Synopsis: The last man on earth is not alone. Will Smith portrays that lone survivor in I Am Legend, the action epic fusing heart pounding excitement with a mind blowing vision of a desolated Manhattan.
Somehow immune to an unstoppable, incurable virus, military virologist Robert Neville (Smith) is now the last human survivor in New York City and maybe the world. But he is not alone. Mutant plague victims lurk in the shadows…watching Neville’s every move…waiting for him to make a fatal mistake. Perhaps mankind’s last, best hope, Neville is driven by only one remaining mission: to find an antidote using his own immune blood. But he knows he is outnumbered…and quickly running out of time.
I Am Legend 8.0
eyelights: its adaptation of the original story. Will Smith’s performance.
eyesores: the CGI mutants, animals and vehicles. the lackluster ending.
“Seven 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. 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. Everybody!”
2007’s ‘I Am Legend’ is a motion picture based on Richard Matheson’s novel ‘I Am Legend’. Starring Will Smith, it tells the story of former US Army virologist Robert Neville, who is one of the last remaining human beings left on Earth. Trapped in New York City, which was quarantined three years earlier, in the hope of halting the spread of a deadly virus, he spends his days foraging and trying to find a cure for the virus.
But the loneliness is eating away at his sanity; for all his attempts at finding a sign of life inside the city and out, he can only find silence. And the mutants, the last of what was humankind, come out at night and terrorize the city, putting his life in danger. Overwhelmed by their numbers and their ferocity, Neville barricades himself in his multilevel home at night, which has been fortified with steel shutters and UV lights.
When the picture came out it was a massive commercial success and got excellent notices in the press. I paid it no mind at the time because it was: 1) a Will Smith vehicle, and 2) it was called ‘I Am Legend’ (I didn’t know at the time was the name of Matheson’s book, so I didn’t make the connection with the Vincent Price and Charlton Heston films), which seemed abstract and pretentious at once. I couldn’t be bothered.
But I eventually picked it up while I was making DVD/BD deals with a local shop and had a large credit there; it seemed decent enough to warrant the low asking price. I eventually decided to watch it one night when I couldn’t decide what else to pick. I was ambivalent about my choice but wasn’t especially inspired by anything else. Was I ever in for a surprise: I loved it so much that upgraded my BD when I found the steelbook version!
It’s by no means a perfect film, but it has its share of strengths:
- The set-up is perfect. By having a scientist claim to have cured cancer, only to later find that her attempts to modify viruses to further her aims caused a world-wide contagion, is realistic and an easy way to sow fear in audiences. It could happen. And we would only realize it once it’s too late to do anything about it. SARS, Ebola, bird flu, AIDS, drug-resistant bacteria… the list is endless. Who knows when we’ll find one we can’t control.
- The setting is excellent. By using such an iconic place as New York City, the filmmakers put into perspective the state of world affairs. If NYC could become desolate, imagine what’s going on elsewhere. Seeing the deserted, unkempt streets was stunning. Further to that, isolating it (as John Carpenter did in “Escape From New York’) makes for a large prison with many possibilities; many stories or plot developments can spawn from such a setting.
- Will Smith is superb here. I’m no great fan of the cocky bastard, but this is one great performance – perhaps one of his best, and without a doubt a better one than Price or Heston. Here he has to be tough, vulnerable, focused, on the edge of madness, lonely, independent, …etc. And he pulls it off. You can’t help but feel for the guy. He’s disgustingly ripped, though. Disgusting. What the heck happened to the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air?
- Neville’s companion is a German shepherd that is incredibly expressive. Somehow the dog looks worried a lot of the time when they’re out. I don’t know if this was fixed in post or if the dog was just naturally able to make that face, but you really got the impression of intelligence there. It was also the perfect vehicle for getting into Neville’s mind, because he constantly talked to it, sharing his thoughts – and, consequently, his inner life.
- The way the script develops the rest of the story is excellent; it uses news footage and flashbacks, as well as Neville talking to his dog to fill in the gaps. They take their time situating us, revealing the events that led us to the present state of things and also Neville’s history. Although I enjoyed the inner monologue aspect of ‘The Last Man On Earth’, ‘I Am Legend’ uses many elements to greater effect. We don’t just get one perspective.
- The flashback sequences perfectly set up the sense of loss and emptiness that Neville feels in the present. Choosing to send his family out of New York before it got quarantined and being stuck without them for three years tells us a lot about him – especially given his isolation. The fact that the filmmakers chose not to show us exactly what happened to his family (although we see where things were headed) creates a jarring uncertainty.
- Neville displays signs of intelligence (he right well should, being a scientist! But that can’t always be taken for granted…). For example, he times the alarm on his watch with the sunsets (so that he can get home before the mutants come out), draws his blood for use as bait to capture test subjects, …etc. I wish he were more clever, but I suspect that three years of isolation have affected his mental stability and that his lapses can be justified by that.
- Neville has routines, which help him maintain a sense of normalcy in this dreadful environment: he exercises daily, goes to the bridge at midday, every day, goes to the video store to get movies for the evening, goes foraging for goods, continues his experiments, …etc. Without these activities, which provide him with a minimal amount of purpose, he would be left with all the time in the world on his hands – and a constant reminder that he is alone. Busy means distracted, which keeps him tethered to sanity in an insane world.
- As terrible as it was that Samantha, his dog, gets infected and has to die, it only made sense in that environment. And as heart-wrenching as it is that he has to kill her, what’s worse is that she was his last connection with his humanity; she was his companion, like a child sidekick. What I really liked about this moment is that it’s totally in character for Neville to take care of the dog, instead of keeping her alive in some vain hope that she’ll get better – like they do in so many films. Plus which Smith’s performances for that scene is devastating.
- The filmmakers showed a modicum of restraint, which is always something that I respect: for example, it took until 30-minute mark before we get to see the mutants – huddling together in the dark, no less (it was a memorably creepy moment, in a ‘Blair Witch Project’ kind of way’). And it takes slightly longer before we really see what they look like. Any good suspense picture is built on anticipation, and only allows the audience its release later on. ‘Jaws’ is the perfect proof of that. This is no ‘Jaws’, but it’s a well thought out picture nonetheless.
But, for all of its strengths, there are nuggets that bug me about ‘I Am Legend’:
- The moment we’re introduced to Neville, he’s seen racing through the deserted NYC streets in a brand spanking new sports car. But then he uses a truck for the rest of the picture. Why? The reason is simple: the sports car is much more eye-catching and the filmmakers wanted to wow its audience from the get-go. Ironically, this had me roll my eyes right from the onset because it was such a typical sight; if the filmmakers hadn’t gotten real on Neville’s later excursions, I probably never would have bought into the character or the film. It was a brief, but spectacular, stumble.
- New York City is home to well over 8 million people. According to Neville’s own figures, the virus had a 90% kill rate, which would leave 800 thousand people behind. Less than one percent were immune to the virus, leaving the others to mutate into these hyperkinetic predators – who then killed everyone that was left. And yet, the city streets are deserted. Where are all the bodies? Unlike Vincent Price’s character in ‘The Last Man On Earth’, Smith’s doesn’t dispose of them. So where did they go?
- I really enjoyed the first moment when Neville closes the metal gates on his windows and doors; it left us with a terrible feeling of foreboding. But my first thought was: How’d he build these fortifications? He’s a virologist, not a steel worker! Were they already there before the plague, or did he take a correspondence class? The first is damned unlikely, so how did he stay alive before he fortified his house (’cause that must have taken quite some time to do…)?
- At one point, Neville comes crashing out of a window which is a full story high. Even though he falls head first, he isn’t injured one bit. Look, we know he’s ripped like a mofo, but give us a break: people get hurt. They get stunned, suffer concussions, pop shoulders, crack ribs, snap legs, break their backs, and even die in circumstances such as this one. But this guy just shakes it off and walks away. Oh… wait-a-minute… was I watching ‘Hancock‘? Is that it?
- Later, Neville falls into trap. This already seemed pretty unlikely after years of experience and paranoia. But there he suddenly was, hanging upside down from a rope, in the middle of nowhere. Now, instead of pulling himself up (ripped as he is, there is no doubt that he could), he decides to cut himself down – despite the height. Of course, as indicated above, he seems invulnerable to falling from heights, so maybe that’s why he does something this stupid. Well, it ends up costing him. But only in the moment (because he shakes that off too!).
- It was never clear to me who set the trap. Did he do it so long ago that he’d forgotten about it and fell victim to his own trap (the nature of the trap would suggest this)? Was it set by another human survivor – one that may no longer be around now? Or was it put together by the mutants? The latter was suggested somewhere online, but there’s no indication that they have anything but rudimentary intelligence. Personally, I’m voting that it was Neville’s own trap and that he was just losing his mind at that point. Unfortunately, there’s no way to know.
- After Neville escapes from the trap, we discover some mutants lying in wait in the dark. Naturally, they couldn’t come out because of the sun and its UV rays, but they release their hounds, which stay in the shadows as the sun sets. When it finally does, they go on a rampage, tearing after Neville and Samantha. But, if the sun had set, why didn’t the mutants also come out?
- For his safety, and if only to ensure he doesn’t put his hideout in jeopardy, you’d think that Neville would he’d have set up a secondary lab elsewhere to bring the mutants to when he wants to run test on them. Bringing them to his home is stupid. Neville isn’t stupid. So this seems out of character to me. Of course, this was a plot contrivance, meaning that he would pay dearly for that mistake.
- Eventually, Neville ends up besieged in his own home and he decides to use a hand grenade to get rid of the attackers. Now, being with the US Army, I imagine he can find a grenade. Fine. But why would he have one in the isolation booth in his lab? It’s just such a weird place for it – but there it was, in a drawer, as if it was a pencil or a stapler. That he was able to stop all the mutants with just the one grenade fueled my incredulity.
- The CGI isn’t stellar. Right from the start, we get a bird’s eye view of the city, and it’s obvious that the car tearing through the streets has been added in post. Then the CGI deer and lions appeared, and none of them looked real. The filmmakers made the mistake of putting Samantha in the picture right from the start, giving the audience a solid comparison point. Similarly, the mutants don’t look or move real either. Both were done out of necessity, I know (they obviously couldn’t use real deer and lions, and human actors couldn’t replicate the mutants’ erratic movements) but I sure wish that they had been rendered properly, because this lessened the realism of those scenes considerably.
Those caveats aside (which, amazingly, didn’t fell the impact of the first 2/3 of the movie much), I rather enjoyed ‘I Am Legend’. I thought that it was fairly intelligent for an action film, that it offered a plausible, thought-provoking scenario, and served up two compelling performances (yes, the frickin’ dog counts!). It’s by far the most compelling of the pictures based on Richard Matheson’s novel – and I’m quite fond of the Vincent Price one.
Of course, having said this, I’m no scientist and have very little understanding of military procedures in cases such as this one. So I have no idea if any of these events would happen as portrayed in the picture. It’s quite possible that it’s all total rubbish and that I’m too ignorant to know the difference between fiction and reality. But I suspect that this would apply to the average audience, meaning that ‘I Am Legend’ will likely entertain most.
Date of viewing: January 14, 2015