Thursday, May 01, 2008

I Am Legend

In its pre-title sequence, I Am Legend articulates the dread in all post-apocalyptic fiction with such grace and subtlety that it could almost be a stand-alone short, the Tiffany piece in a science-fiction film festival. Will Smith, the last man alive in New York City, speeds along in a fast car, his dog next to him, chasing a herd of deer through the crumbling, abandoned streets. He separates and corners a straggler and is about to bring the animal down with a high-powered rifle, when a lion family emerges from the urban wilderness and takes his kill for their own. Smith, recognizing that, in spite of his technology, the lions have the upper hand, backs off. Man is monkey again, a weak animal in a vicious, natural world. This, in itself, is a fitting tribute to the book the film is based on. Richard Matheson's I Am Legend is, inevitably, a completely different animal than this film adaptation (to my astonishment, while watching this I realized that I have yet to see the two prior adaptations: The Last Man on Earth and The Omega Man), but the ultimate message of the novel is that man's place at the top of the food chain is precarious. And, while the film, surprisingly, maintains this quietly competent and faithful (in spirit, at least) rendition of events from this very influential novel for much of its running time, it also fearlessly unleashes an atrocious third act, disappointing in its incongruity with the rest of the film and sloppy in its execution.

Though, even before this dissatisfying conclusion, the film has already been burdened by some unconscionably unconvincing monsters. The problem lies, not so much in the quality of the effects--though they are indeed distractingly artificial, one doesn't exactly love Ray Harryhausen's monsters for their realism, after all--as in the conceptual confusion surrounding them. The monsters are just never well-defined. They're basically zombies with the appetites (blood) and allergies (sunlight) of vampires. The film labors to give the creatures some pseudo-scientific validity ("they're allergic to UV rays" or whatever) but, in the meantime, negates to give them a whit of personality. Halfway through the film, these mindless drones set a trap for Smith and unleash their zombie dogs upon him, and the abstract thought required for both setting the trap and successfully domesticating zombie animals is at odds with everything the movie has taught the viewer about these zompires. The movie drops a few hints that there is more to know about these creatures (perhaps they're smarter than Smith assumes!) but, then, at its conclusion, turns them back into mindless, personality-free zombies. They may as well be lions.

The fact that most everything else in the film is so well-rendered makes these creations stick out all the more. The city is spooky, deserted, and hostile. Smith, himself, turns in a convincing, winning performance as the half-sane Robert Neville, sole surviving human in New York. As an actor, Smith has always been charming, and even here in grief-stricken insanity he oozes movie-star charisma. He's tasked with performing in many, many one-sided dialogue scenes--with the dog, with the mannequins that Neville has stationed around the city in order to trick himself into believing the city is still populated--and the conviction he brings to them is winning and disturbing at once (Smith seems able to project his charm onto everything in his vicinity). It's not surprising that Smith excels in the role, though, when one considers the life of his character. For his daily routine, Neville exercises to keep his body in shape, dons a lab coat and stands in front of a camera while spouting some pseudo-scientific gibberish, has one-sided dialogue scenes with expressionless stand-ins, and watches movies, all the while isolated from any significant human contact. He lives like a movie star.

Watching Neville interact with this corroded, weeded wasteland is as compelling as any post apocalypse film I can think of, and the film produces a very real, very acute sense of dread from his isolation within this giant metropolis. After about an hour, though, the film introduces two new human characters and the movie falls apart. The reasons given for the arrival of this woman and little boy destroys any of the viewer's leftover suspension of disbelief that wasn't already eradicated by the CGI beasties, and, worse, the movie itself doesn't know what to do with them. They sort-of wander about, cooking eggs, hanging out in the periphery of shots while Smith continues seeking a cure for the disease. Somewhere around this time, the movie makes an embarrassing attempt to grapple with science versus religion and everything starts to feel rushed, poorly conceived. One can almost hear the reactions of test audiences dictating the plot; it's hard to imagine how else this film, previously taut and efficient, nearly elegant, in its storytelling, would start to feel bandied about by an arbitrary, brainless master (not to get into my own thoughts about religion... hey-o!) and why the ending would feel as gratuitously tacked-on as it does. I guess it's unpopular to make a movie that says we humans are not as wonderful as we think we are, but I would rather hear that from Will Smith than just about anyone else.