“Daddy look, a butterfly”
Here we are, the middle of December, with Oscar-bait films being released left and right. Has my trifecta of must-sees, There Will Be Blood, The Kite Runner, and Atonement, showed face here in the sleepy town of Buffalo? No, of course not, they are too afraid to leave their big cities for the threat of blizzard conditions. What is there to do then? Oh, yeah, go see I Am Legend at the local multiplex. At first glance, I thought it was kind of weird to be going to a Regal on opening night. It is quite the anomaly that it had been so long since I did so. Well, maybe not, because whether subconsciously or otherwise, there was a reason I steered clear of mainstream fare at stadium-seated arenas. The crowd was laughing at inappropriate moments, people wanted to see Will Smith kick butt and not act with the talent he so clearly contains, and children decided to talk throughout the entire duration. Funny as it was to hear a 14 year old say to his friend that he couldn’t believe this film wasn’t R, it was like nails on a chalkboard. Those indie darlings can’t come to our quaint little Dipsons soon enough. Wait…this is a movie review right?
Francis Lawrence had impressed me with his very underappreciated Constantine and I was somewhat psyched to see what he could do with this material. Based on the novel of same name by Richard Matheson, I Am Legend has the potential to be a great psychological thriller, commenting on man’s quest to be God, while instilling some nice scares and monster work. For the most part, Lawrence succeeds on all counts.
I will admit to being drawn in completely right from the start. In a film that potentially follows Smith around, alone, for two hours, I was completely taken aback by the introduction. We are shown a television interview between an uncredited Emma Thompson and Ms. Klugh from “Lost”—I was not expecting that. Soon enough, though, we are vaulted right into the action, three years later, to the deserted and overgrown city, ground zero for infection/home to our hero Robert Neville. The filmmakers really handle the exposition brilliantly, showing us the day to day routine for our immune scientist spliced together with memories of the final minutes before quarantine with his family. You really do become quite engrossed with the environment and on edge from the subtle hinting of the Dark Seekers (don’t you dare call them vampires).
Will Smith is a powerhouse here. I don’t care what your feelings are towards the man, he truly is good at his craft. As far as making one film a year, he knows how to pick a role that will challenge him into giving his all, whether or not the work itself succeeds. His emotions are always realistic, the relationship with his dog Sam is heartwarming, and the moments showing how cabin fever has set in (talking to mannequins that he has set up strategically throughout the city) help explore the fractured soul he now must carry alone, while also lending some nice comic relief. It was all working so well, everything was methodical and relevant, his quest for finding a cure vastly important. And then, of course, it all fell apart.
Showing the enemy, completely made from computer graphics, is one thing, showing them for extended periods of time is another. When shrouded in darkness, the creatures are very effective, when they all of a sudden become conscious and intelligent, they become utterly laughable. Why does the leader have to hold such a dorky smile the whole time? Just be menacing and non-committal; I wanted monsters devoid of humanity. Sure Smith’s Neville says they have finally lost all human qualities, but he is wrong. The fact that they have learned to fight back smartly and risk exposure to sunlight in order to catch a glimpse at him shows they have become more human. They are no longer roaming wild for blood lust, now they want to have some fun with personal vendettas. What’s more human than that?
Even then, the film could have been forgiven, but alas, it tries to tidy everything up with a nice bow on top. Much like Signs, where the minutiae of the first three-thirds of the film all of a sudden gain mystical meaning to the point of scripture—rectifying all—I Am Legend takes its slow burn and turns it into a race for the finish. It is all too quick and way too easily done. If only it was all hinted on throughout, it wouldn’t have felt so tacked on. This disappointment, however, makes me want to read my copy of the 1954 novel to see how much was changed. The credits say based on the 1971 screenplay for The Omega Man before they say based on Matheson’s book. I won’t be surprised if the ending is what was taken from the old film version, the effective character study being what was gleaned from the original source.
I Am Legend 6/10 | ★ ★ ½