Tuesday, April 29, 2008


"My name is Robert Neville. I am a survivor living in New York City. I am broadcasting on all AM frequencies. I will be at the South Street Seaport everyday at mid-day, when the sun is highest in the sky. If you are out there... if anyone is out there... I can provide food, I can provide shelter, I can provide security. If there's anybody out there... anybody... please. You are not alone."

I Am legend
By now most people know that the book I Am Legend by Richard Matheson has been made into a movie a few times. The most famous version is Charleton Heston in Omega Man from the 1970s, a movie that was great but has not aged well. The most recent version starred Will Smith and my brother and I got it from Netflix a few days ago and watched it last night.

I Am Legend, briefly, is the story of a man who survives a horrendous plague. Almost everyone dies from the disease, of the few survivors, most turn into ghastly monsters, and very very few are immune to it, and end up prey to the mosters. Save one man, the legend, played by Will Smith. Here's how his character Lt Colonel Richard Neville explains it:
Six billion people on Earth when the infection hit. KV had a ninety-percent kill rate, that's five point four billion people dead. Crashed and bled out. Dead. Less than one-percent immunity. That left twelve million healthy people, like you, me, and Ethan. The other five hundred and eighty-eight million turned into your dark seekers, and then they got hungry and they killed and fed on everybody.
KV started as a cancer cure, a bioengineered virus that absolutely cured all kinds of cancer. Unfortunately after a while the virus mutated, and turned the test subjects into vampiric creatures. They are tremendously strong, very fast, have an animalistic mentality, and cannot tolerate ultraviolet light.

As far as Neville knows, he's the last man alive, but he holds out hope, sending out a message constantly on the AM radio frequencies telling people to meet him at a certain place each day at noon.

This was a riveting movie, it held my attention for the full length and did not seem over long. Until the very end I couldn't predict what would happen, and there were very few points where I said "what the!!?!?" This is rare, almost all movies are packed with these - don't get me started on 3:10 to Yuma or The Two Towers. Children will probably be scared out of their hair by this movie, I would have had nightmares until I was 20 if I watched this as a little guy. There's no sex, no nudity, the violence is impressive but not gory, and there is little profanity. You won't regret renting this film, and I think it should have done better in the theaters, although it doesn't have a lot of repeat viewing potential like some.

The film is very well done in terms of direction and set design. The art direction and camera work is fantastic, the CGI is fairly smooth and seamless (although the zombie dogs were a bit awkward). The ruins of an abandoned and monster-hunted Manhattan were wonderful, they looked appropriate for three years abandonment. Plants are rapidly taking over, deer run in packs, but the buildings are largely untouched. Some are slightly damaged at the ground level, but most of it looks much like today. That was a very effective touch, because too much aging and it would look like Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome, which is way too much damage for 3 years.

The technology was largely plausible as well, Neville had over three years constant effort managed to cobble together a reasonable amount of comforts that were plausible. There is quite a bit of gasoline still available in New York City, and for now, he has gas powered generators to run his home and a wide variety of cars at his disposal. He runs the city during the day, watching DVDs, hunting, checking house to house systematically with a map for supplies, and so on. He has a lot of guns as well, but there was no sign of any autoloading equipment. Although he was a soldier, it appears that he doesn't much care for guns other than for emergencies.

The sound of the movie was very well done as well, from the clatter of deer hooves on pavement to the guns to cautiously stepping on money and hearing it louder than it really is in fear, the sound was excellent. One thing about firing guns that people don't understand until doing so is how loud they are: ear-splitting.

Speaking of loud, Will Smith's acting was terrific. He's consistent from scene to scene, he doesn't play his happy go lucky blackified character from most of his previous movies (Pursuit of Happyness seems to have been the first movie he really matured in). He's just a man trying to survive and working on his science, the fact that he happens to be black is incidental - which is where culture needs to go.

Smith does an excellent job of portraying a man who is so alone, he is tortured and lonely and desperate, yet still driven to do right and working each day at goals to keep his sanity and purpose. His fear is palpable, it is so well done you share the fear he feels in individual scenes. His absolute alone-ness is very clear as well, by the end he's beginning to go a little mad.

Will Smith had to be incredible in this movie to make it work. 75% or more of the movie he is on the screen without anyone else. Much of the movie has no dialog at all, if he couldn't pull off doing this alone, it would have been a pretty poor movie. After watching the movie, I can think of few living actors that could have pulled this off at all. The sad thing is I cannot think of a single actress.

The director of I Am Legend (Francis Lawrence, previous movie: Constantine) started out with certain presumptions. He knew that audiences would know the basic concept of the movie well enough to not need much explanation. The movie doesn't really explain much at all. Smith's character pours some substance on his steps early in the movie, but what it is and why he's doing it is never explained, although you can more or less puzzle it out by the end. Sometimes this doesn't work well, as later in the movie when he sees what is probably blood dripping off something but the shot is so tight it's difficult to even see what he's looking at.

There is little incidental music in the movie. The sound effects and Will Smith's reactions carry the scenes and give them their emotion. Editing is minimal, the director's style is minimal: he tells the story, lets Will Smith do his job, and does not feel compelled to stamp his ego all over every scene. The suspense in some of the scenes is incredible, this was the most stressful and even frightening film I've seen in a long time, yet the usual tricks were not used. There were few bits where a monster jumped out at the screen, no sudden explosion of music, no false positives where a cat runs out and everyone goes "ohh, it was just the cat." It was just plausible, palpable fear that built and built. There were some flaws in this by the end (see annoyances below) but most of the movie was masterful.

The general worldview of the movie was hesitantly positive, generally theistic, and based upon absolute ethics. The military was portrayed positively, science was showed as flawed and challenged, and while effective not the answer to all our problems. Violence was shown unapologetically as a proper solution to the right situations. Lt Col Neville was clearly Christian at the start of the chaos, goes through a very dark night of the soul as he struggles with God, then regains his faith in a minor, subtle way. He blames the evils of the world on humanity, and he tirelessly works for the good of people. He has a plain division of importance between animal and human: he spends the entire movie attempting to cure the vampire creatures.

Overall I Am Legend is a pleasant change from the usual worldview of Hollywood movies.

Neville and SamThis section will have some spoilers, so if you don't care to know some details of the movie before watching it, here's where you should stop reading.

Every movie I watch has a few bits where I am annoyed or am just aghast at how stupid or irrational it was. Sometimes these are small points, sometimes they are big. Overall, I Am Legend had few of these. That said, there were some.

Almost all of them came in the final act, where the characters of Anna (Alice Braga) and Ethan (Charlie Tahan) showed up. Ethan had no lines whatsoever and was just a cute kid to protect. The first two acts were terrific, but the third was weaker. Up to this point the movie was thoughtful and almost consistently logical, but when the "big explosive finale" came, it lost its hold on me. This is sadly a pattern for almost all movies. The January Man, for example: great cop movie, very well acted, I love Kevin Klein. Then at the end, it degrades into a dull, annoying typical cop adventure where he murders all the suspects and destroys the evidence.

In I Am Legend, the end falls apart because the actions of the characters and bad guys cease to make sense. Here are a few examples:

In his house, two of the "dark seekers" manage to get inside and one shows that explosions don't bother him and bullets cannot hit him (despite Neville one-shotting almost everything else he aims at). In a scene, one of them hangs from the ceiling defying gravity in a way only a CGI creature can and is tearing a huge hole in it. Under a dresser, Anna and Ethan are hiding, and Ethan lets out a tiny squeak. The creature in the middle of dismantling the wood and plaster hears it, drops to the floor and starts to look for them.

Yet earlier, Neville walked into a room full of the creatures with a flashlight on, hissing his dog's name, and none of them noticed him. He sneaks out, stepping on crunchy objects and into a room with another monster, who doesn't notice him as he talks to his dog, until he turns the flashlight on him. Was this ceiling clinger just supernaturally perceptive, was he able to hear what none of the others could?

The trio of heroes flee to the doctor's lab, where he bolts a huge iron door three times and they hide behind a plexiglass shield. The monster blast through the door like it's made of tissue paper (suffering no apparent harm; this is a consistent theme in the movie: they can hit like a battering ram so hard they dent and tip over a car, but it doesn't hurt them). Then they begin to throw themselves against the plexiglass barrier in what is frankly a frightening display.

The problem is, the barrier exists because that's where he puts the monsters when he's trying to cure them; it's his safe box that they can't get out of. The lock is on the outside. He and the two others are hiding on the inside. If the lock mechanism works on that side, how secure is that? If it works on the outside, why didn't the monsters show at least as much intelligence as a crow-brained velociraptor in Jurassic Park (another annoyance) and open the door on their first try?

They pummel and bash at the glass with their apparently unharmed bodies (which a single bullet kills and a needle penetrates with ease) until it begins to crack, with the big main bad guy "dark seeker" who when he's first seen my brother said "we'll see him again." Neville comes to a conclusion: he hides (in plain sight, through the transparent plexiglass) the pair in a little nook with a metal door and no lock, then kill himself. He has a gun but doesn't shoot. He has a grenade, which apparently obliterates every single one of the "dark seekers" but he uses it as a suicide bomb rather than tossing it through the hole that the big guy makes. Why kill himself at all? Why did the "dark seekers" stop trying to get to their food source that they were so enraged at?

If they were able to crash through every substance known to man with their brute force, how is a little metal door going to stop them? The next scene is the girl and the boy driving to a colony of survivors in Vermont, no explanation, no scene of them getting out.

Other annoying bits included Will Smith's inconsistent indestructibility. This is something that has been building in movies for years now and has become a standard feature. Ever since Die Hard where Karl and Detective McClane beat each other into mashed potatoes without any real appearance of harm (Karl hanging by his neck from a chain for ten minutes without ill effects), the hero of movies have gotten ever more unkillable. You can get hit dead center by a bus at 40 miles an hour and wake up in the hospital rather than being turned into paste, for example.

In this movie, Neville falls three stories without even having the wind knocked out of him or being dazed, is slamed through bannisters and crashes down staircases, is bitten for a minute straight by a monster on the neck and is marred only by a blood stain (on the wrong side of his shirt). In other places, the damage is reasonable: he stabs himself in the leg with a knife and has a limp from then after. His being hung by a cord by one leg for an hour or more all but paralyzes that leg and he has to crawl to his car (that is strangely further from the trap when he's going back than when he went to it). This stuff annoys me: humans break fairly easy, even in terrific shape like Neville.

This is a minor nit, but the movie made absolutely sure that Neville never was able to shoot a deer for a meal. He hunted almost every day as near as I can figure, yet he repeatedly fails to get his kill. Killing humans that are sick? That's OK. Killing a dog? Gotta be off camera because it's so horrific. Killing a deer? CALL PETA!

Here are some other one-shot problems I noticed and grumbled a little bout:
How is a lion pack surviving the cold of New York City for three years?
Eventually, Neville's dog gets infected by some monster dogs. Neville tries to patch him up but it fails. Why did the serum work on the rat and not the dog? Why not save him rather than smother him?
There's a scene where a rather obvious trap is set up (but it's forgivable that Neville not spot it: he doesn't think the creatures are capable of this sort of thought), and when dark comes, the main "dark seeker" boss sends dogs after him. He fights off the dogs, barely, and then escapes. Why didn't the "dark seeker" boss go after him instead of just sending dogs?
For that matter, how did he know in the vastness of Manhattan that the mannequin was special to Neville? Why on earth did he think that would work?

And finally, the big question for all movies of this type:
Why don't zombies in these movies ever eat each other? They feast on the uninfected and do not eat each other. Why this is no one bothers to explain, it is a standard of zombie movies that is just assumed without being examined: why not eat fellow zombies?

By the way in the original book, the concept was even more interesting, but it would have made a pretty depressing movie. I Am Legend is called that not because he saved the world, but because the story is told from the perspective of the monsters, at the end. He goes around destroying them and trying to find other humans, and eventually fails. The monsters take over the world, and they have a legend about this bogeyman who comes out in the day, killing and destroying. They warn their kids about him, be good or the legend will come kill you. In the end, the legend is that he's a monster, and he figures it out, finally: they are their own people and he's murdering them.

Still, this was a great movie, and despite its weak ending and silly little flaws, I recommend watching it.
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