December 16, 2007

I Am Legend (12/16/07)

Lettergrade: B

In I Am Legend, Will Smith faces an opponent that no amount of free-style rap can defeat: A mutated cure for cancer that turns everyone on Earth into flesh-eating monsters. The picture is partly a last-man-on-Earth melodrama, and partly an action/horror zombie flick. Normally those two genres, either separate or combined, aren't really my cup of tea, but there are several key things about this picture that I really liked. The big one is Will Smith, who gives a very strong and nuanced performance as the presumably lone survivor of the plague. The other is the stellar work by the picture's VFX team, which allows Smith to inhabit a post-apocalyptic New York City, overrun by weeds and wildlife, that looks pretty darn convincing.

Based on a Richard Matheson novel from the 50s that has been filmed twice before (once as The Last Man on Earth starring Vincent Price and then again as The Omega Man with Charlton Heston), I Am Legend stars Smith as a military scientist who works to find a cure after discovering that his blood is somehow immune to the virus. With only a trusty dog for companionship, he leads a life of meticulous routine as he experiments on captured subjects in his home lab. At night, the monsters come out and feast on whatever they can find, but Smith is careful not to reveal his dwelling and to take a number of Home Alone-style security precautions, should one of the fuckers get too close.

Like No Country For Old Men, another good picture that was released this winter, I Am Legend features lengthy scenes where we watch Smith wordlessly go about some task or daily ritual, generating enough intrigue to keep us interested in what he's doing and highly curious about why he's doing it. As the film continues, piecemeal flashbacks gradually reveal what exactly went down and how things got like they are. I didn't much care for the horror movie component of the picture, which is minimal, really, but I sure found the character stuff to be interesting, and that's where the film's primary value is.

In talking to others who've seen the flick, we all pretty much agree that the third act of the picture, which pits the Fresh Prince against the zombies in a more traditional I, Robot sort of way, is probably supposed to have a lot more impact than it really does. To put it another way, the movie kinda feels like its leading up to a big climax of sorts that never really happens. To its credit, the picture takes a good deal of time to build moods and set up a certain atmosphere, but ultimately all that effort, while enjoyable in and of itself, isn't used in a particularly meaningful way. There's a quasi-religious component introduced in the last part of the movie that comes out of nowhere (and fails to convince), but that's the only attempt the picture really makes at having a larger purpose.

The screenwriter/producer was Akiva Goldsman, one of the highest paid screenwriters of our day. Seeing as he was responsible for Batman & Robin, The Da Vinci Code, and that Lost In Space remake from 1998, it's really saying something that this movie wound up in the decent shape that its in. It should be noted, however, that Goldsman also wrote two other movies that weren't as shitty as those mentioned, but which didn't really go above and beyond on a story level either: Cinderella Man and A Beautiful Mind. Those films, coincidentally both directed by Ron Howard, were well-made and featured good performances, but ultimately failed to do a whole lot other than what one might have expected them to do. In other words, solid filmmaking, but a tad on the forgettable side.

Maybe that's the worst thing you can say about I Am Legend: It's got some nifty acting and some great sequences, but you may not think about it much after its over. I know that's not a terribly glowing endorsement, but the movie does have several strong components that make it worth seeing, and in a season populated by pictures like National Treasure 2: Book of Secrets and Alien Vs. Predator: Requiem, it will do.

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