Eventually, I might be legend: A review of Francis Lawrence's I Am Legend|
First appeared at Copyright Adam Durrant and reproduced with permission.
Will Smith plays a character other than Will Smith. Has potential to become iconic snapshot of early twenty-first century western gadgetry. Surprisingly fast pace forces the story to tell itself without too much painful exposition.
Far from being a spiritual successor to Richard Matheson?s 1954 novel. Probably won't age as well as The Omega Man. A visually stunning rendition of abandoned Manhattan Island is cheapened by BAD CG zombie/ vampires. Does not deliver on its much-touted themes of isolation and loneliness. Dialogue on God vs Science seemed contrived. Plot resolves itself with all the complexity of a certain Will Smith/Kevin James buddy picture/debacle known as Hitch.
I Am Legend is director Francis Lawrence's attempt to capture the essence, but seemingly not the plot, of Richard Matheson's seminal SF novel. This is the third time that Hollywood has usurped Matheson's story about a deadly virus that turns the world against itself, leaving the protagonist, Doctor Robert Neville, to fend off isolation and legions of vampires. The first attempt was in 1964 with Ubaldo Ragona's The Last Man on Earth, starring Vincent Price as Doctor Robert Morgan. The second spin on the book occurred in 1971 with the release of Boris Segal's The Omega Man, starring Charlton Heston as Doctor Robert Neville.
I Am Legend sees Will Smith reprising the role made famous by Price and Heston. While Smith?s name carries with it far less credibility and gravitas than that of Heston and Price, Smith rises to the occasion and manages to pull off acting as a thoughtful and pensive character.
Doctor Neville is the last - or is he - survivor of a biological plague that killed 90% of the earth's population and turned the other 10% into rage fueled zombie/vampire hybrids. The genesis of this virus, as we learn in the film's first 45 seconds, stems from a viral cure for cancer that mutated and in true apocalyptic movie fashion, went horribly wrong. Smith's character was the Army scientist charged with ending the virus that we come to know as K.V. On an editorial note; K.V. is a stupid name for a virus. I shall now refer to it simply as, the killer virus.
Smith, of course, fails to stop the killer virus. As the film unfolds, we learn that for three years his only company is a dog named Samantha and a smattering of mannequins that he has dressed up at his local DVD rental store. Gags like this make me wonder, in a movie where a person is meant to be isolated, why does Hollywood always resort to cheap trickery to give the protagonist something inanimate to anthropomorphize. Call me cold and dispassionate, but I found Tom Hanks' acting aside a volleyball nothing more than a distraction whist studio executives stole two hours of my life. I grumbled at Heston talking to the bust in his apartment in Omega Man and I grumbled at Smith talking to his mannequins.
In as much as all films reflect the period in which they are made, I Am Legend does so in unique fashion. Viewers are presented with images of Manhattan in decay; married to Smith driving fast cars, watching DVDs on his flat screen television and listening to his iPod. In this fashion, the post-apocalyptic film needs to be an accurate rendering of the present lest it alienate the audience by drifting too far into the realm of speculative Science Fiction - see The Road Warrior and Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome. This rule is simultaneously the Achilles heel and greatest strength of a film such as this.
On the one hand you tell a story in a familiar world. Abandoned Manhattan, built accurately to the letter, is reminiscent of an article I read in Scientific American this summer which related the speed in which nature would reclaim our civilization without our daily efforts.
But on the other side of the coin, the setting is so ubiquitous in contemporary film that there's nothing new in the environment. This is why The Omega Man is just as successful now as it was in the 70s; despite aging a few decades, it remains a timeless reflection of 70s counter-culture, race relations and cold war tensions. But unlike Omega Man, I don't think that Legend has the capacity to age into something that will be better in 20 years than it is today. Every movie released in the last five years which was set in contemporary times has had iPods, flat screens, fast cars, and laptop computers.
|Where Omega Man, had its strong allegorical subtext, Legend again comes up short. When Smith meets another survivor and she happens to be a proponent of pre-destination and divine intervention, the ensuing squabble over religion versus science is at most a shallow minded spat: Smith sees the woman as a kook, she thinks that he has just "lost his faith". If that was supposed to be an allegory for the rise of religious fundamentalism in the post 9/11 world, or some sort of reason vs. faith discourse vis-a-vis Christopher Hitchens or Sam Harris, I ain't buying.
The film's treatment of isolation and loneliness was similarly, less than compelling. Being a man of both science and the military, Smith's character keeps to a regimented life. From sunup to sundown, he has an established routine that focuses on physical fitness, scrounging for food, holding office hours for potential fellow survivors, researching a cure for the killer virus, listening to Bob Marley -another reason why this film may not age well, Bob Marley is not the music of the early twenty-first century - and watching Shrek so many times that he knows all the words. I imagine most movie-goers incapable of that level of discipline in their lives and will find those elements of the character quite unfamiliar.
Where Heston's talking to a bust of a military general was a cheap gag, it at least very effectively demonstrated that his character was a bit insane from loneliness. Only toward the end of the film do we see Smith's character reaching a point of insanity such that he genuinely is overwhelmed by the isolation; this isolation is made manifest by his honest desire and need for a mannequin to say hello to him.
Although I will always prefer the white-haired mutants of The Omega Man, dragging their book-burning convoy through the streets of Los Angeles, torching Shakespeare while spouting cultish jargon and racial slurs - one goes so far as to refer to Heston's fortified apartment as a "Honkey paradise" - the zombie/vampires of Legend were an interesting idea. But, releasing a film with stock CG characters on the heels of Beowulf's raising the bar on the capacity for digital characters was a clear misstep. (The chance of injury during the end times would be high. Unfortunately there would be no Los Angeles personal injury attorney to help you if you had a serious injury. An attorney can help you deal with your insurance company.)
In the final assessment, I Am Legend is a better- than-average, but not great, attempt to introduce this generation to a classic story of isolation and survival. Smith was no Heston, but Heston was no Price; so let us hope that in twenty years we don't see another dull redux with Dakota Fanning as Doctor Roberta Neville. Smith's portrayal of a mostly sane Robert Neville, save for five minutes toward the end, is worth seeing, but certainly nothing that I would recommend standing in line to see.