Thursday, May 22, 2008
I Am Legend (2007)
(Image from IMP Awards)
I Am Legend (2007)
As an adaptation of Richard Matheson's classic novel 'I Am Legend' is woeful. As a sci fi film in it's own right, it's fairly decent. As an indicator that Will Smith is the biggest movie star in the world (TM), it's pretty definitive.
Robert Neville (Smith) is seemingly the last man on earth, the survivor of a deadly man made plague that has wiped out most of humanity and turned what remains into vampire-like creatures. Neville - who is immune to the virus - and his dog Sam live alone in the now deserted New York City where he spends his days roaming the streets hunting deer (animals are back with a vengeance!), collecting supplies, waiting hopefully for other survivors, or trying to find a cure. For not only is Neville immune to the disease, he's also a military scientist with a lab in the basement of his home where he conducts research. Neville's home is fortified and he has to take every precaution against the mindless bloodthirsty vampires who come out at night. Intercut with the primary storyline are flashbacks depicting Neville trying to get his family to safety against the backdrop of the disease spreading and causing panic.
The film starts off quite well when it establishes the scenario and introduces us to Neville and his routine. This is hardly surprising because the idea comes directly from Matheson's book. Beyond the premise, however, the film deviates wildly and is much poorer for it. The book was thought provoking and explored the psychology of Neville's situation and had something to say about society and the fragility and transience of life on Earth. The film does not have much to say apart from making some kind of comment on meddling with nature, an invention not present in the book in which the disease's origins were unknown. The creatures are also significantly different and far less interesting, and much of the detail of Neville's routine and his research into the disease are reduced to a few uninspired scenes. The twist that comes at the end of the book is also completely missing, and the very meaning of the title 'I Am Legend' is subverted.
Setting the book aside for a moment, the premise of the story is so strong that despite being dumbed down the film is not half bad. It's not an action fest - in fact, in comparison to most blockbusters it's downright solemn and contemplative, though there are some routine horror and action scenes in there. The imagery of an abandoned New York is haunting and director Francis Lawrence makes quite an impact with these scenes, making them massive in scope but eerily quiet and depressing. The film is well constructed and is atmospheric and scary and exciting in all the right ways, with the only major flaw being the dodgy effects used to create animals and the vampires themselves; a huge blunder that robs the creatures of any menace and makes them uninspired CGI baddies (except for one scene inside a dark building that is fantastic).
The biggest weakness is the screenplay that always seems to start building on a good idea before veering off into more mundane, superficial territory. How is the isolation affecting Neville? He talks to mannequins and his dog, something that that feels far too cute instead of being heartbreakingly tragic - why bother revealing his torment any further? Are the vampires intelligent? They seem smart at times, but let's not explore that idea or think too hard about it - much easier to just have them run around like crazy animals! The way the story develops in the final act is also very disappointing and unimaginative, with the resolution leaving me with a feeling of complete indifference. They should have just stuck to the book, which introduced a fascinating element that turned the story on its head!
As you can imagine, Smith is the film's centre and he is ultimately the key element that makes it so darn watchable despite its flaws. A large portion of the film simply depicts Neville going about his business, with the dog used as a good excuse to get him talking once in a while (the dog is a neat idea, probably adapted from the fairly moving dog story from the book). Smith is effortlessly charismatic and has always been an easy actor to root for, and here he makes Neville believable and sympathetic and perfectly conveys the sense of loneliness and despair necessary for the story, something the script didn't really bring to the table all that well. I can't think of too many other movie stars who could play this role in as accessible and believable a manner as Smith. And the dog's pretty good too! It's a shame about the vampires though; they are just plain execrable.
'I Am Legend' is a reasonably entertaining film, quite good for a blockbuster and one that feels fresh for the most part. It's well made and I suppose worth watching if you haven't read the book. If you have, well, I can't imagine not being at least a little disappointed at the wasted opportunity. Anyone who watches this and thinks it's a decent film owes it to themselves to read the book, which is far superior and which I can't recommend strongly enough.