I Am Legend / Dustin Rowles
Film Reviews | December 15, 2007 | Comments ()
I Am Legend is so good for so long that the last 25 minutes — which are like staring at the unflushed leavings on Taco night at Michael Bay’s house — are worse than a slap to the face; the last act is like a spiked wrecking ball into the left orb, puncturing your fibrous tunic and spilling eye collagen into your lap. Those in love with the novel’s original story and ending may as well walk toward the nearest bridge, grab the collar on the back of your shirt, and toss yourself over. Hell, I almost wish I’d left before the wrecking ball arrived, because until then, I Am Legend is a beautifully shot, almost meditative mutant flick, a quietly exhilarating cross between Resident Evil (if RE were any damn good) and Cast Away with Will Smith in the lead, an actor who may not be as talented as Hanks, but one who’s arguably more interesting to watch.
I Am Legend is the third failed attempt to successfully translate Richard Matheson’s 1954 novel to the big screen, and while this 2007 version is a an improvement over both 1964’s The Last Man on Earth starring Vincent Price, and the bastardized ‘71 version, The Omega Man, with Charlton Heston sharing the screen with a group of resistant albinos, it may be another thirty years before they get it exactly right. This year’s version contains the same underlying last-man-standing premise: Robert Neville (Smith) is military virologist who, inexplicably, survives a man-made virus reverse-engineered from the measles, originally thought to be a cure for cancer. Instead, it wipes out the world’s population, which is one way to cure cancer, I suppose.
Neville, who sends his family away and chooses to stay behind at “ground zero” when Manhattan is quarantined, is left alone in his Washington Square apartment with a well-stocked cupboard, a massive arsenal of weapons and DVDs, and a bathtub he sleeps in with his dog, Sam, hiding away from grazing Dark Seekers, cruddy CGI zombies who come out at night to terrorize the city and seek prey. During the day, Neville hunts for his own (and seldom will you see anything as stunning as a herd of deer running through New York City, even a shitty CGI herd), making the Big Apple his lonely playground, as he drives a Shelby Mustang GT 500 through a desolate Manhattan, streets and sidewalks cracked with grass, a picturesque scene that’s lack of vibrancy creates an unsettling mixture of heartbreak and eeriness.
Francis Lawrence (Constantine) does a superb job of demonstrating the sense of forlorn isolation that Neville feels, and he does so without resorting to cheap plot devices; there are no voiceovers, for instance, in a movie where it might otherwise seem natural, at least for a lazier director keen on insulting the intelligence of his audience. There is enough in Neville’s daily routine, the rituals formed over three years, to provide a sense of how it must feel to be the last man alive. Clearly affected by his alienation from civilization, a psychologically unhinged Neville carries on conversations with mannequins at the video store and his relationship with his Man Friday, Sam, is depicted with a rich affection. Indeed, the excellent use of visual clues (Neville watching every movie in the video store, in alphabetical order, for instance), along with a smart, vulnerable Will Smith performance (his cocksure bravado would have been woefully out of place here) deftly captures the novels sense of despair.
However, the script — written by Mark Protosevich (Poseidon) and polished up by Akiva Goldsman (The Da Vinci Code, Cinderella Man) — never explores in any meaningful way why the virus infected the world’s population in the way that it did, nor is there any explanation as to why the Dark Seekers must avoid the light or why they sleep in pulsating football huddles. In fact, there is no mythology behind the creatures at all; they just are. And what they are, unfortunately, are terrible CGI creations, like something from The Mummy or Scooby Doo 2: Monsters Unleashed — schlocky, risibly goofy pale people with no hair — which is why the movie works best when the mutants are off-screen or seen briefly, and in the dark. Neville, however, does spend much of his day (when he’s not hunting deer or teeing off of aircraft carriers) trying to develop an antidote to the virus, one that he experiments on Dark Seekers that he booby traps. But even in his daily videotaped medical findings, Neville offers little in the way of substance, just meaningless statistics and a record of which anti-viruses seem to be working the best rather than a scientific explanation as to what happened or why he’s one of the lucky few with a natural immunity.
Eventually, just before the isolation drives him to suicide, Neville is discovered by two other people immune to the virus, a Brazilian woman (Alice Braga) and her son (Charlie Tahan), who traveled from Maryland after they heard Neville’s voice on AM frequency. But once they are introduced to the movie, the wheels come off the whole production. For non-sports fans, forgive the analogy, but for two thirds of the film, I Am Legend is akin to Philadelphia Eagles game against the New England Patriots a few weeks ago. Despite a flimsy script, a relative lack of talent, and the occasional misstep, for three quarters both the director and actor performed way beyond what they were capable; it’s palpably tense and thrillingly suspenseful monster flick, though you can sort of sense that defeat is inevitable. And that fourth quarter proves to be an epic train wreck. Frances Lawrence — filling in for the film’s intended director, Ridley Scott — proves why he may be the A.J. Feeley of Hollywood, making one bad throw after another. That whole last act — replete with a Bob Marley tribute, an out-of-fucking-nowhere Jesus theme, massive explosions, a butterfly tattoo, and some truly horrid Spielbergian schmaltziness — is simply unforgivable. I could overlook the many differences between the movie and Matheson’s storyline because Lawrence ably captures the spirit of that desolation and the psychological effects of loneliness while creating some eye-popping visuals (I can only imagine the havoc filming must have created in NYC), but the third act completely spoils the entire film while making an absolute mockery of the meaning behind Matheson’s title. It’s deplorable for both those who do and do not have an allegiance to the book — one giant cornball wrapped around a hand grenade. And when it explodes, you’re left covered, soaked in disappointment.
Dustin Rowles is the publisher of Pajiba. He lives with his wife and son in Ithaca, New York. You may email him, or leave a comment below.