I am Legend viewed last night. Directed by Francis Lawrence and starring Will Smith, with support by Salli Richardson and Alice Braga. Based on a novel by Richard Matheson that has been filmed a number of times before, the most famous probably being 1971’s The Omega Man starring Charleton Heston and which featured a memorable performance by Anthony Zerbe.
Will Smith plays Robert Neville, a doctor who is trying to cure the virus that has turned 95% of the people on Earth into mindless creatures who have feasted on most of those that remained immune. The poor infected souls are sensitive to UV light (that’s an understatement: UV light kills them), so they only come out at night. Neville may not be the only man left on Earth, but he might as well be. He stayed in New York City while most were abandoning it, thinking that this is where he can find a cure. He goes out in the day with his German Shepherd dog Sam to hunt and explore, while at night barricading in a location that he is careful not to let the creatures discover. After some time at this Neville has gone a bit loopy, as can be seen by his attempt to fulfill a promise to his dog and work up the nerve to speak to a mannequin that he has placed in a video rental store.
Neville’s loopiness aside (and thankfully it’s only a minor filmatic touch), there are a few excellent aspects of this movie. They are, unfortunately, countered by some flaws, but we’ll get to those shortly. The scenes of a largely deserted New York City, with plant growth sprouting through the pavement and deer and other wildlife running wild, are extremely well done and are worth the price of admission, as are flashback scenes of the city being abandoned. Smith’s acting is top-notch, to a degree that I hadn’t seen before (no, I haven’t yet seen “Ali”).
Unfortunately there are those flaws. After about the dozenth startle-cut in the first 30 minutes, I was about ready to give up. Every quiet focused moment seemed to be a set-up for an abrupt noisy one; each such sequence, I guess, designed to give an artificial thrill. What I got was annoyance. And then let’s talk about the human zombies, the victims of the virus. Here the movie suffers from a trap that seems to catch way too many filmmakers. When so trapped, creators of a movie are not content to build a story from its basic structure elements, elements that ought to support a film on their own. But no, things need to be bigger, faster, louder. Somehow, somewhere, somebody gets the idea that, e.g., a small-town police story could be so much better if only there were aliens from outer space behind the crime.
For various reasons I think of this as “The Dragnet Syndrome.”
In I am Legend, this trap manifests itself in several ways. The idea of zombified human creatures of the dark is not enough; they have to roar with great synthetic studio power. Their motions defy laws of physics, and they apparently have hardened skulls that can smash through steel, muscles that can tear apart buildings, all the while triggering the best, loudest sounds that Hollywood can offer. To be fair, I don’t know how much of this was in the book, but if it was, why not improve upon it? The movie has some lesser problems of plausibility as well that can trick you into thinking about them if you aren’t careful, but I can generally live with that kind of thing. It’s the impossible excesses thrust in your face that are hard to ignore.
The film also fails to make any attempt to explore what could be interesting reflections and parallels between the humans and the zombies, something that helped make the 1971 version somewhat memorable. And was there something in the book that made sense of the title, “I am Legend?” There was an attempt to explain it here in this film, but I’m afraid I didn’t buy it.
So bottom line: great visuals and great acting spoiled by annoying presentation. Worth seeing, except that you then see how good it could have been.