A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Movie 444 – I Am Legend

I Am Legend – May 18th, 2011

I have not read the book this movie is ostensibly based on. I keep meaning to because the premise seems decent and all and I do like having read the books movies are based on so I know what’s been changed. I’ve talked a lot about my thoughts on the transition between types of media and how it’s usually inevitable that changes will be necessary to make a text story work on screen. But I like to know where those changes are. And I don’t here, with the exception of the ending. And I’ll get to the ending. I have what might be an unpopular opinion, but we’ll deal with that later. What I’m really saying here is that I’m looking at this movie not as an adaptation but as a thing on its own. And I wish I wasn’t. Because I have some issues.

Before I get into my issues let’s make it clear that I think this movie had some really cool potential and I flat out loved Will Smith in it. And since he’s the heart of the movie for the vast majority of it, that’s a good thing. He plays Robert Neville, the only survivor in New York City after a mutated virus swept through the population. The virus was meant to cure cancer, but something went wrong and it went airborne and we find out later it has a 90% mortality rate. Of the remaining 10% of the population a tiny number are immune. The rest turn feral. They become incredibly photosensitive, avoiding UV light when at all possible. They seem to hunger for blood and attack any other living thing they see. They lose their hair, their jaws elongate, their heartrates speed up and their core temperatures rise. They sleep in the day and come out at night. They’re very much akin to the traditional vampire but without the romance. And not a sparkle in sight.

So Neville lives in a fortified townhouse in New York. His wife and daughter died during evacuation attempts, which we learn through a series of dreams Neville has about his life leading up to the situation he’s in now. Over 1000 days after the outbreak and it’s just him and his dog, Sam. She follows him around the city during the day while he goes about his routine. He breaks into abandoned homes looking for supplies like canned goods. He tries to hunt. He spends an hour or two at the pier after broadcasting a message to any other survivors. He goes to the video store and gets a new movie. He spends some leisure time hitting golf balls through the abandoned city. He avoids dark spaces and in his basement he’s got a bunch of infected rats and is testing possible cures made from his own immune blood.

The first two thirds of this movie are basically about this one man and his fairly solitary life and the ways he’s devised to cope and survive. He’s got his routine. He’s got his dog. He’s got his fortress and his lab. He has a large goal and a number of small goals. He has a few leisure activities. He has tapes of news broadcasts playing when he’s at home, seemingly more to have regular voices talking about real life than for any information they might deliver since he’s probably heard them all many times over. And you can see that he’s starting to lose his grip on things and you can see that he knows he’s losing his grip on things. When a promising potential cure doesn’t work out he bangs things around and gets not just angry but frustrated and scared too. He’s set up department store mannequins in some of the places he frequents, like the video store. He’s named them and he talks to them as if they’re real, though you’re sure at the start that he knows it’s all just a coping mechanism. Later on, however, he starts to panic. One of the mannequins has been moved and he yells at it to say something if it’s real. He says hello to one and begs it to say hello back. It’s heartbreaking to watch and Smith handles the part incredibly well.

The vast majority of the movie is just Smith and the dog. His few encounters with the infected humans in the city are panicked episodes, with lots of yelling and fighting as they attack him and he defends himself. They’re not really characters to be interacted with. Not the way they’re portrayed in the scenes they get, anyhow. So it’s Smith and his dog and the empty city and his dreams about his wife and daughter. That’s it. And I really felt for him. The dreams are well defined and they fill the time when Neville is locked up tight in his fortress, reminding him of what he’s lost and what led up to it all. It’s heavily implied that he was involved in the original outbreak somehow, or in trying to contain it. He was military, but also a scientist. So he’s got a mission here. And I honestly think it’s really well put together for about two thirds of the film.

When another survivor shows up, however, the movie loses me. It lost me and went wandering off towards The Stand without me. Now, I liked The Stand just fine. The book was great fun and epic and all and the miniseries didn’t suck. But it handed the religious aspects fairly well, setting them in place early on and running them through the whole story as an essential aspect of the plot. This movie? Is purely science fiction right up until Neville asks the newly arrived Anna what made her show up when she did and she says God told her to. And I don’t want to be one of those atheists who can’t stand to have religion added to the mix. I generally don’t mind it, so long as it’s well incorporated. Like in The Stand. But here? It’s out of nowhere. It’s not like there’s been any hint of divine intervention or even divine signposts up until Anna’s all “God sent me to you.” It’s not that it’s religion. It’s that it feels like lazy storytelling. Like they needed to have her there in the right place at the right time and couldn’t figure out a way to work it into the existing storyline. So, God! Of course. It’s a cheap plot patch and I’m curious about whether it’s in the original story and if so if it’s handled any better.

Unfortunately, the ending of the movie is somewhat dependant on Anna and her son. I know the ending in the book is far different, and I have what is likely an unpopular opinion in that I don’t hate the hopeful ending the movie gets. But I wish it hadn’t depended on a new character showing up out of the blue and then saving the day, so to speak. It makes the ending feel just as cheap and weak as the plot patch that got Anna there did, because it’s dependant on that plot patch. It feels like so much more could have been done with the infected humans in the city and Neville’s mission to ‘cure’ them. There are some hints that there’s more going on than he realizes, with the moved mannequin and a trap laid using his techniques. There’s an infected man who exhibits some atypical behavior that Neville notes later on and it’s so obviously a pointer to there being more than meets the eye with the infected folks. But since the ending was changed and Anna has to get some screen time, well, we never explore that.

Honestly, while I get that the original ending (which I take it was actually filmed but replaced at the studio’s insistence) is more artistic and fits the world and has heavy meaning and all, I don’t mind the semi-happy ending. Some days I need a bit of brightness at the end of a bleak movie, not just more bleakness and a moral about human nature because let’s face it, by the time you get to the scene with Neville and Sam on the floor of the lab you’re about as bleak as you can get and yes, I did cry. But at the same time, I wish the ending had been better incorporated. I wish all the things the movie promised and hinted at were followed up on. At least enough to join the fascinating and heartbreaking first two thirds with the ending instead of just plunking it down. As it is, I didn’t dislike it, but I was left feeling incredibly frustrated.

May 18, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment

I Am Legend

May 18, 2011

I Am Legend

I’ll admit that Amanda and I had been putting off watching this movie. I love a good post apocalyptic tale, and I enjoy a Will Smith movie, but I could never bring myself to watch this. Ever since I heard that the dog prominently featured in the movie as his only living companion in the abandoned streets of New York died during the movie. Yeah, I know, spoilers, but it was that one event which prevented us from seeing this in the theaters and kept us from watching it ever since. I had heard what a powerful acting accomplishment this movie was – with Will Smith alone on screen for the vast majority of the film. I longed to watch it and see what the praise was all about, but I just couldn’t bear to watch it.

I bought it though. I had it sitting on a shelf against that day, sometime in the unknowable future, when I’d finally get around to it. Today we have my father visiting and we allowed him free reign of our collection to pick a movie to watch with us, and he chose this because none of us had seen it yet. So finally I’m getting a chance to watch it, and it’s every bit as intense as I thought it was going to be.

Will Smith is Robert Neville, the last survivor of an apocalyptic virus that has turned every other resident of New York City into an enraged zombie. They have pale skin and no hair. They have no apparent language or thought. They mostly come out at night (mostly) because they cannot stand the UV light.

I really like the way the storytelling is done in this movie. We’re introduced to Neville and his loyal dog Sam at the start of this film as they forage in the ruins of New York. The apocalypse is years in the past – the streets are overgrown and filled with wild animals. The events of the past that led to this situation are revealed slowly over the course of the film through Neville’s nightmares. I also appreciate that the movie doesn’t answer all the questions it raises. We discover over time that Robert Neville was somehow involved in the search for a cure to the super-bug back in the day, but it’s never established what exactly he had to do with things. He was in the military. He had a police escort. He has enough notoriety that other people know his name. That’s about all we get, though, which is okay because this movie is about the person he has become and not the person he was in the old world.

Not many actors could pull off this role. This is Will Smith’s movie and at least seventy-five percent of the time he’s the only human on screen. As we watch Neville’s daily routine we see his isolation, his desperation, and the way he is slowly losing his mind. By far it is this courageous and touching portrayal that makes this movie worth watching. It’s the kind of role that actors dream of. A solitary man slowly being driven insane by his own obsessive behavior and his loneliness. When he does eventually find himself in the company of humans again it is clear just how far gone he is. It’s a bold concept for a movie and it’s fascinating to watch.

I’m not a fan of the “everything’s gonna be alright” ending to the film, though. It doesn’t feel like a part of the movie (because it isn’t.) The original end of the film ties together clues from throughout that show that the zombies have some remnant of their human intelligence. We know they have because the alpha male appears to do planning. The zombies set a trap for Neville. They coordinate attacks on him. There’s also the recurring butterfly motif throughout the movie which makes no real sense with the current ending. Instead of resolution of some of these clues we have a Hollywood ending involving a grenade and a voice over explaining that the world has been saved. It’s an ending that doesn’t want you to think – which is disappointing after such an intense and cerebral movie.

The special edition we own has the original ending where the alpha male zombie is able to communicate to Neville that he only wants the woman Neville has been experimenting on back. They achieve an uneasy truce and Neville leaves New York in the hands of its new population. I really like the concept of this ending – the twist that it is Neville that is the monster, and not the zombies. It feels more in keeping with the rest of the movie, and I wish that there were a director’s cut so I could see the scene as part of the movie rather than as a bonus feature.

I’m glad that I didn’t hate this movie though. Even with its grafted on happy ending the movie is still cool, compelling and well worth watching. I enjoy it as a character study and as a thought experiment. What would it really be like to be the last man alive? This movie says in no uncertain terms that it would be hard. Perhaps cripplingly so.

May 18, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , , | Leave a comment