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I Am Legend Review

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by Chris McEneany Mar 8, 2008 at 12:00 AM

  • Movies review

    136

    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.”

    What follows is basically the review that I wrote for the cinema version that originally played last Christmas ... but, as usual, I have re-tweaked and added to it. Some spoilers are inevitably contained, especially with regards to the superior Alternate cut that is also featured on the disc, but this film, along with the previous interpretations of Richard Matheson's book, has sparked so much debate that I would be remiss not to examine it in fair detail. But don't worry, I'm not going to spoil either ending for those who haven't yet seen them.

    After a very long time in conceptual-hibernation, the third big-screen adaptation of the classic 1954 vampire novel, I Am Legend, was finally 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 the 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, which is another big-budget genre offering with an already established cult following. 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 - turned out, critically, to be of the love it or loathe it variety, seemingly wowing and infuriating in equal measure. Both the previous filmed adaptations have had their fair share of detractors and devotees, too - with me being emphatically and resolutely in the latter camp (as my 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 have loved it more each time that I have seen it ... and I've seen it quite a few times now.

    But the movie does still have some problems that cannot be overcome even with a choice of two endings to pick from.

    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 pride of zoo-escaped lions 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.

    Look, Daddy ... a butterfly!

    Once again, Neville controls the daytime, lord of all he surveys. Teeing-off from the wing of a permanently grounded Stealth fighter 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. Somewhat resembling cleaner and smoother-skinned 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 as actual monsters. 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 to the always-armed Neville. 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, only this time from Isaac 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 Philip Kaufman's 70's take on Invasion Of The Body Snatchers.

    But, having said that, and chalking one up for home viewing over cinema viewing, they do look more convincing now on Blu-ray. Somehow or other, in close-ups, when they are not scampering about like a shaved Tasmanian Devil, and are clearly human beings in makeup and minimal CG augmentation, they look quite fantastic, their skin seeming to glow and their veins eerily pulsing beneath. The Alternate cut takes their existence and “societal order” a stage further than the original version, justifying their appearance and their behaviour a fair bit more.

    “This is Ground Zero. This is my site. I can still fix this.”

    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, and patently doomed 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's original cut 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 as seen in the first version of the film, 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 had 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 the original cut 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. Sadly, this element is still a part of the Alternate cut as well. This is very frustrating, you see, because, for the most part, he is excellent and such obvious traits just aren't needed.

    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 the conveniently-named 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 the limited ensemble. Look at the way she continually licks Neville when he ends up stricken on his back with a wound in his leg - soothing him constantly to ease his pain and distress - or when she circles him protectively in the same scene as he tries to crawl away. Their attachment is convincing and un-contrived.

    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. It is hard to imagine Arnie ever making a believably lonely survivor - check out those tears in End Of Days - so Scott's vision would most likely have been of the Black Hawk Down/Gladiator variety of frenetic carnage. And I would have loved that, too, no doubt. But Smith is not without his raw, hate-filled side, as well. 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 that finally sees the former Bad Boy kicking ass with turbo-charged gusto. Otherwise, the action is sparing and possibly all the more effective because of that. Neville has spent years battling these things and, inevitably, he's tired, worn-down and coming to terms with the fact that he probably can't beat them, or stay hidden forever. His policy now is one of avoidance, rather than confrontation.

    “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 with Lawrence's adaptation. 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, lovely flat-screen panel and relative anonymity and, consequently, the battle-lines don't seem as sharply drawn and his defiance somewhat diluted. The Dark Seekers aren't initially just out to get him. Likewise his laborious and dangerous attempts to find a cure for the plague - for which he feels responsible (“You are the Robert Neville, aren't you?”) - come across as contrived. Once again, the book's deliberate hurling together of science and superstition and, maddeningly, no solution to such an unnatural blending, is utterly squandered.

    Initially, the Dark Seekers are simply not given enough material 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. But it is only with the Alternate cut that this error is addressed ... well, partly addressed. Suddenly, we find that the mutants have created a society, one with an established alpha-male leader, played by Dash Mihok in makeup that resembles Savini's look for the Jason Vorhees from Friday 13th Part 4, and one that is definitely showing signs of evolution despite Neville's refusal to believe it. Cleverly, we even find that they have become something of mirror image of Neville. Dogs as pets and defenders, an instinct for traps and emulation and, most arresting of all, actual justified feelings of anger, companionship and affection. Neville and the alpha male will also come to be linked via woundings, as well.

    “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 while much of the music he composed for I Am Legend has been excised from the first cut of the film (see my review for the soundtrack CD), the Alternate cut restores some key cues. The finale is different musically as well thematically now, providing an excellent track that lingers with melancholy and Bob Marley has been replaced from the end credits with an overture from Howard. Whilst I had originally maintained that the movie had no grand 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. I was mistaken about this, of course, for the main theme which doubles for Neville and for the film at large, is absolutely exquisite and becomes the emotional anthem for a character and a way of life that are teetering on the brink of violent extinction. For the most part the film is actually very quiet, although there are some smart little stingers that Lawrence has Howard punctuate 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 that its literary source so skilfully revelled in, 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) - both of whom worked on Constantine in the same roles - ever being able to deliver a completely satisfying ending. I thoroughly enjoyed Constantine until the climax almost ruined it, and the duo definitely fumbled I Am Legend's original cut, 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 a 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. In the original version 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.

    So thank God they saw fit to reveal an altogether different ending for this release, since the Alternate version goes quite some way to alleviate this, with Neville's arc actually reaching a surprising new conclusion. Naturally, I would love to discuss this, and how it strikes out in a much bolder and far more satisfying manner in-depth, but here is, sadly, not the place. Let's just say that the “butterfly” motif that became so irritatingly spiritual in the previous take, now takes on a much more emotionally relevant coherence, and that the Dark Seekers will finally not seem so arbitrary a rival species. And Smith's performance in this new scenario is fabulously restrained.

    “I'm ... sorry ...”

    Thus, at the end of the apocalyptic day, the Alternate cut of I Am Legend is the better one.

    Well, this is obviously all down to personal opinion, but I definitely prefer it for its neater resolution and more electrifying tension. It makes more sense and brings things to a terrific emotional stand-off. Plus this cut offers a bit more explanation regarding how things in the final act have come to be and that annoying tag-along kid, Ethan, finally proves that he can talk! But, most of all, it pays respect to the outcome of the original book - not literally, but thematically, and that is a definite step in the right direction. And we now get to see that popular image of Neville with a horde of the infected standing around him with their hungry hinge-mouths gaping wide. Speaking of which, check out the skin-crawling way in which they stand around, poised to chomp and panting like a pack of dogs. What was disappointing about them first time around is largely eradicated with the Alternate cut - except for the cartoon CG, that is.

    Awesome, folks. I Am Legend may still have a niggle or two - do we actually need Alice Braga and the semi-mute moppet in it at all? - but the Alternate cut is a better film, hands down. Not entirely sure why it is Unrated whilst the other version is still a PG-13, though. Nevetheless, this package comes highly recommended. Officially an 8 out of 10 ... but you all know that I, personally, rate it higher than that, don't you?