Monday, 19 May 2008

DVD: I Am Legend

Lowdown: High aspirations fall flat in the face of a Doom.
Oh, how the mighty have fallen! Will Smith used to be involved with some great fun filled science fiction films (Independence Day and I Robot come to mind), so I was expecting a lot of I Am Legend; I was eager to rent it and give it a go. However, just as I was eager to give it a go before getting it, I was eager to click the “stop” button on my DVD remote once I’ve started watching it. Indeed, I Am Legend is an incredibly bad film for so many reasons I hope I would do these reasons justice by not forgetting the key ones in this review.
Let’s rewind back to the beginning and see where things went wrong. I Am Legend starts with a news clip featuring Emma Thompson saying she has found a cure for cancer using some genetically modified virus. The next thing we see is Will Smith racing around a Manhattan fully devoid of people, hunting deer with the company of his dog.
Through ongoing flashbacks and additional bits of information the film is kind enough to throw our way at a rather slow pace (even though they’re all pretty obvious to all the characters involved), we learn that Smith is the last human alive; for some elusive reason he is immune to the disease caused by Thompson’s experiment. Most of humanity died, whereas the rest turned into ultra strong cannibal zombie like creatures with rabies like symptoms that feed on healthy human flesh, are generally stupid enough to be lured by the smell of blood, and are referred to in the film as “Darkseekers” because they have this thing against UV radiation.
Smith is a physician/soldier in profession who spends his days running errands in the name of civilization and his nights shut off in his apartment building (conveniently located on Washington Square; obviously, he had lots of money in his time), working on a cure for the Darkseekers, and essentially hiding from them.
And then things happen; we are made to jump time and time again as ridiculous events take place. Eventually, even god is added to the narrative line. Luckily, I Am Legend is a rather shortish film.
The basic problem with Legend is that while it promises to be a serious science fiction film it’s nothing more than your very basic “make you jump” horror film. Any seriousness it might have had is completely demolished by all of its inconsistencies and the issues it chooses not to discuss.
Let’s have a look at some of them, if you will. First, we are never provided with an explanation as to why Manhattan was chosen by the USA federal government for detachment; it’s just a choice that provides for some sexy scenes with fighter jets knocking down the Brooklyn Bridge (I would have thought that ground demolition experts would have done a much better and safer a job).
We never get any explanation as to Smith’s role in the grand scheme of things: he’s a high ranked army officer, we can gather that, but he’s also working on a vaccine in this ultra modern lab he has at his home basement; some more background, rather than avoidance, would have been great.
Let’s examine the evil monsters, the Darkseekers, next. I agree humanity is facing definite danger with viruses gone wrong affecting the entire human population of this now globalized planet; after all, one of the reasons why humanity tended to evolve along small and culturally distinct societies is the advantage (that is no longer there) of these societies being varied enough for some of them to survive in the case of calamity. So we're off to a good start.
Next I ask, what are the probabilities of this virus turning people into aggressive with rabies like symptoms? High enough, I would say, as that would be an efficient mechanism to distribute the virus. What are the chances of rabies like symptoms when the virus is already airborne, the way it is in the film? Pretty low, thank you very much; you don’t see flu victims jumping at you to bite you, just because flu has a much better way of distributing itself. You see people cough at you instead.
And what are the chances of the virus victims turning into light sensitive creatures? And what are the chances of the virus victims turning into creatures sensitive to the smell of blood? Why are the Darkseekers so scary looking? And why are the virus victims so super strong, all of a sudden? Why do they only communicate with loud shrieking shouts? Why do they have a leader and a society of their own that doesn’t accept others, as in – what prevents them from eating one another? Why do they focus on killing healthy animals alone? I don’t know why I bother asking those questions; it is stupidly obvious the filmmakers did not go for credibility with their monsters but rather aimed for the conventional horror theme of the zombie.
Which is exactly where they went wrong. Your average horror film can get away with such blatantly improbable misrepresentations as blood sucking zombies in order to pass their agenda, but in a film discussing the potential fall of humanity, the “how” bit of the equation is very important; the treatment the “how” receives in I Am Legend is simply appalling.
Interestingly enough, Scientific American has recently published an article forecasting how Manhattan would be like if humans were to suddenly disappear off the face of the earth. The article concluded the area would quickly deteriorate: Apparently, Manhattan is built over several rivers that used to be overground until buildings were erected on top of them, and now they get pumped into Manhattan’s surrounding rivers. Without the people doing the pumping, some major floods will take place within just a few days. In addition, with no people to collect fallen leaves and such, fires are very likely; with no people to extinguish them, fires are likely to take down most of the island within just a few years.
I am not asking I Am Legend for such a level of authenticity; the film explains how Smith has power and that’s enough for me. It is clear the film neglects a layer of authenticity in favor of sexy abandoned skyscraper shots portraying the perceived height of humanity’s achievement and the size of its fall. I forgive I Am Legend for this loss of accuracy as it is there in order to make a good, if not original, point; what I do not forgive it for is commercializing a good idea for yet another zombie movie.
Originality is yet another ingredient that is missing in action as far as I Am Legend is concerned. How many films have shown us New York being destroyed by now? I won’t even bother counting them. The idea of having Manhattan as a one big exclusion zone has already been very well explored in Escape from New York. The idea of blood sucking light sensitive super strong evil monsters has been the basic premises of the Doom series for decades now. The idea of a man and his dog facing an apocalyptic future together was also explored in a film called A Boy and His Dog. In short, none of I Am Legend’s key motifs add to the discussion board in any way.
The DVD comes with some comics like animation clips. Unlike the film, these discuss hypothetical events taking place during the fall of humanity, perhaps the most interesting part of the crisis depicted by I Am Legend which is totally ignored in the film itself. Sadly, those clips focus on the rather eccentric, and join the main film in being silly and missing the point. Interestingly enough, one of those clips was written by Orson Scott Card; sadly, it is probably the worst of the four clips.
Technical assessment: The picture is good, so good it exposes way too many of the CGI effects for what they are; need I express my antagonism towards blatant use of CGI yet again? The sound is good, but it is used mainly as a tool for scaring the viewer.
Overall: Make sure that I Am Legend maintains its legendary status and give it a miss. 1 out of 5 stars.


Mike said...

Oooof. Haven't seen a rating this low in a while. How did you feel about the previous filmed versions of this story (The Last Man On Earth and The Omega Man, respectively.)?

PS, finally responded to that latish comment you psoted on ym Batman Begins review.

Moshe Reuveni said...

To be honest, it's been a while since I've last watched Omega Man etc (we're probably talking half life terms here).
What I can do is try and point at one key difference between those and Legend: Legend puts a lot of emphasis on the "how", as in how people drove themselves extinct, which is why I have a problem with the stupid way in which it portrays the Darkseekers.
Omega Man, on the other hand, did not attempt to address the how, or it least did not emphasize it much (well, at least as far as I remember; I could be completely wrong here). What Omega Man was aiming for was a reflection of the way people felt during the Cold War, the fear of the threatening stranger. It did it well and it effectively used the media to make its point.
Legend, on the other hand, is just a wishy-washy excuse to give us shots of a devastated New York and make us jump in our seats. Beyond the rather stupid "god has a plan for all of us" theme, I couldn't detect any sense in it.

Anonymous said...

See I believe your missing the whole point of the movie. You are correct about the movie missing crucial elements. The movie to me isn't about the whole Sci-Fi aspect or the disease at all. The movie is more about the human element, more or less answering the question: What would you do if you were put in Will Smith's situation. You really pick up on that when he goes and talks to the dumbies in the store and around town even though they are completely fake. To me the movie seemed to be based on how Will Smith(Robert Neville) copped with the lack of social interaction.

Moshe Reuveni said...

I agree there is a lot in what you're saying. However, it has been 4 months now since I have watched I Am Legend and what I mostly remember about it is it being a zombie film; if you were to wake me up in the middle of the night and ask me what I thought of the humane aspects of it, you would have to wait a long while for my answer.
Still, I am happy to hear that someone managed to find something positive in I Am Legend. I sure didn't.