December 20, 2007

Movie Review: I Am Legend

I Am Legend has had quite a history in its 50+ years of existence. It began life as a novella by Richard Matheson that was published in 1954. Ten years later Matheson would translate it to the screen, for an Italian production called The Last Man on Earth starring Vincent Price. Despite Matheson's work on that script, you will not find his name in the credits, due to artistic differences in the finished product he took his name off of it, in its place is an alias, Logan Swanson. Still, it stands as the most faithful adaptation of the source. Seven years later Hollywood took a shot at the tale with the Charlton Heston vehicle The Omega Man. It, too, differs from the source and has a touch of camp when viewed today. Now, we are faced with a third stab, the Will Smith starring I Am Legend. Well, at least they got the title right this time.

From a purely technological standpoint, I Am Legend is the most accomplished filmed vision the story has had yet. We are given a completely convincing vision of a long abandoned Manhattan. It is overgrown with weeds and herds of deer run freely between empty cars and barren streets, hunted by lions and out hero, Robert Neville (Will Smith). This brings up a big question early in the film: "What happened?" It is not long before we find out.

Via flashback, we are let in on an important piece of information. In 2009 a cure for cancer is uncovered. Before long the cure has mutated into a deadly virus that has wiped out 99% of the world's population. The rest of the survivors have been turned into bloodthirsty creatures that share similarities to both vampires and zombies, while not truly being of either classic monster category. All have become these things, all except one. The one lone holdout is Robert Neville, a man seemingly immune to the effects of the fast moving virus.

In this bleak future, Neville lives his life. During the day he cruises the streets looking for supplies, and making sure he is back to his secure home in Greenwich Village. It is in this house, with steel shutters and massive dead bolts that he, and his dog Sam, hide themselves away each night, keeping their distance from the creatures of the night. In addition to keeping himself alive, Neville has also setup a lab in the basement where he works feverishly, searching for a cure to the disease.

It seems simple enough, but it is an emotionally and psychologically complex story that looks into moral responsibility and the effects of loneliness on the individual; pretty heady stuff for a mass-marketed would-be blockbuster (a status that has all but been assured by its opening weekend box office). Now, this film starts off strong, although the further in it goes, the more it devolves into more standard Hollywood action, ending with a climax that feels a bit hollow and tacked on. Still, for the first half to two thirds it works quite well. Most of its success can be laid at the feet of Will Smith who rings as much as possible out of the nearly excellent screenplay from Mark Protosevich and Akiva Goldsman.

Will Smith puts forth a strong performance as a man driven by guilt and suffering the pressures of being completely alone. His only friend is a German Shepherd named Sam. We watch Smith's Neville work desperately to find a cure all while slowly cracking up from being so along. For the first half of the film he is alone. We follow him through his daily routine, filled with his attempts to keep himself sane, like mannequins at the DVD store to talk to. However, despite all efforts to the contrary, he begins to lose his grip. There is one act that pushes him to the edge of a very dark precipice. It is here that the film takes its turn and starts steaming towards its conclusion.

The film is brave to put Smith in the drivers seat for so long. Not because it is Will Smith, but because you are leading what is essentially an action film with a performer who is by himself for a large part of the running time. You have to keep it interesting. Director Francis Lawrence (Constantine) keeps the interest level high with the use of flashbacks (which I am sure were in the script, but are handled nicely by Lawrence) to a time just prior to the catastrophic event that leads to the present predicament. These help break up the alone time and allow the Neville character to grow a bit more.

The problems with I Am Legend lie in the fact that it moves from character driven plot to plot driven characters. There is also a subversion of the title's meaning that reveals itself in its climax that diverges from the previously filmed versions. There is also the removal of the intelligence quotient of the creatures. In the prior versions, and the story, the infected retain their intelligence and know who Neville is and what he represents to them as they work to create a different society.

Overall, this was better than I had thought it was going to be, and Will Smith turned in a better performance than I had hoped. It may not be a true adaptation of the source, and the end may be a bit of a letdown, there is no denying the entertainment value contained within. I was impressed with the level of emotion that was achieved, I truly felt involved in Neville's life and was concerned with how his life would play out.

I Am Legend is smarter than your average Hollywood science fiction blockbuster, and is definitely worth seeing for the complexities of the lead character and its scary, yet believable vision of a potential future. (Plus, if you pay attention early on you will see a poster advertising a Batman/Superman movie in the year 2010)



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