Thursday, December 20, 2007

I Am Legend


Will Power

Richard Matheson’s book 'I am Legend' was published in 1954 and is now available in three film versions. The first starred Vincent Price and was called The Last Man on Earth (1964), the second featured studly Charleton Heston and was dubbed The Omega Man (1971). Now we get yet another incarnation with Will Smith that uses the original (and most cryptic) title of the novel. While I wasn’t thrilled to learn I was getting yet another remake in 2007, I am Legend is a very good movie, a thrilling, scary, heartfelt, sci-fi survival tale. It’s one of my favorite films this year.

Robert Neville (Smith) seems to be the only survior of of world wide plague triggered by a mutated cancer cure. Now he wanders the once busy streets of New York City looking for food and something to do. With only his trusty dog Sam and an assault rifle by his side, he hunts and gathers by day, then locks himself in his fortified house at night. This is due to fact that dawn brings out horrible mutant-zombies that seem to have only one thing on their fevered minds: kill Neville. Still dedicated to finding a cure for this disease in the city he was responsible for, Neville continues his work to save the human race. But can they be?

Let me first say that for this movie to work, the lead has to deliver or everything dies. Will Smith is on screen for the entire film, and he is great as protagonist Neville. He conveys the intensity and pathos of a guy who has lost his family, his world, his mission, and some of his mind dealing with the void left on a planet virtually devoid of human life. It’s a crushing setup, and Smith is up to the challenge. There is one moment where Neville must perform a horrific task, and the camera lingers on Smith’s face when he does the deed. It’s a heartbreaking yet necessary moment, and he owns it.

Director Francis Lawrence (Constantine) slowly dials up the suspense, and never lets up all the while flexing his cinematic skills in this well crafted tale. There are several sequences that feature no dialogue (what Hitchcock called “pure cinema”) but play out completely as visuals. This makes complete sense in a world with no one to talk to, but there is conversation. Neville talks to his dog, makes video log entries, and has flashbacks to the day Manhattan was locked down. This all makes complete sense, and I welcome these silent passages that allow visual storytelling instead of the screenplay telling us what we already see.

I am Legend is a very scary film, despite the over dependence on CGI. There is a great sequence when Smith chases his dog into a dark building, and we hold our breath (but understand) why he goes in. Another features the great visual device of a slowly narrowing shaft of light that is barely keeping three mutant dogs at bay while a wounded Neville crawls back to his vehicle. Palpable suspense can be done, but is hard to maintain (see 1408 and The Descent), but I am Legend follows through all the way to the end.

The least impressive element some of the computer generated trickery. When the filmmakers use it to show a New York that is abandoned and slowly being reclaimed by nature, they really succeed. Tented skyscrapers, weed-infested streets, and a destroyed Brooklyn Bridge all look very convincing. Rubber-faced, super human zombies and digital day-for-night don’t fare so well. It’s always been hard to intermingle fake creatures with real ones, and apparently it still is. This doesn’t derail the movie, but I would have preferred not being taken out of the experience every time I noticed a cheesy effect.

What really does work is the human element. Smith’s character is well developed as the film plays out, and the screenplay by Mark Protosevich and Akiva Goldsman makes him very real. We like him, we root for him, and we want him to survive and succeed in his mission to find a cure. This ain’t just a drama, however, and there are lots of entertaining elements of action, suspense and horror to please just about any fan of viscera. I am Legend is an intelligent sci-fi tale, a story with ideas and subtext that will get you thinking all while it’s scaring the hell out of you.

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