. In Richard Matheson’s seminal vampire novel
I Am Legend, the lead character fights as much against his own despair and survivor’s guilt as he does against the monsters gathering outside his garlic-strewn door every night. He broods, he drinks too much, he wonders what the whole bloody point of carrying on is when he seems to be the only human left. He even makes sloppy mistakes, like an unforgettable chapter where he forgets to wind his watch and is caught miles from home as the sun sets. Although the genocide is global the scale feels personal – he’s barricaded into a suburban house, and his chief nemesis is his former carpool buddy.

But Smith has too much innate spirit to play that Robert Neville. This is not to knock him – part of the essence of cinema acting is that the camera always sees an inalterable core part of you; unless you’re Daniel Day-Lewis. When an audience watches Will Smith, and sees
him being overcome by grief and hopelessness, they know that things are bad on an entirely other scale.

Creating an enormous canvas for what is in long stretches Smith’s captivating one-man show is the triumph of
I Am Legend, which in order to make survival a more bombastic affair turns Robert Neville into a rip-abbed military man, and a disease specialist besides. He’s got a faithful dog and a combination townhouse/laboratory/fortress with a well-stocked pantry and a view of Central Park. It’s like a further evolution of the last adaptation, 1971’s The Omega Man, whose screenwriters are credited here; that movie also promoted Charlton Heston to the rank of military scientist. He and Smith’s Neville are far more macho and proactive survivors than the self-doubting loner from Matheson’s prose. They wouldn’t forget to wind their watches.

But even a man with this Neville’s discipline and technological resources has his difficulties. You see it in those mannequins he’s set up to converse with on his daily rounds. You can hear that hint of desperation in that radio signal he broadcasts around the clock, begging survivors to meet him at the port any day at midday. It’s been three years since an experimental anti-cancer “good virus” mutated and spread beyond the test subjects, and the Army explosively “quarantined” Manhattan Island. Loneliness is taking its toll. I’d say it’s his worst enemy, if it weren’t for those hordes of hyperactive bloodsuckers who come streaming out of the walls every dusk. For years Neville has treated them as rabid animals, to be captured and tested in the vain hopes of finding a cure. But there are disturbing signs that they are learning a few things, and that they are aware there’s at least one more meal of human out there somewhere.

This calls upon Smith to be both movie star enough to compel from within such a large-scale fantasy, and also actor enough to activate our empathy. Some of the movie’s most effective surprises are those that remind us how close to the brink his sanity is, how small a nudge would be necessary to permanently hobble his psyche amidst the unbearable pressure of being, maybe, the last human living.

There are some quite nasty paths such a story could tread, and which Matheson took, including one of the all-time great twist endings in horror, the one that explained the title. And in this respect I Am Legend, with a screenplay re-written by Hollywood’s hardest-working dumber-downer Akiva Goldsman (The Da Vinci Code, I, Robot, A Beautiful Mind), is almost insultingly shy about your jugular vein. It knows how to make us vulnerable – a scene that plays out entirely on Smith’s face, while we hear what he is doing below the camera frame, is devastating emotionally, because we don’t need to see it to imagine what it is costing him.

But when it has us, when it really has the chance to become special, it blinks. It takes the easy out. David Mamet says great endings are surprising but inevitable, the filmmakers had just such an ending sitting in their laps in Matheson’s book, but instead chose to do what, I guess, they convinced themselves must happen in an expensive Will Smith movie.

I respected director Francis Lawrence’s visual sense in his previous picture, Constantine, even if the movie itself left me wanting. Once again he is colorful without being garish, dynamic without being dizzying, and with a particular eye for tweaking the ordinary in a way that underlines the very different world of the movie. I Am Legend is often remarkable to take in, both for the way in which it creates the spectacle of an abandoned Manhattan overrun with cornfields and stray lions, and in its comfort with the age-old eeriness of silence. His handling of a scene where Neville must venture into a darkened building – where the audience has little to go on but the tiny beam of his flashlight and his urgent breathing – is truly first-rate spine-tingling stuff. So where’s the killer instinct?

The story goes that Steven Spielberg, while making Jaws, considered altering the final shot of Brody and Hooper swimming safely to shore, zooming further back to reveal a whole sea full of shark fins behind them, converging on the island. That would have been silly, but it showed his head was in the right place – a truly scary movie doesn’t ever entirely let go of your imagination, or make you feel safe. Even in the happiest endings, the unease should remain; you should still be afraid to get in the water. I wish that inside I Am Legend, behind its high-Hollywood production gloss and the expert work of its lead, the same fiendish impulse lurked.

3 Comments:

  • So, how did Alice Braga and the kid drive to Manhattan Island, when we witnessed the destruction of every bridge connected to the borough? When did the mutants evolve to the point where they could rig car-based snare traps? And when did Akiva Goldsman decide it was cool to use Bob Marley's posthumous classic "Legend" as some sort of cheesy in-joke? Too many questions, and a lame climax that amounted to a ten-minute commercial for Roman Catholicism. Or something. SPOILER Can't grenades be thrown behind? It reminded me of how pissed I was at the third act of the Danny Boyle space trip "Sunshine".

    By Anonymous Mike De Luca, at 7:31 AM  

  • *SPOILER ALERT* Yeah, that "God stuff" climax was so arbitrary and anti-science, and so against the spirit of Matheson's work, it really annoyed me. And a lot of people are bringing up that "how did they drive to Manhattan" thing. When she appeared I really hoped she was going to play the role of the female survivor in the book - I was positively wicked with glee over the possibility of it.

    By Blogger Nick, at 9:31 AM  

  • will smith sucks anyway. the movie was weak and fuck that dog!

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 5:44 PM  

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