Friday, August 14, 2009

Film Friday: I Am Legend (2007)

I Am Legend is anything but legendary. Yes, it made a lot of money, Will Smith always does. And yes, it is an enjoyable, if forgettable, way to waste an afternoon. But it should have been so much more. The sad truth about I Am Legend is the filmmakers missed no opportunity to miss an opportunity. They stripped every interesting element from the film, until all that was left was a bland zombie movie. The always-likable Will Smith, who does an excellent job, deserved more from the script than the filmmakers gave him.

** spoiler alert **

The Premise
I Am Legend is the story of Robert Neville (Will Smith), the last man alive. It is based on the 1954 novel of the same name by Richard Matheson. This novel has twice before been brought to the screen, first by Vincent Price in The Last Man On Earth (1964) and then by Charlton Heston in The Omega Man (1971). The premise is straight forward. A man-made virus, intended to cure cancer, quickly spreads around the world. The virus kills 90% of the population, leaving around 600 million survivors. But the virus warps all but 12 million of the survivors into mindless, murderous creatures called “dark seekers,” which look a bit like the CGI Gollum from Lord of the Rings. These creatures have the mental capacity and desires of the infected humans (zombies) from 28 Days Later, but cannot stand exposure to direct sunlight. They kill off the remaining humans in short order, apart from Will Smith.

Smith happens to be a virologist who is trying to determine why he was naturally immune to the virus, and to convert that immunity into an antidote, which he hopes will return the dark seekers back to their prior human state. During the days he and his German shepherd Sam hunt for food in a New York City that has become overgrown with nature. At night he works in his lab, which is constructed inside his house. The premise is all well and good, but it offers nothing more than your average zombie movie. And sadly, neither does the rest of the film.
What Makes Us Human? Who Cares?
The primary issue one would expect to be addressed by a film like I Am Legend is the question of what makes us human. Indeed, consider for a moment what made the book so interesting that it’s been brought to the screen three times. In the book, Neville spends his days killing the creatures and his nights locked in his home. One day, he stumbles upon a young woman who appears to be a survivor. He soon learns, however, that she is part of a group that is infected, but have begun to overcome their disease. They are slowly rebuilding society. But, from their perspective, every day, Neville comes along and kills their friends while they sleep. When Neville learns this, he finally understands the reversal that has taken place. Whereas vampires had been the legend that terrified humanity, he is now the creature that terrorizes this new race. He has become their bogeyman, their legend. Indeed, they eventually catch him, and before they execute him, Neville states that he has become “a new superstition entering the unassailable fortress of forever. I am legend.” In this manner, the book deals with questions like what makes us human and at what point does another creature become so close to being human that we should treat it as such.

Will Smith’s movie repeats these elements individually, but without connecting the dots and without the intellectual curiosity. Smith tells us the dark seekers are purely evil, animalistic creatures. But we soon see they have moved beyond instinct and are showing human-level intelligence. For example, they have become protective of their fellows. They also show intelligence by using a dummy to trap Smith in an identical manner in which he trapped one of them. This shows not only a level of sophistication that denotes significant intelligence, but also that they have been observing him and planning how to handle him.

Moreover, Smith meets a young woman with a child, and we are instantly suspicious of her. Indeed, we first meet her after she saves Smith from a situation where it doesn't appear a person could have saved him, unless the creatures let her save him. She also seems too calm for someone who has survived the brutal murder of 12 million people by “fast-twitch” zombies of the type found in 28 Days Later, and has supposedly been on the run across the country. She also demonstrates a lack of cultural awareness that is highly suspicious, in that she’s never even heard of Bob Marley, nor does she recognize his music. Not to mention that her story of survival seems false.

So are you putting together the clues? Well, don’t bother. They don’t mean anything. The woman is human, and the creatures aren’t getting smarter -- or at least the filmmakers don’t care that they are. Indeed, the creatures aren’t building a new society, it’s not wrong to kill them, and Smith is nobody’s bogeyman. In fact, the only way the title makes sense is if you assume that he becomes a “legend” for saving humanity. . . oh, did I forget to mention there is a nonsensical happy ending tacked onto the movie with the woman making it to a safe city in Vermont, which sits behind a huge metal wall that puts the great wall of China to shame. How they avoided the disease is never explained, but then who cares. . . the filmmakers certainly didn’t.

By ignoring the obvious question of whether or not the creatures have become sentient to the point that it is wrong for Smith to treat them as lab subjects, the filmmakers short change the film considerably. But that’s not all that they ignore.

** The DVD has an alternate ending in the extras, in which Smith and the alpha creature reach a peace agreement, when Smith turns over the female creature he’s been experimenting on. But this ending is not integrated into the film and comes across like a sudden add-on, as if the filmmakers said, “oh yeah, we forgot to mention this, here. . . roll credits.”
Is There A God? No, um yes.
A film like I Am Legend, with its apocalyptic themes, obviously raises religious questions. Is man truly alone? Do we make our own destiny? Can we count on God to watch over us, even in such a dark hour? Or is it possible this virus represents divine judgment? This is fertile ground for filmmakers to speculate about God -- either pro or con. Yet, I Am Legend essentially tosses these issues aside, only bringing them back out of the blue for a surprise ending. It is like they banned these issues, only to reach for them when they needed an ending.

The film first mentions religion when Smith queries the woman about how she survived and how she knows about the safe city in Vermont. She explains that God protected her and advised her. Smith ridicules this idea in the type of shallow speech one would expect from a Hollywood movie with little interest in addressing questions of religion (he gives the standard “your God did this, so don’t talk to me about God” speech). The issue is then dropped entirely. . . until the very end of the film, when Smith suddenly decides to sacrifice himself to save the woman because he has an epiphany. With no prior hint to the audience, Smith connects a series of butterfly images from his daughter, from the creature he’s been testing, and from the young woman, just as the creatures break into his lab. He then hands the cure to the woman, telling her that he will die to give her a chance to escape because “I think this is why you are here” -- with the implication being that she was sent as part of a divine plan.

But this ending comes from out of the blue. The only hint the viewer has prior to Smith's epiphany that religion is an issue is Smith’s 20 second anti-religion rant half an hour before. So even though the issue of faith is technically addressed, it adds no depth to the film because it is never integrated into the story in such a way to let the audience consider its implications.
Why Would An Audience Want An Emotional Attachment?
But even leaving aside the intellectual questions, this film repeatedly misses opportunities to connect the audience to the film on an emotional level. For example, the filmmakers choose to kill Smith’s family. But they don’t make Smith face the difficult question of either watching them turn into the creatures or of killing them to save them. Instead, Smith is given the easy way out, they are killed instantly in a helicopter accident. Thus, we never connect with his personal suffering. In fact, the closest we come is when he must kill his dog Sam, which is one of the only emotional moments of the film.

Nor are we allowed to connect with the lives that were lost. The creatures retain no traces of who they were, so we cannot see ourselves in them. There are no bodies. Smith even scavenges through apartments, looking for food and medicine, but finds no real traces of people's personal lives. How can we mourn people we do not know?

The film even passes up fantastic opportunities to frighten us. For example, Smith walks with impunity through the abandoned apartments. But even worse, the filmmakers set up a fantastic pay off in a DVD store that Smith visits every day, but never make it pay off: to give his world some semblance of humanity, Smith has populated this DVD store with mannequins as if they were other shoppers. He even pretends to hit on one of the mannequins and he regularly speaks to the clerk (Fred). The sense of terror that could be generated in such an environment, if mannequins were moved or replaced by creatures, could be phenomenally powerful in pulling people into this world. You could scare people with the prospect that Smith was being stalked or even show that Smith had gone slightly insane. But nothing happens in the store. Even after the creatures use the store clerk to bait their trap, by moving it to another street -- which means they must have been watching Smith in the store -- there are no flashbacks to show us that we simply failed to observe the danger. And thus, the opportunity to get us invested in the story by giving us a sense of fear for Smith's surroundings is squandered.
Thus, we do not see Smith’s humanity or the humanity of the creatures, nor do we feel the need to mourn the dead, nor do we feel the need to fear the creatures unless Smith seeks them out. In effect, we are left with nothing to connect us to Smith’s world. Add to this the utter lack of intellectual curiosity of this film and we are left with a bland blockbuster that does nothing more than give us just another meaningless zombie movie. And that is a shame because this film could have been so much more.

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StanH said...

A disappointment for sure, and as you’ve stated a bland forgettable movie. The better zombie flicks were the “28 Days” movies, you went into the movie expecting hooey and they didn’t disappoint. In hindsight it’s easy to see, it always makes me wonder how the producer and director can’t see the same thing that is so obvious to us all …you’ve made a dud.

AndrewPrice said...

Stan, I suspect there are many factors that go into "dud blindness." In Legend for example, I suspect that the director wasn't great to begin with (his prior work is unremarkable -- Constantine).

I further suspect that they intentionally sucked out a lot of the "thinking" parts because they were intentionally aiming for a bland summer blockbuster and Hollywood fears that people will tune out thought-provoking movies. I also have noticed that the more a movie relies on CGI, the less effort the director and the writer put into their parts.

Finally, there is a problem with human observation, that the closer you get to something, the harder it is to see it objectively. This seems to be true for writers/directors, football coaches, corporate executives, etc. This is why coaches often stick with the guy who does so well in practice and seems so cool off the field, when it's obvious to more objective observers that the guy can't play. It's very possible that they saw the movie very differently based on the conversations they had during its making, that they lost their perspective on how others would perceive the film, and they saw it as a much deeper, more emotional film than it comes across.

ScottDS said...

I haven't seen the film since it was out in theaters (and I haven't seen any of the deleted scenes, alternate ending, etc.).

A film school friend and I saw it and we were both terribly disappointed. An audience member summed it up best: "Cast Away with zombies!"

We both agreed that the film most likely had gone through multiple test screenings and/or had so much footage cut that the resulting product was rendered meaningless (see: Alien 3). When the DVD was announced with no features or alternate cut, I thought, "See?! No wonder the DVD is bare-bones; no one wants to talk about the film and the studio doesn't want mud in its eye!" (The subsequent Special Edition DVD release with the alternate ending and bonus materials rendered my theory moot. Oh well.) :-)

I haven't read the original novel but, again, my friend and I got the impression that there was a much more meaningful version out there... somewhere.

On the plus side, the technical credits and craftsmanship are excellent when it comes to recreating an empty NYC. The creature effects... not so much. Unfortunately, the studios seem to love CGI whether or not its the best methodology. They could have hired Stan Winston (R.I.P.) or Rick Baker to do some excellent creature effects and if I recall, there were some scenes with actors in heavy make-up but at the end of the day, disbelief could not be suspended because I knew I was looking at CGI.

I disagree re: killing the family in a helicopter accident. I think it makes the situation even more tragic for Smith. Living in Florida, I'll compare it to a family that survives a hurricane only to be killed in a flash flood the next day.

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, Apparently, they started with actors for the zombies and the director didn't like them, so he switched to CGI.

I have a lot of problems with CGI. CGI is great in small doses to supplement an already good scene -- for example the deer running through the streets are CGI and you never would have known. But directors now often turn whole films over to CGI. And even when they don't go that far, they ask the CGI to go well beyond what can be done without it taking on a fake feel.

CGI is effective when it adjusts something minor that you aren't staring at directly. It is not effective when it is asked to replace actors or build whole settings.

I also find it strange that CGI was adopted because it was supposed to be so much cheaper. But it's become so much more expensive than hiring a couple hundred extras -- yet the studios claim they can't go back to hiring extras because "that's too expensive." I hear that as, "we're too lazy."

AndrewPrice said...

By the way, I think you're right about the test screenings. That's called "death by focus group", and it seems to happen a lot in Hollywood.

As I say, I thought the movie was entertaining enough to watch, but it was totally forgettable. My criticism above, is that I think this movie could have (should have) been so much more, both emotionally and intellectually. I think you sense that too with your comment about a more "meaningful version."

Interestingly, Will Smith claims he took on the film because it had "artistic integrity" and because of the "possibilities" it presented. But the filmmakers really didn't try to explore those possibilities.

CrispyRice said...

I'm a BIG fan of the Vincent Price version. When this one came on DVD, we did a three-play night and watched Vincent's, Charlton's and Will's back to back. Either of the 1st two, though very different movies in their own rights, blows this one away. >>MORE SPOILERS MAYBE<<

Vincent, for example, does have to watch his family die and debate whether to let them burn his wife (as they are doing to prevent everyone from turning into zombie vampires) or to give her a proper burial. Vincent's version really left me with a striking feeling of what it would be like to be the last man on Earth, how solitary, how lonely, and how you could you adjust?

Charlton brought up all kinds of different issues by bringing the creatures to a truly human level.

Will... well, it was a zombie movie. Blech.

Unknown said...

Andrew: Will Smith took the part because the film had "artistic integrity?" Where did he get that? From his life coach, Tom Cruise? I know I'm running seriously against public opinion, but I consider Smith to be, at best, a moderately talented acting lightweight. He can do light comedy, a little slapstick, and should stick to buddy movies. He even managed to look bad in the "action" scenes in this dog. Cillian Murphy could make "28 Days Later" look good because he's a real actor. Smith's screen emotions run the gamut from A to B, and they could have CGId his part and gotten better acting.

AndrewPrice said...

CrispyRice, They are certainly very different movies. I really like the Vincent Price version, though, admittedly, it is hampered by the rather generic film style that was so prevalent at the time. I was hoping that Legend would take the Price version and give it a little more depth and realism, but it really didn't.

AndrewPrice said...

Lawhawk, I actually have a lot of respect for Will Smith as an actor. He manages to project a personality through the screen that you really like and want to know -- something that few actors can achieve. He's also got great comedic timing, which is very, very difficult.

I'm not sold on him as a dramatic actor yet, though I think that Legend shows that he has potential. Unfortunately, Legend gave him so little to work with. I'd love to see him take on something more serious.

Unknown said...

Andrew: I agree up to a point. He does project a personality. The same personality, over and over and over. In the old days, he would be called a character actor, but never a star. The closest thing to actual acting I've seen him in was "The Pursuit of Happyness," aka, "The Search for a Dictionary." I put him on a par with Brad Pitt. Consistently good in lightweight, physical comedy. And that's about it.

AndrewPrice said...

Lawhawk, I think that Smith broke out of his normal persona in Legend, where he played a much more serious character. Also in Ali, Enemy of the State and in Six Degrees of Separation.

I have to disagree about Pitt as well. I think that Pitt is an excellent actor, particularly in roles like Twelve Monkeys, Fight Club, Seven and Interview with a Vampire.

Unknown said...

Andrew: I have to admit you've got me on "Ali" since I couldn't be bothered to see it (I had to live through the real one). I think that Gene Hackman made Smith look halfway competent in "Enemy of the State," and when he wasn't in the scenes, it was Will Smith being Will Smith. "Six Degrees of Separation" was way too artsy-fartsy for my unsophisticated tastes, but I will admit that compared to the other cardboard characters in the movie, he was almost interesting. I'll give you Pitt in "Fight Club" and "Seven," but in "Interview with the Vampire" all I saw was pale skin, puffy lips that make Angelina Jolie look normal, and more agonizing than Jesus on His way to Golgotha. I think he spent too much time in the Stanislavsky class on "make them feel your pain."

Something tells me we're not going to come to an agreement on these two actors.

StanH said...

My two cents worth. Brad Pitt is to me as good as his cast, he was good in “Legends of the Fall,” he had Anthony Hopkins to work with and “Seven,” Morgan Freedman. You put him out there by himself he falls a little flat. He was great in, “12 Monkeys” but he was in a Terry Gilliam movie and Bruce Willis.

Will Smith was great in “Men in Black, Enemy of the State,” and had great co-stars T.L. Jones and Hackman. “In Pursuit of Happiness,” he carried that movie well. Most of his movies are watchable his persona comes off kind of like Bill Murray, he’s easy to relate to, IMO, but it’s the same shtick.

AndrewPrice said...

Stan, I think that's true of a lot of actors, that they are only as good as their support. In fact, I'm coming to believe that the real key to whether or not a movie is believable are the supporting actors, not the main cast -- especially the minor support, who need to fit into the story seemlessly.

Writer X said...

The movie left me feeling flat. I had no connection with the central characters and the ending was hokey. Plus, I'm not a big fan of movies where the central character does nothing but narrate, especially when I have no connection to him. In short, it became a zombie movie. Nothing more.

AndrewPrice said...

Writer X, I think they intentionally made it flat. I suspect they didn't want to do anything that mmight turn off the lowest common denominator audiences they were hoping to attract.

I'm not a fan of narrated films either. To me, narration too often takes you out of the film. Plus, there are better ways to handle narration.

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