Sunday, December 16, 2007

I Am Legend

[SPOILER WARNING: I will do my best not to reveal crucial information about the end of the new Will Smith film I Am Legend in this review, but I can't very well talk about my impressions without divulging some aspects of the Third Act. As well, I intend to spoil the ending of Richard Matheson's original novel upon which the film as based, which is also the ending of the two previous film adaptations, the Vincent Price film The Last Man on Earth and the Charlton Heston classic The Omega Man. Sorry.]

I Am Legend gets off to an amazing start. Robert Neville is the last man alive in a broken Manhattan reclaimed by Nature. We find him racing around the streets amidst empty rows of tanks and fading Quarantine signs in a sports car, chasing wild deer around Times Square. He moves in to kill a buck, but is thwarted by a pack of lions. All around him, the evidence of our consumer-crazed, advertising-obsessed civilization crumbles. In a few more decades, all traces of humankind will have dissolved.

Director Francis Lawrence and his design and art departments render the Manhattan of 2012 so credibly, it's almost distracting. It's hard to focus on the action of the story - you have to consciously stop marveling at the empty, despoiled New York City sets.

Plus, I think I prefer watching Will Smith without co-stars. He can't wisecrack as much with only mannequins and a dog around to hear him. There's still some rather tedious business in which he chats with the aforementioned department store props, attempting to maintain some semblance of a community and a daily routine, for it's fortunately short-lived. Lawrence has made a movie of intense silences, and Smith bravely caps his usual jocularity to get inside the head of a more troubled, brooding individual than he typically portrays.

Robert Neville has a lot to be depressed about. An Army Colonel and doctor who was working on a cure for the engineered virus that wiped out nearly all of humanity, he's now without his family, his faith or any significant hope for the future. Each night, he must hide from the roving Infected, humans who have caught the virus and turned into kill-crazy maniacs.

Neville maintains a rigid schedule - hunting and restocking his Washington Square apartment by day, continuing to work for a cure in his basement lab, and then hiding in a bathtub in the fetal position with his beloved dog Sam and a high-powered rifle all night. He sends out AM radio messages searching for other survivors, but evidently has no real hope of finding anyone else.

Lawrence previously made the above-average comic book adaptation Constantine, and there as here, he demonstrates a gift for CG-heavy action scenes. I typically find sequences in which live-action characters battle with computer-generated meanies either dull or ridiculous, and it's undeniable that Lawrence's vampire-zombies (and even some of the CG animals) look entirely fraudulent. But still, there's a certain kinetic sense to the way these monsters jump around, and I liked how the Main Vampire's ragged clothes flopped around in the air as he howled and shuffled about. Everything moves fast - the vampires typically look like little more than pale white blurs - but we get just well-chosen little details. (The suble death rattle of a freshly-killed vampire, say, or the creepy, hunched-over huddle formation in which the vampires sleep.)

So, yes, there's lots to like. But then the Third Act happens and ruins everything.

Seriously, this is a horrific case of screenplay sabotage. And who wrote this screenplay, that lurches into its final half-hour and lands somewhere between obtuse and offensive? That would be the all-star duo of Mark Protosevich (writer of Poseidon!) and Akiva Goldsman (writer of...get ready for this...Batman and Robin, Lost in Space, A Beautiful Mind, I Robot and The Da Vinci Code!) Who could have imagined these guys would deliver anything less than a superior conclusion?

Sarcasm aside, it's pretty much fait accompli that an Akiva Goldsman script will fail to deliver. But I'm still gobsmacked at just how poorly the conclusion to I Am Legend comes off.

[Warning: Spoilers Ahead!]

So here's how the original story goes, the original ending that, bear in mind, BOTH previous film adaptations maintained. Neville discovers that, contrary to his previous thinking, the vampires have started their own sort of society from within the old human world. (There aren't, after all, any humans left.) They have been hunting him not because they mean to feed on him, but because he's been hunting them. The title itself refers to the stories vampires tell one another about the last human, a ghoulish figure who tries to kill them while they sleep.

It's a message about fear of the unknown and, in the end, about tolerance and acceptance. Goldsman and the Poseidon guy ditch this in favor of a very American, very silly good-vs.-evil, rah-rah-Amuricah! ending in which God comes down from Heaven and shows Neville how to save the day and destroy the evildoers. It's pretty much a complete rip-off of Signs, which is a really stupid movie to rip off. (Though it's better than ripping off Lady in the Water.)

I don't know, maybe they were afraid the original ending would make Neville too unlikeable, so they had to come up with some more heroic, noble send-off for him. The only problem is, it makes the film pointless. Also, a lot of the previous scenes we've seen (like having the vampires cleverly turn one of Neville's traps against him) don't make sense in light of the conclusion. Oh, yeah, and the FUCKING TITLE doesn't make sense. But, you know, otherwise it's fine...

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