' Cinema Romantico: I Am Legend

Monday, December 17, 2007

I Am Legend

The year is 2012. A cure for cancer has gone wrong, spawned a virus and killed off most of the world's population, save for the zombies - whoops! I meant "the dark seekers", who will work as our nefarious villains, and Robert Neville (Will Smith), a scientist partly responsible for the virus outbreak who is now alone in New York City with only his loyal dog for accompaniment. He spends his days foraging in an eerily empty Big Apple and attempting to discover a cure for the virus in his basement lab.

The first half of this movie is surprisingly strong. As we fall into Neville's daily rhythms with he and his dog, and get oh so many glimpses of a deserted New York, you will find yourself riveted. Much of the credit for this has to go to director Franis Lawrence doing what The Coen Brothers did on "No Country For Old Men" and Ben Affleck did on "Gone Baby Gone" before them - he generates tension from silence. Note how in so many early portions of this movie there are no musical chords served up to guide your emotions. He lets you find the emotions yourself. There's a breathless sequence inside an abandoned building that comes at you the same as it comes at Neville. Without the soundtrack telling you what the film is up to, it becomes terribly dramatic. Good, good stuff.

(One interesting thing to note is that you could actually take a scene each from "I Am Legend" and "No Country For Old Men" and compare how silence works more effectively than musical cues. In each movie there is a moment when an evil dog is charging our main character and the main character guns it down. In the former it has music and is far less effective than the latter which goes for quitet and total reality.)

SPOILERS AHEAD!! SPOILERS AHEAD!!

Be honest, people. Did you really think Neville was all alone? Did you really think Hollywood would be so bold, so brave, as it make a film with only a single human being for the duration of its running time? No chance in hell. So yes, in the third act a couple more humans - a mother and a son - swoop in at precisely the instant the story requires them so they can save Neville. They have also arrived to speak of the inevitable "colony" of humans. She advises Neville she thinks she has been "sent by God". This little development is wretched for two reasons. 1.) It's the film trying to work in some sort of spritual subplot and not doing it well. It feels rushed and unconvincing. It feels like they wrote themselves into a corner and had to quickly write themselves out. 2.) I fear in the future that every time a movie has a deus ex machina show up they'll simply have the deus ex machina exclaim "I was sent by God" and presto! Everything's solved! God sent them? I mean, who's gonna' argue with that?

So what prevents "I Am Legend" from completely caving in? I'll tell you what, Will Smith. This is a magnificent performance. He doesn't play a bit of it wrong. When he encounters the other humans for the first time he reacts, I suspect, just as a person in this situation might. ("I was saving that bacon.") My friend Rory the Movie Idiot talks in his review of a "particularly powerful scene" and how "Smith play(s) it pefectly". I think I know what scene he's speaking of and if I do, well, I agree. I thought it was the finest moment in the whole enterprise. Gut-wrenching. And even at the end, even as the story starts sputtering, he keeps it grounded.

The movie is far from perfect but it's nice to know that great acting and a strong sense of style (for an hour, at least) can still turn up every now and then in a Hollywood blockbuster.

1 comment:

Sabina's hat said...

While I agree that Will Smith does a good job of playing the character he was given, I felt that as soon as the other humans enter the movie it loses whatever interest it had.

The problem is that the first half of the movie is mainly interesting for its imagining of a near post-apolocyptic New York City, but not because Will Smith is anything like a normal human being that might feel more than a smidgen of an existential crisis upon realizing he is the only human still alive (after all, He is Legend).

So, once humans enter the movie again, it becomes what it was all along, action hero ("look at my cool guns and gadgets, at my rock hard abs, plus, I'm a genius scientist in my spare time, but really, I'm just an ordinary family man") with no emotional range Saving The World.

I was waiting for just a bit of surprise or relief or anything to show there was something behind the tough guy shell, and never did.

Interestingly enough, that is one of the reasons why Juno was so good. For most of the movie, she puts up a clever, wise-cracking exterior derived from Lethal Weapon and its ilk. But the movie sells it--you can see why Juno has to build a protective shield around herself, and the movie is careful to show that as only part of her identity.