14 January 2008

I am Legend: a movie review

I am Legend
By Max Driffill II
There are only two types of movie reviews that lend themselves to easy writing. Those types are either the very good, or the very bad. I’m not sure if that is an axiomatic but it really ought to be. Writers or readers of movie reviews will either already know this or have deeply suspected it. Harder to write are films that exist somewhere in the middle of that distribution of quality, the almost good or the almost bad. Quite unmysteriously the worse the film the easier the review. I am Legend is closer to good than bad. In fact until an unfortunate, unexpected, and sadly unjustified turn of narrative in the final act I had been about to add it to my list of good science fiction movies of which there has always been a paucity.
I am Legend differs markedly from other screen versions of Richard Matheson’s story but manages to be just as flawed as those other treatments (Vincent Price’s equally passable Last man on Earth and Charlton Heston’s dreck Omega Man). That the film has succeeded is more a testament to what is good about it rather than what is not. And its first two acts are engaging. In fact the first two thirds are a testament to the great actor that is the heart of the film. The dog that pals around with him is quite a capable thespian too. It is these two leads that make the film watchable, emotionally moving, and tense. It is the film’s final act which turns the once magnificent edifice into a shaky façade that crumbles under the weight of questions any thoughtful viewer will inevitably be forced to ask.
Before that terrible turn the film is worth watching for everything that it does right. I am Legend tells the story of the end of the world from the perspective of Lt Col. Dr. Robert Neville, military virologist who even after the end has come and gone continues to work on the cure for what ails it. A disease, the unintentional by product of a miracle drug, has decimated humanity. The pathology of the disease is some strange cross between zombiesm and vampirism. Affected humans seem much less bright and have a zombie’s inelegant fashion sense (one may wonder that any clothing would last three years with the kind of wear these creatures put on it) but they like to eat more than brains and become positively beastly at the smell of blood. They also sunburn easily. This is all fine and good. It is a monster movie after all, and done quite well. Where the film really succeeds though is in its vision of a world without us. What would happen if humanity were to suddenly vanish? It is a question the film answers in its stark vistas of an empty Manhattan. Empty streets dominate a city that is rather rapidly being reclaimed by forests and marshes (the island was itself home to numerous rivers and that history still bedevils the city that now stands on the island). White-tail deer roam the car choked streets, birds other than House Sparrow’s and Rock Doves flit and sing. It isn’t a wasteland unless you are the only human survivor left in the city, and, gregarious primate that you are, crave human contact and interaction. This is all terribly compelling. It is an exercise in good choices. Will Smith’s portrayal of one human’s descent into the madness of loneliness is wonderful. Neville’s experience is hard to describe as miserable, but it seems deeply unfulfilling at the same time. Were it not for the dog and Neville’s deer hunts it would be a decidedly joyless exercise in survival. Neville talks to mannequins at a video store that he has obviously arranged, and he seems genuinely to have forgotten this fact. Were they people he once knew? It is a question that is never answered, nor is any answer needed. (Some morons in front of me in theater thought this was the comic relief and not an utterly sad statement on the man’s mental state.) There are scenes in which Smith essays terror better than any actor I’ve seen in years, perhaps ever. His frustration at being unable to find a cure is seen clearly as an extension of his loneliness.
Underneath all this is the important work of composer James Newton Howard who is fast becoming my favorite screen composer. A lesser composer would have scored everything. Howard wisely held back. Most of the film lacks a score. It was an excellent choice. It adds to the stark experience of Neville’s life. Music is often used to heighten a viewer’s emotion. What is often forgotten is that music also consists of the silence between the notes. Someone, I can’t remember who, has said this silence it the most important part of all great music. Howard has learned this lesson well.
The film doesn’t begin to fall apart until its similarity to a better film, Signs becomes utterly apparent. It is the final act and involves two other people. It isn’t that is poorly acted. It isn’t that the action is un-engaging. On both counts it’s really quite good. But there is, I think, an unjustified turn in the narrative. I won’t reveal what that is. I’m no spoiler. I will ask a couple of questions though.
Why does the author of the universe tend to speak in such obscure language? Why all the codes and easily missed clues? Why do so many people have to die for the completion of said being’s designs and games? It seems inelegant and inefficient not to mention capricious, perhaps malicious and certainly stupid. Why didn’t the writer of this script pay more attention to Neville’s math in the key argument?
To tell me what you thought of this movie
Email: beltopurple@gmail.com
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