Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Movie Review: I Am Legend

We revisit the genre of the last man on earth with Will Smith’s latest, I Am Legend (Francis Lawrence directing). It’s a genre that holds so much promise, and yet very rarely does it bear fruit. The latest attempt falls in line with the majority: entertaining premise, mundane execution.

A new virus is genetically engineered to cure cancer and meets with initial success. But the virus gets loose and wreaks havoc on the human race, turning the vast majority into mindless vampire-like creatures with no tolerance for sunlight. Will Smith, playing Colonel Robert Neville, is, as far as he knows, the last human being on the planet. A scientist as well as colonel, he spends his days maintaining his solitary existence and searching for a cure. His nights he spends bunkered down in his home with his faithful canine companion, praying the physically enhanced vampires do not discover where he lives.

There is nothing really wrong with I Am Legend, but there are so many minor flaws, missed opportunities and poor decisions that the premise, no matter how much one likes this sort of thing, has little hope of saving the enterprise.

Once again we are treated to, or rather made to endure, more CGI creatures. I find myself repeating the same thing over and over on the topic: CGI has its place, but a director has to know where that place is and must guard against overusing the technology. In a movie like I Am Legend, a serious endeavor with creatures that are meant to scare us, CGI is a poor choice to represent the monsters. A CGI vampire is not scary for the same reason the Smurfs aren’t scary: IT’S A FREAKING CARTOON! It might have been difficult, perhaps impossible, to get a human to move with the force and speed that the vampires in the movie have, but that would have been a small sacrifice in exchange for the gripping presence of a real looking vampire. Makeup and costumes still trump computer graphics, and it’s not even close. If you don’t believe me, watch portions of Alien 3, then go back and watch Alien.

Another poor choice is the lead character. Will Smith, reprising the same role he has played in every movie I’ve ever seen him in, plays a brilliant scientist, a dashing hunk, and a super athlete all at once (Yes, the specifics change, but the persona is the same). It might have been interesting to see, say, Paul Giamatti playing the role of intellectual scientist in search of a cure, a scientist with all the quirks and idiosyncrasies that great minds often have who must use his brain to compensate for his average or even frail physique, something that hampers him in his struggle against the vampires. Or, staying with Will Smith, it could have been just as interesting to watch an athletic man with an average mind using his brawn to survive, but always treading water, getting by until the sun rises again, lacking the cerebral capacity to grasp the bigger picture and discover a solution.

It would have been even more interesting to see these characters meet halfway through. But instead what we get is a character from an Ayn Rand novel: flawless both physically and mentally. It’s a perfection which snuffs out any sympathy we might have felt for the man as his sad back-story is revealed to us. I have a difficult time accepting movies where the female characters, no matter who they are supposed to be, look better suited for lovemaking than whatever it is they are doing. It is equally hard to accept Will Smith.

Implausibility is another affliction that curses this film. Sometimes the implausible thing is only a minor irritant, such as when the sets show New York City streets, only three years removed from the outbreak of the virus, already choked with weeds pushing through the cracks but the posters for the Broadway musicals are not even peeling at the corners. Other times, the implausibility is more damaging to the project’s integrity. Examples of this include the fact that Will Smith is still eating food from a jar that – unless he has found the time and know-how to master all the different jobs spread throughout the division of labor and therefore grow, harvest, process and jar his own food – must be at least three years old. Will Smith’s home has running water, water which he apparently believes to be pure enough to drink. It also has electricity. Either show us exactly how he is able to maintain this living standard – and still find time to hit golf balls off the wing of a fighter jet when he isn’t searching for a cure – or show us how life would really be without extensively divided labor like we now have.

Show him boiling his water after collecting it from buckets on his roof. Show him tending his garden, using his own feces to fertilize his crops. Show him mending his own clothes. Show him in agony as he must cut out his own decaying tooth. The movie does show him hunting – albeit in a sleek looking car as, incredibly, he cruises New York City looking for deer – but it doesn’t give us a reason for him to be hunting. Rather than all the jarred and canned food he has, show us a bare pantry, or a half-eaten cured leg of some beast hanging from a hook in the ceiling. And if you must show him driving cars, at least show him coping with gasoline which has degraded for the last three years. Does gas last that long? How well does it work after thirty-six months? It would have been interesting to find out.

There is a hint of something more interesting in the movie which is introduced but left undeveloped. The colonel hunts the vampires during the daytime to use as guinea pigs in his search for a cure. As he makes notes of his observations, he remarks that the social humanity of the vampires is almost entirely gone. However, it soon becomes apparent that he is wrong, and the vampires may even be hunting him. But instead of pursuing this potentially interesting cat and mouse game, the movie breaks down into fighting and screaming and explosions wherein even greater implausibilities await.

I will give the movie credit for taking its time. Despite the CGI and dubious actions of the lead character, and despite everything else that was missing, the movie does at least concern itself with setting things up. It certainly doesn't push headlong into something, anything, to get some action started. But when all is said and done it is still a tantalizing but ultimately unfulfilling trip down an avenue of unrealized possibilities and disappointing decisions.

Final Grade: C