Try being a cinema critic. Just try. Press screenings are most often held at 7:30 pm on weeknights. That’s the tail end of rush hour. In the biggest movie city in the world, that means approximately two wasted hours struggling pointlessly amongst thousands of irritable and even openly hostile commuters — all going nowhere very, very, very, very slowly. And then enthusiasm is expected. It’s madness, I tell you.
In stark contrast: The existence of Dr. Robert Neville (Will Smith) — a hero with limitless resources and literally no social hindrances whatsoever — unless you count having to lock up indoors and watch videos from dusk until dawn because impossibly powerful former humans want to kill and eat him. Apart from that, the man has the entirety of Manhattan to himself all day, every day, and can do absolutely anything he wants.
The movie is I Am Legend — the fourth direct adaptation of Richard Matheson’s seminal novel of the same name (following a good one with Vincent Price, a great one with Chuck Heston, and a presently unknown straight-to-video one with Mark “Brotherhood of the Wolf” Dacascos). Consider these factors, in addition to countless zombie and sci-fi flicks (one could easily retitle I Am Legend something like Don’t Escape from New York 28 Months Later) and we see that our hero’s most formidable enemy is really only genre redundancy.
Things start out promisingly enough. An uncredited Emma Thompson (no doubt summoned via connections with Harry Potter producer David Heyman) appears as a pioneering scientist on a television newscast, being interviewed for her astonishing breakthrough in adapting a virus (“a very fast car being driven by a very bad man”) to cure — that’s cure! — the c-word. Most impressive — except that we then cut to three years later in an eerie, post-apocalyptic (we’re only going to use that term once here, but please feel free to apply it to every sentence) Manhattan — bottlenecked with forever-stopped traffic, overgrown with weeds, strewn with quarantine tarps, and festooned with more corporate sponsorship logos (they’re all here: telephone companies, bottled water companies, plus some cheeky D.C. Comics references) than even the living can bear to process.
In the midst of this, we find ourselves riding shotgun — or “rifle” — with Robert Neville (Smith), and frankly, from the get-go, I found little about him to like. Driving like a (wait for it) very bad man in a very fast car (he washes his remarkably clean Sponsor-Mobile with what exactly, and how?), Neville tears through the post-apocalyptic (oops!) streets, hunting a herd of well-antlered deer (Deer? Manhattan?) by firing at them out the window. Big venison fan, Neville? Blam-blam-blam. (Indeed, as you’ll see in the second half of this review, I Am Legend takes that big stupid gun and narratively shoots itself in the foot so many times that it becomes my duty to list the merest handful of its glaring absurdities and inconsistencies in order to help salvage the minds of impressionable audience members cleared for entry via its somewhat dubious PG-13 rating.) Then, just as you’re thinking “Mean Jumanji sequel?” — a small lion pride tears into the picture. Welcome…to the jungle?
The flashbacks prove more satisfying, as yet another incredibly compassionate U.S. President opts to seal off Manhattan (echoes of The Simpsons Movie) by blowing up the Brooklyn Bridge in some extremely expensive special effects shots and suchlike. People shriek and panic and begin to turn yucky from the mutated virus, for which Neville feels personally accountable. Although he and his wife (Salli Richardson) and daughter (Smith’s real daughter, Willow) are cleared (barely) for escape, Neville — in one of the movie’s many forced plot-turns — decides to stay behind in Manhattan (he’s somehow immune; and no, there is no twist ending to this, darn it) with the family’s German (or is it “Germin'”?) Shepherd, Samantha (actually two dogs: “Abbey” for the emotional scenes; “Kona” for the fetch scenes) in order to work on a cure, as becomes his mantra, at “ground zero.”
Why not flee to safer, less densely populated environs, where perhaps his work might be better facilitated by the peace of mind of not being constantly stalked by armies of nocturnal monsters? No idea. But they do show us the same footage of Samantha as a puppy twice — just to cement the concept that while Neville may not be a common-sense kinda guy, he is nonetheless a lovably lickable kinda guy.
Then the movie gets pretty good for a while. I won’t tell you the details, but there are various riffs on The Omega Man, The Quiet Earth, last year’s really mediocre Children of Men, Night of the Living Dead and its spawn (a subgenre itself influenced by Matheson’s book; Land of the Dead ended insanely stupidly, btw), and that sort of thing. Smith basically talks to himself and the dog (a lot; contrary to what people are saying, this is indeed a talky movie), makes breakfast, checks out videos (in three years — it’s now 2012 — he’s up to the ‘G’ section — genre unspecified, but there do seem to be porn DVDs behind him in one shot), and gets himself into increasingly heightened trouble with the Infected.
Oh, yeah — the Infected. Um…what can one say? Gone are the moody vampires of The Last Man on Earth, as well as the extremely fun and creative device of the cult of “The Family” in The Omega Man. Here the movie’s creators (or, rather, to be accurate: amalgamators) opt for the “fast zombies” of the 28 Days/Weeks franchise: inarticulate (“BWAHHH!” appears to be their sole “word”) but with some perfunctory reasoning capabilities. They’re not smart, they’re not funny, and their leader (Dash Mihok) looks like the skinless love-child of Michael Berryman and Peter Garrett. Gollum? Sorta. The creatures from The Descent? Yep, them too. The mimes from early Peter Gabriel videos? Mm-hm. There’s even one scene where I thought: “Oh, looky there: A circle-jerk of Voldemorts.” But moreover, this film’s bogeys owe their existence — as does Matheson’s book — to H.G. Wells’ Morlocks. And dig: Just as, a few years ago, I heard actual complaints about the metaphor of Whitey kicking all that bad black Orc ass in the Lord of the Rings trilogy — and incidentally, the Infected here are no mere vampires or zombies, but outrageously super-powerful albino demons who’d make even the meanest Uruk-hai wet its tunic — here we have the same basic “Helm’s Deep” dramatic paradigm, with the apparent racial polarity switched.
My fave bit is when Will Smith opens fire on the monsters and screams: “Take THAT, white trash! Ofay! Cracker! Honky! Honky-honky! Dead honky!!!”
Nay-nay. Instead, rather than — let’s say, “pulling a Shyamalan” — in the woefully maudlin third act, the movie takes a dire and devastating turn for sticky sentiment. Just as we’ve built up some exciting (if nonsensical) momentum, the movie suddenly transforms into a dull domestic drama and very annoyingly protracted commercial for the hellishly overrated Shrek franchise (as if that’s necessary — ever). Its climax is indeed dutifully action-packed, but it’s also so totally ridiculous (appraised below) that most of the eerie setup feels wasted. Where Dr. Robert Neville should become the stuff of fascinating portraiture (indeed, a living window into Loneliness and Desperation and the Vestiges of Hope!), he instead becomes peculiarly predictable, even silly.
And this leads us to Smith’s character and performance. First off, the actor is as charismatic as ever (plus, for certain members of the audience, there’s a shot of him, shirtless and buffed-up, doing intense pull-ups, from what could only be called a “fantasy angle.”) Much of his best work here is rendered in extremely extreme close-ups, and despite much yammering-on about his preparation, the act really boils down to three basic modes: 1. Authoritative; 2. Freaked-out; and 3. Kick-ass. He also goes on quite a bit about how great British musician Bob Marley was (“He believed you could cure racism and hate — cure it! literally! — by injecting music and love into people’s lives!”), and obviously this is nice — but its application within the framework of a horror-thriller (get it? Legend?) feels less cockle-warmingly compassionate than coldly calculated. (At least they’ll have a good holiday party over at Tuff Gong.)
Much of this isn’t really Smith’s fault. It is indeed a weird movie to carry mostly alone on one’s shoulders, and the special guests later on don’t do much to increase tension or add surprises. Actually, it’s impossible to avoid referring to Chuck Heston’s version of the character — he with his insane egotism, crazy hedonism and even boldfaced gun-nuttitude — and go: “Y’know, movies really were better back in the early ’70s — at least in terms of character complexity.” The screenwriters here couldn’t find complexity with both hands, so instead they resort to cheap melodrama and mayhem — which even Smith’s enthusiastic dedication and nice pecs are helpless to redeem.
So why see it? I didn’t say the movie sucks. It’s actually pretty fun (until, suddenly, it isn’t). As late-arrival Twilight Zone knock-offs go, it’s one of the sleeker and more impressive in recent years (until that silly third act). Plus I happen to like B-movies — and this, much like Smith’s turns in Independence Day and Men In Black and I, Robot before it — is really just a glorified B-movie (albeit yet another one on an insanely inflated budget). Director Francis Lawrence (whose Constantine didn’t do the Hellblazer comic even half-justice, but points for trying) clearly had a ball doing all the (oops!) post-apocalyptic shots (they really are excellent, in some moments genuinely chilling), and while he’s no Zack Snyder (in pure zombie terms, this isn’t a patch on the Dawn of the Dead remake), he nonetheless imparts a respectable amount of energy to the worlds of Dr. Robert Neville — inner and outer; past, present and future. Now if only these people could get a handle on the concept of ambiguity!
Avast ye sci-fi faithful! Spoilers lie ahead! Proceed only if thou are truly bold!
- Why is Akiva Goldsman paid to write? He’s lousy. I Am Legend represents yet another potentially awesome narrative screwed up by his pathetic lack of storytelling ability. Boycott Goldsman forever.
- Under the post-apocalyptic, hyperkinetic-flesheater circumstances, deer have flourished in Manhattan? Okay…a very, very distant maybe. But lions? What — as humanity perished, did big cats suddenly develop opposable thumbs and an interest in keys?
- Speaking of the movie’s quadrupeds — and as but one example of rotten exposition — for some reason the rule for dogs is that they’re conveniently not affected by the airborne virus — only by the contact virus. This is pure screenwriting annoyance.
- When Samantha becomes infected, do the film’s producers have Neville strangle the life out of her because they’re hoping for an Oscar nod? He’s a scientist consumed by the concept of redemption, of finding a cure. He obsesses over infected rats. Are you really trying to tell us that he wouldn’t attempt to save his own dog?
- “Scan her again! Scan her again!” What? During the evacuation, the virus-scanners don’t even work properly? Why use them at all?
- Dr. Robert Neville — a military scientist of high rank — just happens to have lived (clearly, with his family) mere feet away from the arch in Washington Square Park? With a very large, very high-tech lab in the basement? Really? Impressive.
- Speaking of which — with the entire city shut down and all other humans within it either dead or reduced to monsters — from where, exactly, is all of the good doctor’s plentiful electricity emanating?
- (I love this one.) The Infected are established to be a barely social tribe of inarticulate, carnivorous monsters. So…why do their males wear trousers and their females wear perky little tops?
- Hey, speaking of the Infected — if they are capable of rigging a complicated and very unlikely snare in which to catch Neville (during an absurdly unguarded moment) — how come they’re not smart enough to don hoodies and shades and go out hunting in the daylight?
- Speaking of that snare, what the hell? — How did they know that the puddle slyly concealing it would not evaporate during one of many relentlessly bright and sunny days?
- Incidentally, Manhattan having been a bit on the densely populated side, why is it that there are no corpses or even a knuckle-bone in sight — anywhere?
- Speaking of densely populated, in the movie’s press-notes, director Lawrence claims that shutting down New York City streets for shooting “was incredible. We did that all day long and it was unbelievable how respectful everybody in the city was that day.” Meanwhile, over at the Los Angeles Times (via Wikipedia), actor Will Smith notes that: “I don’t think anyone’s going to be able to do that in New York again any time soon. People were not happy. That’s the most middle fingers I’ve ever gotten in my career.” Okay, guys — which is it?
- And speaking of comments from Will Smith, in the notes he also claims that, “You realize that in your entire life you’ve never seen an empty picture of New York.” Cough-cough-cough VANILLA SKY cough-cough-cough.
- When sad little Goldsman finally throws up his hands, admits defeat and flat-out steals from the already hackneyed Children of Men, does he really need to do a cheesy take on the ol’ Mother And Child Of Faith motif? (Barf.)
- Neville claims he’s only up to ‘G’ in the video store — and yet he has committed one of the Shrek movies to memory. “Shrek” starts with ‘S.’ What kind of deceitful bastard is he?
- During an early scene (also in the trailer), Neville huddles with his trusty dog and trusty gun in his very expensive bathtub as the monsters wail outside. But this is three years after the end of humanity. Why not just sleep in his own bed? Does he enjoy being uncomfortable?
- Oh — wait a minute — I think I understand now: He made his bed…and now he has to lie in it. (Metaphor!)
- Losing sight of the whole ironic premise of the original story, this movie waits until the climax and still barely even addresses why the Infected hate Neville so much (i.e.: He traps them, photographs them, and then they die in his basement.) Misinterpreting the story’s very title seems to me very unfortunate indeed.
- Speaking of that silly, silly basement (where he doesn’t bother to strap down the necks of gnashing, thrashing monsters): Um, Neville had that huge wall of polycarbonate installed when, exactly? Plus he just happens to have one of those safes roomy enough to sleep three comfortably, with adequate ventilation to last a whole night, grenade-at-close-range-proof, and apparently just plain simple to unlock in the morning from inside, in the dark. VERY impressive!
- Shouting “You are sick, and I can help you!” at shockingly vicious barely-humanoid demons dedicated 110% to the hero’s imminent demise = one of the funniest lines I’ve observed in movies all year long. (Thank you.)
- Presumably, there are thousands of Infected in Manhattan. Neville’s grenade knocks out, at best, the couple dozen currently in his basement. What exactly prevents the next sortie, and the next, and the next, and the next, from finding and cracking open that safe?
- Emma Thompson? Responsible for the devastation of the human race? Oh, pshaw! (She’s much too cute for that.)
- When they finally get to the secure compound in Vermont (where the contact-spread virus couldn’t go, because it’s, like, cold there) — what, no Ben & Jerry’s logo on the gate?
I Am Legend
Entertainment Value: first two-thirds: 11/13; last third: 6/13 = average: 8.5/13
Style: urban desolation: 12/13; drama: 5/13 = average: 8.5/13
Philosophical Insight: screenplay: 4/13; Bob Marley gushing: 13/13 = average: 8.5/13