Friday, October 22, 2010

"I Am Legend" (2007)

Starring Will Smith, Alice Braga and Dash Mihok
Written by Akiva Goldsman and Mark Protosevich
Directed by Francis Lawrence

I love Richard Matheson's original novel, "I Am Legend."  Not only is the whole thing fantastically written, but it has what I feel is one of the best twist endings of all time.  Matheson created a horrific and lonely tale of Robert Neville, the last man on Earth, in 1954... and there's still no truly great film adaptation of it.

It's been tried, of course.  Vincent Price starred in "The Last Man on Earth" in 1964 and Charlton Heston in "The Omega Man" in 1971, and while both of those films have their strengths and weaknesses, neither is particularly great.  Price's version has since ended up in bargain-bin video sales, while Heston's is considered something of a camp classic.

In 2007, Will Smith starred in "I Am Legend," directed by Francis Lawrence which ends up being the best of the three adaptations, but still falls pretty far short of that original novel.  "I Am Legend" is two-thirds of a great movie - but it falls apart in the final act, throwing out all the good will it had built up over the first and second acts in favor of flashy CGI effects and a shoe-horned happy ending that rings pretty hollow.

Will Smith is Robert Neville, living alone in the abandoned ruins of New York City in the year 2012.  Three years earlier, a supposed cure for cancer had mutated into a dangerous virus, infecting and killing people by the millions.  Those that weren't killed by the virus changed into vicious, bloodthirsty creatures with extreme aversions to ultraviolet light.  Neville finds himself immune, and as a virologist for the United States military, devotes his life to finding a cure

Neville spends his days alone, his only companion Sam.  He goes to the video store, and makes his way through movies in alphabetical order.  He searches the city for supplies, and waits at mid-day for any other survivors to find him at the pier. He transmits a radio signal begging for anyone out there to attempt to contact him, but day after day... nothing.  He avoids the infected at all costs, never going into dark buildings unless he can help it.  At night, he barricades himself inside of his home behind heavy metal shutters and listens to their screams and howls.

One day, Neville, attempting to capture a subject for his medical research, sets a trap for one of the infected and notices something peculiar: one of the infected steps out into the sunlight, looking at him.  He dismisses this, attributing it to a complete lack of humanity, that the creature ignored its survival instincts due to hunger and desperation.  Soon enough, however, Neville himself falls victim to a trap set by the infected Alpha Male.  Sam is wounded in the ensuing fight, and the dog's death devastates Neville.

Sick with grief, Neville stays out past nightfall, gunning for revenge.  He gets in over his head, and just when everything is looking dire for Robert Neville... he's rescued... by two other survivors of the plague - Anna (Alice Braga) and Ethan (Charlie Tahan).  They take him back to his house, and patch him up.  Unfortunately, the infected manage to follow them there, finally discovering where Neville lives, and lay siege to the house the next night.  

Spread throughout the course of the film, several flashbacks help fill in the backstory regarding the virus, and Neville's wife and daughter (Salli Richardson and Willow Smith) and their tragic fate. 

As I said, "I Am Legend" is two-thirds of a great movie.  When everything is focused solely on Neville, it's fantastic.  Will Smith turns in a great performance as a man barely keeping his sanity.  He manages to stave off falling into complete crazy by speaking to his dog as though it were a person, setting up mannequins at the videostore to pretend to interact with, listening to upbeat and hopeful music...  Smith interacts wonderfully with Sam, and the bond between the two forms an almost impossibly good emotional core of the first part of the movie.  It's even better when we discover that Sam was originally Neville's daughter's dog, and that Sam was left with him to "protect daddy." 

And this means that Sam's death hits Neville hard, and Smith plays it perfectly.  In fact, it's one of the best scenes in the whole film, totally heartbreaking... and I'm not really a dog person. 

This part of the film builds a wonderful atmosphere.  Scene after scene of an empty, dead New York City is visually quite impressive.  Neville's first few encounters with the infected are scary, set in intense darkness, with only fleeting glimpses of these strange creatures.  Frankly, this is far preferable to later on when we see them in their full CGI "glory," and they look bizarrely cartoonish and quite fake.  This is the basis of the film's major failing - in the original novel, the vampires are sentient creatures who can speak and have all the memories of their previous lives as humans.  Every night they surround Neville's home, taunting him to come out.  Ultimately, he realizes that these are the new people, and there is a reversal of roles.  The vampires are no longer the ones to be feared and destroyed, he is.  That is the legend of the title.

This ending can't work with the infected creatures of the film.  I was willing to roll with that because the movie spends a great deal of time building up all kinds of goodwill by making the darkness something to be feared in this film, and Smith's performance is too good to ignore.  But certain themes and ideas from the book were still very present in the film, so that they were essentially telling the same story with some different dressing.  Until the other survivors show up.  In the novel, there are none - Neville is, without doubt, the last man alive.  He thinks he's found a woman like him, but she turns out to be a vampire spy.  Here, Neville meets actual survivors and learns of survivor colonies where others live.  This causes the whole film to fall apart, perhaps even more so than the sudden switch from tense horror film to outright action, with explosions and gunfire all over the place. 

The ending of the film feels rushed, and rings hollow and untrue, betraying all the good will that was built up in the first two thirds.  But I can't say that the film is entirely ruined by this.  I really do enjoy watching all the parts before Anna and Ethan show up.  This is where the film really feels like a true adaptation of the novel, with the atmosphere of horrific, quiet loneliness nearly palpable.  Smith's performance and Lawrence's direction are first-rate.  It's too bad the last half hour can't hold on to that. 

I still yearn for a great adaptation of "I Am Legend."  The book is worth it.  Will Smith's film is almost there... but not quite.  It's the best yet, but runs out of steam short of the finish line.