Monday, December 17, 2007

Review: I Am Legend

I Am Legend, the third cinematic version of Richard Matheson's novel, has been in improvement for a awfully long time. Originally slated to star Arnold Schwarzenegger and be heading for by Ridley Scott, this film has kicked around for so long that by the time it has to end with reached the screen, Schwarzenegger is out of the production altogether and the director is someone whose career in music videos hadn't even started when Michael Bay was being touted as possible replacement for Scott. Nevertheless, all these years later, we finally have this new version of I Am Legend, starring Will Smith as the Last Man on Earth and directed by Francis Lawrence (Constantine).

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I assume it's a regular fantasy - believing that you're alone on the planet. The reality, if it ever happened, would be more the stuff of nightmares. When Matheson wrote I Am Legend; from which this film takes its name, its main nature, and certain events and themes; he was attracted in exploring the hard aspects of what this kind of survival might really mean. Loneliness can drive a person slowly insane even if they guard against it. That lies at the core of I Am Legend - the mental distress endured by the character. That, and the vampires.

Matheson's book has often been recognized as the "inspiration" for many of the latter-day zombie cinema; his "vampires" have a kinship with George A. Romero's dead. Cinematically, the creatures of this film most manifestly echo (perhaps because of the circumstances) those in Danny Boyle's 28 Days Later. In fact, there are frequent similarities between that movie and I Am Legend, not the least of which is that both feature a situation in which an Judgment Day occurs because of a virus and those who don't die turn into slavering, crazed monsters.

I Am Legend opens in 2012 New York City - the the majority deserted position on Earth. Kudos to the special effects wizards for using computers to so successfully depopulate the city. It's eerie inspection such emptiness. New York has a human residents of one: Dr. Robert Neville (Will Smith), an ex-military scientist who was to some level culpable for what happened to his race. The virus was initially hyped as a cure for cancer (by Emma Thompson in an unbilled cameo) but it mutated and became a killer. The creatures it transform can't emerge in the sunlight, so they stay hidden during the day only to come out and seek fresh blood between dusk and dawn. In that period, Robert and his exact dog, Sam, are padlocked within his residence. They hunt by day and hide by night.

Robert is lonely and his aloneness is eroding his sanity. He talks to Sam as if she was a human. He speaks to department store mannequins he has clad in clothing. He rents DVDs of old news shows not so a great deal so he can revisit the past but so he can hear individual voices and pretend he's not alone. In many ways, it's how Tom Hanks survived in Cast Away - by making a volleyball, Wilson, his best friend. Robert has set a broadcast to shout out his location on every station on the AM dial, but so far, no one has come looking. He uses a private lab in his apartment to continue research on the disease, always searching for the elusive cure. If he could save one vampire - turn it back into a human - he would no longer be alone. Ghosts of his past haunt his dreams, and it's through those tortured flashbacks that we gain some knowledge of what the last hours were like for our class.

The original two-thirds of I Am Legend are bigger to the fast-paced, action-oriented ultimate 35 minutes. There's a key event that occur just past the hour blotch and, after that, the movie feels more like a typical Hollywood adventure than the pensive, thought-provoking production that graces the screens for the first 65 minutes. The finale, while not a absolute cop-out, diverges from that of Matheson's book and feels a little too convenient and facile. For most of the movie, character drives plot. The closer we get to the conclusion, the further plot drives character.

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