Saturday, December 15, 2007

I Am...Impressed

Making New York City empty is damned near impossible, but the opening shots of “I Am Legend” depict NYC as a jungle-like wasteland full of stampeding deer and grass-split pavement. What’s most amazing is that the film’s post-apocalyptic vision of the Big Apple is absolutely convincing. The opening shots establish the barren, decrepit landscape in which military scientist Robert Neville (Will Smith) prowls, searching for anything to help him find a cure for the KV virus (to which he is one of the few humans immune), originally thought to be a cure for cancer, that mutated and killed 2/3 of the humans on the planet, turning all but 12 million of the rest into bloodthirsty zombie-like creatures that are inexplicably vulnerable to UV rays.

The computer generated dilapidation of Robert Neville’s lonely Long Island is awe-inspiring and director Francis Lawrence (“Constantine”) and cinematographer Andrew Lesnie (“King Kong,” “Lord of the Rings” trilogy) handle their land o’ special effects with care. Brooding, atmospheric shots investigate the lonely environment with graceful push-ins that emphasize and make concrete the abstract concept of an uninhabited metropolis. The dread and paranoia inherent in the thoroughly existential surroundings are elucidated by Will Smith’s solid, confident performance. Unlike the tongue-in-cheek, “I say funny shit that 13-year-olds laugh at” performances of “Independence Day” and “I, Robot,” Smith acts with depth and purpose in “I Am Legend,” leaving the “Aw, Hell naw”s behind. Smith’s incredibly natural rapport with his pet dog in the film (canines are immune the airborne strain of the KV virus), Sam, is inspiring and evokes enormous pathos in many scenes. In many ways, Smith creates a rounded human being for the first time in his career. Robert Neville actually thinks about large problems and faces genuine drama, rather than just being a semi-comedic navigator of elaborate set pieces with exploding crap (although there is some pretty cool exploding crap in “I Am Legend”). The film combines Smith’s past strengths and action film chops with a new, deeply human facet that enables Smith to carve out a complete and fascinating protagonist.

In fleshing out Smith’s character, the film takes time to detail Neville’s past as a fighter of the virus during its early days, before it became airborne. The film accomplishes this explanation of Neville’s past in well-placed and brilliantly realized flashbacks that reveal the fate of his family and the fate of NYC in the wake of the disease’s spread. Perhaps most stunning about these flashbacks is their interesting resonance with the events of 9/11. During one flashback scene, military helicopters bomb Brooklyn Bridge in an effort to quarantine the island. This violent image is combined with the depiction of a traffic-jam full of New Yorkers attempting to leave the island before the quarantine to create a terrorized city, brimming with fear. Sound familiar? This frenetic destruction is further grounded as a strong political metaphor by Robert Neville’s repeated proclamation, “This is ground zero. This is my site” when confronted about leaving the city. The introduction of the extremely loaded term “ground zero” when describing a severely damaged New York City strikes a connotative chord that is no doubt intentional and Neville’s resolve to remain in the city and continue his work in trying to cure the KV virus, intending to (like Bob Marley, his idol) spread love and positivity, is certainly a sort of optimistic rallying cry for political change through cooperation and kindness (it might be unrealistic, but still admirable). Neville proves himself to be a hero through his various courageous actions and his bravery in the face of extreme hardship. His heroism is particularly apparent once he meets up with two fellow survivors, Anna (Alice Braga) and Ethan (Charlie Tahan), from Maryland who stop in NYC to pick him up on their way to an alleged survivors’ colony in Vermont.

In Robert Neville’s confrontation with Anna and Ethan, matters of faith and science meet in a head on collision that seems to be resolved by an interesting and very humanistic synthesis of spiritual irrationality and pragmatic reason, which is perhaps the film’s central message. This irrational faith in a positivist future, a sort of indefatigable optimism, seems to be the separating factor between the human and the inhuman in “I Am Legend” and is the factor that transforms the purely scientific into the humanistic. This is evident is the initial scene in the film, which seems indicative of the survivalist realm the film takes place in, seemingly lacking humanity. In this scene, Neville is hunting deer through the city streets, littered with abandoned vehicles and weeds, in a Shelby Mustang with a high-powered rifle. He is a human predator with maximized potential. Once the deer enter a frozen block of abandoned traffic, Neville tracks them on foot, but his prey is overtaken by a small pride of lions, presumably escaped from the zoo since the devastation. Neville watches on respectfully as the superior predator wrangles the deer.

In this opening sequence the survival-of-the-fittest, harsh environment is illustrated perfectly and Neville’s place, as an individual attempting to not only survive, but save others through his work, is presented as a contrasting, distinctly human quality amidst the competitive, self-interest of the lions, and, most importantly, the infected humans, referred to as (check out this morally-tinged nickname) “dark-seekers.” The value of selflessness is reiterated in the film’s finale, which accentuates the value of faith and the transcendent nature of optimism, as well as (man, is it trite) the healing power of love and care. For a doomsday film, “I Am Legend” packs a very hopeful punch, full of what some would call a naïve sense of morality, particularly considering that the film’s morality is only justified by many miracle-like coincidences that almost certainly attempt to validate the existence of God, or some creative/controlling external force. This is a hell of an ambition for a sci-fi/horror/action film, but at least it’s an ambition.

If the film suffers from anything, it is the CGI “dark-seekers.” Frankly, they look worse than the monsters in a “Resident Evil” videogame. It’s astounding that a film that uses such convincing CGI to create the disaster zone New York City would have such horribly rendered creatures. The monsters open their raging jaws to unrealistic extremes and leap around clumsily, without any concern for actual physics, seeming more like props than actual characters or people (albeit mutated). While it’s fairly standard to have such shoddily-created creatures in horror films, a film as good as “I Am Legend” is severely crippled by these special effects, especially when it has such an excellent script, visual design, and art direction. Here’s hoping that Will Smith decides to continue this whole “good acting” thing and that he helps get some equally impressive projects off the ground.

by Brandon Colvin


Anonymous said...

I visited NYC a couple times while they were shooting this and it was a disaster, as far as commuting goes. However, it was worth it in creating what was the best part of the movie. I didn't like the vampire zombies much and never got a real sense of him being alone (maybe b/c he was surrounded constant vampire worry.) I still enjoyed it for the most part though. Good write up, as always, B.

Anonymous said...

Outstanding descriptive writing! In agreement,the zombie-look was a bit much as these people were victims of a virus...not a reproduction of Night of the Living Dead.

Scott B Walters said...

For some reason, I immediately began comparing this film to Castaway. I have to say that I was much more affected emotionally by his relationship with Sam, the German Shephard, than with the similar loss of Wilson. I know that one is alive, the other is not, but for some reason, it was the first thing that I thought about during the film. Great write up. Yes, they could have done much better with the crappy zombies.