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I Am Legend Review

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by Chris McEneany Dec 22, 2007

  • Movies review

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    I Am Legend Review
    “My name is Robert Neville. I am a survivor living in New York City. I will be at the South Street Seaport everyday, at midday, when the sun is highest in the sky. I can provide food, I can provide shelter, and I can provide protection.”

    After a very long time in conceptual-hibernation, the third big-screen adaptation of Richard Matheson's classic 1954 vampire novel, I Am Legend, finally gets unleashed upon a post 9/11 audience for whom mass destruction no longer seems so far removed from reality. Once mooted to be under the direction of Sir Ridley Scott and housed around mighty Arnold Schwarzenegger - in truth, that version died a decade ago (and thankfully so) - the perfect pitch of the last man on Earth battling the ravenous, zombified infected of an apocalyptic urban wasteland gets a vibrant shot in the arm, courtesy of Constantine-helmer Francis Lawrence in only his second film, another big-budget genre offering with an established cult following. Having read numerous reviews of his new take about one man's war with the mutated dregs of a germ-addled global super-virus - written by the dubious talent of Akiva Goldsman (who can pen the likes of Cinderella Man and A Beautiful Mind one day and then Lost In Space and Schumacher's Batman movies the next) and Mark Petrovitch - that either loved it or hated it, I thought I was on fairly safe, and very familiar ground going in to it. Both the previous filmed adaptations have had their fair share of detractors and devotees - with me being emphatically and resolutely in the latter camp (as my recent review for The Omega Man should prove) - so if this was going to split the critics and the punters in a similar fashion, it was a cinch that I would love Will Smith's essaying of crusading military scientist Robert Neville, the official last man on Earth and his struggle to find a cure for the lab-created virus that has laid waste to the planet.

    And, to be honest, I do love it.

    Well, most of it, anyway.

    Will Smith had been attached to the project for quite some time and his commitment to inhabiting the role of the tragic hero is something that is written large in his character's harried face, haunted eyes and in a body that is honed and toned for action, half out of survival necessity and half out of the need of something to do as a distraction from the horrors that surround him. With a back-story involving his young family, including his own real-life daughter, Willow, portraying the confused and frightened Marley (no doubt eager to follow in the footsteps of her brother who starred opposite Daddy in The Pursuit Of Happiness), and the desperate, chaotic evacuation of Manhattan revealed to us in painful flashbacks that play like a doom-laden mini-series throughout the film, the new Neville is fleshed-out at the expense of a population summarily written-off by a terrified government unable to stem the tide of the deadly contagion. Once again, as with The Omega Man, the spoils of Neville's inherited kingdom are revealed with him cruising around the city streets in sports cars or an armoured jeep, but this time out Mother Nature has stepped in and reclaimed much of the new world, fashioning a hybrid idyll that, with the incandescent glow of enhanced sunlight (smog-free, of course) looks almost tropical. The sight of Smith and his faithful German Shepherd companion, Sam, hunting deer through the urban jungle is tremendously evocative, the buildings of New York now resembling some better maintained Mayan ruins. Birdsong echoing across the canyons of steel and glass, and the awesome image of a lion on the prowl through a mix of foliage and junked cars hammers home a terrifically new visual slant. This apocalyptic setting is a wonderfully achieved locale. Vehicle-filled streets stretch on for miles, the vine-encrusted and forested Central Park becoming a truly surreal sight that marries Man's sky-reaching desire for space with Nature's incessant growth until the two co-exist with a bizarre harmony - mirroring the conflict between the opposing two strands of humanity that reluctantly occupy the same space. The emptied New York of Vanilla Sky has nothing on this.

    Once again, Neville controls the daytime, lord of all he surveys. Teeing-off from the wing of a permanently grounded fighter plane for R&R, ransacking the best goodies from stores and private homes for his supplies and making increasingly forlorn radio broadcasts in the dwindling hope of reaching any other human survivors (a touch liberated from the black and white Vincent Price version, The Last Man On Earth) are grist to the mill. But Neville has more serious matters to attend to, as well. Night-time is, of course, the domain of the “less than human” survivors who crave the darker half of this blighted paradise. Vampires in the book and first film, albino, light-shunning Luddites in The Omega Man, Neville's nasty neighbours in Lawrence's version are something different again. Undoubtedly flesh-eaters - we are told that they devoured the meagre surviving 1.1 per cent of the world's population who were immune to the plague - they sleep in the shadows and emerge only at night to hunt for food. Resembling the Crawlers from Neil Marshall's excellent The Descent, only much less Nosferatu-looking, these are CG embellished - or often totally CG - creations that are, in my opinion, quite lacklustre. Ferocious they may be, and fast - man, are they fast! - but they just don't look all that frightening. Individuals, like Romero's zombies, pose no threat. But when they are swarming, and Lawrence has them teeming over the bonnets of cars and New York landmarks during a couple of brief, but stunning set-pieces, they are a formidable, yet strangely bland, force of bestial aggression. A climactic siege actually comes to resemble the finale of Will Smith's previous big-screen take on an acclaimed sci-fi novel, “I, Robot”, also scribed by Akiva Goldsman from Asimov's original story, in that the Dark Seekers, as they are rather naffly monikered, appear weightless and wholly unrealistic. Opening Mummy-esque wide mouths to deliver guttural shrieks also seems a little too old hat - The Descent (again) mixed with Kaufman's 70's take on Invasion Of The Body Snatchers.

    “I like Shrek.”

    Neville's solitude and how he struggles with it is the where the film works best. It is arguable that all the versions of this story, including Matheson's original text, are more impressive before their final act revelations - the scenario of one man waging an endless war somehow enough to satisfy in its own relentless right. But Lawrence's film is actually the worst at dealing with the twists and turns of Neville's plight ... by far. Where The Omega Man cannily poked a religious statement up at the world like two fingers thrust up to the heavens, I Am Legend uses the same motif to quite ludicrous effect. The theological angle here is nothing but sentimental corn. But the most disappointing thing about Goldsman's script is that it wimps out on the book's most pertinent moral clincher - that it is Neville, himself, who becomes the monster by virtue of his very normality rendering him the mutant in the new world order. Hollywood is obviously too scared of such narrative rug-pulling and, all-too predictably, plays it safe. Which is a real let-down considering all the hard work that Smith has put into fine-tuning his edge-of-sanity character. For surely, this film will be remembered more for his nuanced and soul-hollowed performance than for any sci-fi thrills or social comment that it might, inadvertently, make along the way. Yet, even here, in their determination to heave up an indie-film mental study in the middle of a money-shot-filled genre epic, Smith, Goldsman and Lawrence ultimately drop the ball.

    “Eat your vegetables. Don't just roll them around on the plate. You don't eat them today ... you get double tomorrow.”

    Will Smith tries desperately hard to connect and there is a huge sense of us, the audience, literally willing him to reach the heights and depths that his lonely and desperate character must experience. But, although he is utterly superb in certain poignant moments - indeed awesome when it comes to his dazed fear of approaching night and his depiction of sheer loneliness and tragic loss (the opening of a child's bedroom door sends ripples of trauma that will feed acutely into a later scene) - he scuppers it with a final act of unconvincing revelation and slow-dawning realisation of the bigger picture that surrounds him. But, as I say, this is hardly Smith's fault. The screenplay ultimately pitches him into a rather clumsy quagmire of situation-switcheroo that he cannot make vital or heartrending no matter how much he pseudo-flips-out or bangs the martyr drum. A rather dumb Bob Marley ethic slows things down and Neville's Shrek obsession reveals some very heavy-handed character insight that simply wasn't needed and plays out merely as pop-culture referencing simply for the sake of it. This is very frustrating, you see, because, for the most part, he is excellent.

    Where he really makes it count is with his interaction with the awesome Sam (actually Samantha), the gorgeous German Shepherd Dog, who is his only companion throughout his lonely crusade. Regular readers of my reviews will know that I like to make reference to my own German Shepherd, Pepper, whenever I can - who is, without any doubt, the only thing I could ever imagine being by my side as the world ends (and beyond) - so when I found out that this incarnation of Robert Neville would actually have one as his comrade-in-arms I was elated. One man and his dog patrolling the streets of the apocalypse, battling the undead literally tooth and claw - it's a concept and an image that I simply adore. And Sam makes a hugely worthy addition to the illustrious man-and-dog team-ups that have snarled and lunged across the silver screen over the years - Mad Max and Dog; Doug and Beast in the original Hills Have Eyes; Dooley and Jerry Lee in K-9 etc. Running beside Neville through a car-clogged, overgrown New York, working-out beside him on the treadmill, defending his master in bitter, hard-fought skirmishes with the infected hordes - Sam is a wonderful and, indeed, necessary character in her own right.

    The book's Robert Neville spent a simply heartrending chapter trying to befriend a lonely, scavenging mutt, as did Vincent Price in The Last Man On Earth. Heston had no time for such canine-canoodling, however, so it was left to the Fresh Prince to rectify the situation. The bond between the two is effectively achieved and there is a great scene when Sam is alerting Neville to the onset of night-time, the last man alive falling into a shell-shocked reverie as the sun dips down and he needs to close the shutters quickly. And the later shock sequence when Neville finds himself in an incredibly bad predicament at just the wrong time of day - literally suspenseful, folks - Sam's rugged dependability is genuinely affecting. I feel no shame at admitting the emotional high-point of the film involves their relationship and I have to hand it to Smith for the truly galvanising anguish he manages to convey just by gritting his teeth and well ... looking away at a pivotal moment. Another great aspect that Smith exploits with pathos is of Neville's bizarre interaction with a set of mannequins that he has positioned in and around his favourite video store - the contents of which he is working through during his nocturnal lock-downs. A definite nod to Boris Sagal's The Omega Man, these will come to signify Neville's emotional breakdown, his overwhelming need for company marvellously depicted by Smith. His engine-revving vengeance spree is a pared-to-the-bone set-piece of cathartic retribution, Neville doing some of own Dark Seeking for a change finally seeing the former Bad Boy kicking ass with turbo-charged gusto.

    “Everyone you've ever known or loved is dead! They're all dead! There is no God.”

    An element that made Matheson's book that bit more pervasive was the constant nightly attacks upon Neville's home, a feature that was a vital ingredient of both Price's The Last Man On Earth and Heston's The Omega Man. Without the perpetual taunting and bombardment of Neville's sanctuary, the stakes don't feel anywhere near as high. And, consequently, our hero's opting to stay put no matter what the enemy throws at him - this is his home when all said and done and he will not be driven out - has none of the same sense of resilience or pride. Smith's Neville has more of a duty-bound obligation to remain in his well-equipped hideaway, what with its state-of-the-art laboratory, luxury home cinema and relative anonymity and, consequently, the battle-lines don't seem as sharply drawn and his defiance somewhat diluted. Likewise his laborious and dangerous attempts to find a cure for the plague - for which he feels responsible (“You are the Robert Neville?”) - come across as contrived. Once again, the book's deliberate hurling together of science and superstition and, maddeningly, no solution to their unnatural blending, is utterly squandered. The Dark Seekers are simply not given enough of either to help justify their existence or behaviour, leaving them as just the clichéd bogeymen of the piece, when the profundity of their dilemma is one of main reasons for the book's continued popularity. Even The Omega Man gave its mutants reasons and motives, so why jettison so many intriguing components from such a large-scale telling of the tale? It smacks of one-track writing. I Am Legend is a much bigger concept, intellectually, than this.

    “I promised a friend of mine that I would say hello to you today - uh ... hello ...

    The film's score comes courtesy of James Newton Howard, who proved his action and tragedy credentials with Peter Jackson's King Kong and his innate ability to create unease and tension with Signs and The Sixth Sense. But whilst his music here doesn't linger in the mind afterwards, with no catchy signature tune or lively sequence of all-out bombast to hoof up the adrenaline, it does provide an appropriately atmospheric and doom-laden backdrop to Smith's end-of-the-world sorties into enemy territory. For the most part the film is actually very quiet, although there are some smart little stingers that Lawrence punctuates the mood with now and again. The already-famous investigation of a big, dark building really makes the hairs bristle and the heart stop, and a cool medical test on a restrained Seeker is guaranteed to do the business, too. You know you're going to jump a mile, but that knowledge won't let you off the hook when the time comes.

    Thankfully, the setting of New York, removed from Los Angeles in the book and Heston's version (although Price's apocalyptic struggle was filmed in Rome, it was ostensibly supposed to be LA, as well) is not used as a conveyance of the city's fighting spirit in the wake of 9/11. Apart from the bridges, which are blown apart by Man, himself, the structures are largely intact and the integrity of the city given a strange new lease of life. It may have been removed of its human population but the province has become a thing of eerie beauty, a vast ghost town-cum-nature reserve that brilliantly evokes the man-made edifices of an ultimately pointless society with the raw resilience of pure nature. This reclamation of the land is a delightful new feature that goes way beyond the flawed desertion of Heston's LA (read the review to see what I mean) to produce an environment that is striking, juxtaposed and tantalisingly evocative of a thousand different stories. John Carpenter would have killed for a few more years of people-less intervention to have helped compose his vision of the Duke's New York. Some would argue that the Big Apple has been utilised for too many disasters - be they borne of man, nature or large, rampaging beast - but it does look truly fantastical here, beguiling and foreboding at the same time. Lawrence incorporates some smart panoramic shots of the desolation, and kudos must go to the sweeping aerial shots that spiral around a lonely man and his dog, cinematographer Andrew Lesnie working wonders with his framing.

    So, ultimately, I Am Legend, doesn't deliver in the horror stakes, but it does create some incredible imagery and paints a resonant analysis of the fear, guilt and loneliness of the last man on Earth. Francis Lawrence directs with verve and certainly builds up a palpable sense of dread and suspense, but I have grave concerns about his pairing with Akiva Goldsman (also a co-producer) - who both worked on Constantine in the same roles - ever being able to deliver a satisfying ending. I thoroughly enjoyed Constantine until the climax almost ruined it, and the duo fumble I Am Legend, as well. Goldsman has actually said that adapting Matheson's tale for the screen has seen off many directors and writers over the years who were unable to nail its cocktail of sci-fi, horror, pathos and character study, and although this is brave and enjoyable attempt, I can't understand why they deviated from the author's simple but devastating path. The clue is in the title, folks. The book was called I Am Legend for a very valid and intelligent reason - which is also why Heston's version wasn't called that at all. And although The Last Man On Earth is, pretty much, a faithful take on the book, the production had other reasons not to go with the original title. But this mega-budget, star-led adaptation does not live up to its own name. Legend. Myth. Folklore. The original Robert Neville stood at the threshold of the supernatural and became the monster, himself, for all his troubles. Smith's Neville is left with a hackneyed arc that feels like there's been a last-minute attempt to wrestle some poignancy and nobility out of it and, sadly, for me it just doesn't work.

    Still, the first two thirds of it are great. And that'll do me for now. I look forward to watching Neville and Sam hot-footing around a New York gone-to-Hell again at the flicks, but my expectations will have to be appreciably lowered.

    Picture

    Well, there's detail aplenty here, folks. From the signs in store windows, to the distant branches of a Times Square tree, from the portholes on an aircraft carrier to the far-away lights of a city about to go up in flames, Francis Lawrence's film is alive with sharp and eye-catching imagery. The film, in its extended daylight scenes, demands that you look around its wide 2.35:1 vista. Up and down immense roads littered with the detritus of a collapsed civilisation, and skycrapers full of windows smeared with dust and grime; through buildings swathed in thick black shadow and streets glowing with the midday sun; and on through the overgrown Central Park savannah - I Am Legend certainly depicts the sudden eradication of Mankind with visual flair.

    A nice test of the future HD or BD transfers will be when Neville chases Sam into that pitch-black building, his torch cutting through a deliberately impenetrable wall of blackness. I would also be looking for it recapturing some of the great three-dimensional shots of Neville and Sam on the flight-deck of the aircraft carrier, or lying stricken on a bridge whilst something very nasty is about to make a sudden appearance.

    It remains to be seen how well the Dark Seekers - ugh, I hate that name - come across in close-up 1080p. Unless some more work is done between now and the home video release, I would say ... not good.

    Sound

    I've got to admit that I enjoyed I Am Legend's soundscape. The panicky evacuation of Manhattan Island employs plenty of immersive crowd noise and some nice whipping helicopter rotors. Explosions are beefy and gut-felt, as are the sudden car-dropping traps that Neville employs to snare his next experimental specimens. The closing of shutters around his home is effectively emphasised too. Actual dialogue, which is admittedly sparse, is conveyed very well - Neville's shouting after the reckless Sam and his indignant hollering at Fred the mannequin coming through just as clear and well-placed as his quieter moments of dog-soothing, journal recording and pensive dialogue with the later arrivals.
    The sporadic moments of gunfire ignite the air around you with suitable bark and bite, although this is an element that is unexpectedly less-frequent than you may have hoped for. The saturation land-mining outside of Neville's brownstone fortress packs plenty of wallop as does the continuous smacking of a head into a plexi-glass wall. The auto-massacre is pretty intense, as well, so there should be quite a bit to look forward to when you get Robert Neville battling it out at your own home.

    Verdict

    As a huge fan of the original book and the first two films based upon it, I would say that Lawrence's version is certainly valid and effective but produces nowhere near as powerful a statement as Richard Matheson's story initially made, nor is even as audacious as Heston's The Omega Man with regards to the crusading and sacrificial finale. What does work well is the first two thirds of the film, in which Smith and his four-legged friend perfect an edgy, tragic-cum-heroic devotion and a totally convincing on-screen relationship. The CG is not particularly grand and, indeed, the threat from the undead - or Dark Seekers - is badly unfulfilled considering that the screenwriters have had forty years of influence, including the previous versions, George Romero's celebrated takes on the same material and the recent 28 Days and Weeks Later to fall back on. Thus the terror of Neville's predicament doesn't feel as acute once we actually see the enemy, who are presented as little more than shrieking head-bangers.

    Indeed, there is ample room for another take on the tale, and one that will properly merge the story's combination of frighteningly prescient sci-fi, grim horror, intellectual and psychological pathos and evolutionary counter-culture study. This version of I Am Legend will not stand the test of time simply because it does not say enough about human nature and the myriad plights that may afflict it. As an action film it is lacking, as a horror film it raises a hair or two, and as a character study it works supremely well for the most part and then fudges it at the critical moment. The scenario remains strong and I did enjoy seeing a version of Matheson's tale on the big screen at long last, but this still feels too Hollywood-ised to connect with the grey matter. That said, though, there is enough here that I enjoyed to ensure that I will see this again at the flicks and probably many times over on disc. Therefore, I still recommend I Am Legend ... just don't go in expecting to see Matheson's inspired, epic-cum-intimate saga presented in its definitive fashion. More sedentary than legendary.

    Long Live The Omega Man.

    The Rundown


    8
    AVForumsSCORE
    OUT OF
    10

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