Tuesday, December 18, 2007

I Am Legend

In I Am Legend (2007) New York City is once again the place where the world—at least the human world—comes to an end. Three years after a man-made virus wipes out most of the human race, and turns a few million into flesh-eating zombies, the only man left is Robert Neville (played by Will Smith), a scientist from the research group that developed the virus, intended to cure cancer before it began mutating. (The film never acknowledges the statistical near impossibility that the man immune to the virus is a one of the scientists who developed it). Although the trailers for I Am Legend focused on Smith's efforts to evacuate his family out of New York City while the virus is in its early stages, the film itself begins three years after the virus has wiped everyone out. The back-story (everything in the trailers) is revealed through a series of flashbacks.

I Am Legend is based on the 1954 cult classic of the same title by Richard Matheson. Two previous films—The Last Man on Earth (1964) and Omega Man (1971) were also based on the novel.

Neville is the only man left in New York. His companion is a German shepherd named Sam. He spends his days hunting for food, foraging, sending out radio messages that ask survivors to contact him, and working in a lab in the basement of his apartment building, looking for a cure to the virus. At night he closes all the windows of his apartment and hides—the zombies come out at night—they survived the initial onslaught of the plague but changed into hyper-aggressive human mutants, always on the prowl for flesh.

The film is sad and wonderfully poignant in its first half. Neville drives at breakneck speed up and down the streets of New York in whatever car he chooses for that day. He enters a video rental store and selects DVDs to rent, returning the ones he has previously borrowed. He flirts with manikins he has apparently placed in the store. He hunts deer in the streets of the city, chasing them down in his truck. He grows corn in Central Park. He has decorated his apartment with famous paintings taken from well known New York museums. There is not much whimsy or irony in this film, which finds little to laugh at in the empty world. Rare moments of humor include one scene in which Neville recites the lines from Shrek aloud as the DVD of the film plays on his television—he has watched it often enough that he has memorized the screenplay. But there are moments of sad desperation as well, including one scene in which he begs a manikin to speak to him, and another when he realizes his dog Sam has contracted the virus.

In its second half, I Am Legend becomes a zombie film, with all the clichés that entails. Why is it in films like this one and 28 Days and Resident Evil and others that a virus necessarily turns victims into flesh-eating, ravening zombies? Why don't the victims just throw up, bleed out, and die? For my part, the arrival of the zombies (or whatever they are) marks a failure of imagination. The zombies are depicted with fairly unconvincing CGI special effects. They reminded me of the cover of Pink Floyd's The Wall, or of a Ralph Steadman drawing, or (as my son suggested) Munch's The Scream. They aren't real or credible, and they take the film with its convincing scenario of a New York stripped of human inhabitants, overrun with deer and escaped zoo animals and weeds and trash, and virtually turn it into B-grade schlock. Digital effects in the film in general are weak. The scene in which a lion attacks and kills a deer is lame—both animals look simulated, fake.

Many scenes in the first half of I Am Legend resonate with memories of the September 11 attacks. There are no direct echoes, but the film lingers on scenes that demonstrate the profound emptiness of the city. When Neville recalls the panic-stricken struggle of residents to escape the city before the government seals it off from the rest of the world—New York is where the virus was developed and where it first began mutating—we recall the crowds of people rushing to escape the burning or collapsed World Trade Center Towers. Images of such iconic locations as Central Park and the Metropolitan Museum of Art drive home the notion that New York is (to Americans at least) the center of the world, and that if New York is empty then everywhere else must be as well.

Will Smith's acting is excellent. He's the heart of the film. Virtually all of his dialogue is with his reflection in mirrors, with his dog Sam, with manikins, with thin air. His ability to convey emotions and inner turmoil simply by his play of facial expressions is amazing. Smith keep this film going even when it begins to falter with the arrival of the zombies. He recalls Tom Hanks in the Robert Zemeckis film Castaway. There a man was stranded on an island after an airplane crash. There is hope for Hanks' character—the human world is still out there, he is simply lost, cut off from other humans. Someone may find him, or he may make his way back to the human world, which indeed is what finally happens. In I am Legend there is no human world out there. Will Smith's character Robert Neville is lost in an empty and wholly depopulated New York City—everyone is dead.

Although there is no real rescue for Neville, he does encounter another survivor, a woman who heard his radio broadcast in Maryland. She is convinced that God meant her to find Neville. She believes they are providentially destined to find their way to an encampment if survivors in the New England mountains. This insertion of theology into the film seems arbitrary—it softens and undercuts the grim and bitter portrait of a world emptied of humanity. She wants to insist that God has a plan for everyone and every event, while Neville insists, given the events that have occurred, that there is no God.

There are plot holes in I Am Legend, and the film makes little effort to explain the science behind the virus—why it mutated, how it kills, why it turns people into zombies, how Smith is trying to find a cure. But it is best not to think too much about such matters. The scenes of an empty New York City and Will Smith's acting make the film worthwhile.

Originally published at Blogcritics.

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