|Directed by:||Francis Lawrence|
|Written by:||Mark Protosevich, Akiva Goldsman|
|Cast:||Will Smith, Alice Braga, Salli Richardson-Whitfield, Willow Smith, Charlie Tahan|
Spoiler Warning but the film’s 10 years old so you’ve got no-one to blame but yourself.
I can’t remember the last time I saw I Am Legend but it was only the once and in the years since my opinion on it has been shaped by the views of others who saw it as a disappointment and thus putting me off revisiting it. I realised recently that I don’t have my own actual opinion of the film and while it may miss the point of the source novel I should at least give the rest of the film a chance. To my surprise I got a strong tale of one man’s lonely survival with enough genuine chills to justify it’s deviation from the source material...
And then a final half hour that nearly fucks the whole thing up.
Set in the not-too-distant future of 2012, the world has been decimated by a virus that has killed 99% of the population in three years, leaving a desolate wasteland. Of the remaining 600 Million, 88% of them have been transformed into violent, feral monsters with a deathly reaction to sunlight, those who are immune to the virus try to stay alive as long as possible, fighting food shortages, wild animals and loneliness.
One such survivor is Robert Neville, a military virologist who was one of the first to recognise the spread of the virus and sought to find a cure, with his immunity he continues that work all while living as the only human survivor in New York with only his dog Samantha for company. When a series of animal test prove to be nearly all ineffective except for one, he moves towards human trials by capturing one of the infected and sedating her in his lab. However with his birthday recently passed and his third year alone in the city, Neville is feeling the strain and losing himself a little more each day, a problem not helped when his mannequin friends start moving by themselves.
The first hour of this film is pretty damn great, it’s all Will Smith and he carries it with a little help from his dog, there’s really not a lot of plot but the slow-burn nature allows us to follow Neville and see the faint cracks in his psyche brought on by loneliness. Admittedly there are some issues that I’ll get into later but for the most part it’s a strong one-man-drama, then Anna comes in, all through the film Robert has a message for survivors to meet him at a pier at Midday though nobody comes until he meets Anna and Ethan, a doctor from Brazil and a young boy who both got stuck on a rescue boat for far too long until they heard Neville’s message. Anna believes there is a colony of survivors to the North because the virus couldn’t survive the cold but her only proof is her faith which Robert lost a long time ago, however before they can argue it out anymore, Neville realises that Anna has led a horde of infected back to his home and they’re fucking pissed.
Aside from bringing them in way, way too late to the story, the fact that Anna and Ethan are suddenly thrust to the heart of the story, kick off the third act because of their own idiocy, and then we’re suppose to care if they make it is just fucking stupid. I understand why they need to be there and had they been introduced earlier it might have taken away from Smith’s lonely performance but fuck me they just added nothing, I don’t think Ethan said one goddamn word.
Then we get to the ending and prepare for a triple-shot cause I’m spoiling the film ending, the alternate film ending, and the novel ending. After shooting up his house in a pointless but not terrible excuse to bring in the third act action, Neville, Anna and Ethan lock themselves in the basement where they find out that the human test subject Neville took earlier has been cured, Neville tries to reason with the infected but realises they’re too far gone and won’t stop. Unwilling to leave his place at Ground Zero, he gives Anna the cured blood, shows her the exit then detonates a grenade killing himself and the infected. If you know nothing about the source material you’d probably consider it a lacklustre but workable ending, but I do know the source and in the novel, Neville realises that for all his violent attacks against the seemingly feral infected, he has become a legend in their eyes, they have formed their own community and retained parts of their humanity to each other and view him as a monster that captures and kills their own – in the novel the infected are vampires so in essence Neville becomes Dracula. The film’s alternate ending aims closer to this by having the lead infected hold some reason with Neville in the hope to get back the infected Neville took earlier, Neville does so and the two go their separate ways leaving Neville to realise how wrong he was about the infected and how his experiment must look in their eyes.
The reason I’m going into so much detail on this is because the theatrical ending is just the final kick to the balls to punctuate an already flimsy finale, it lacks the emotional punch and more importantly the irony of the title, Neville’s Legend is not a good one, he is a man driven to being a monster without even realising it and the fact that the film went for the Hollywood ending instead shows a general lack of care in the hopes of bypassing a rather uncomfortable truth.
Character work is almost entirely Will Smith, there’s some small roles from like his wife and daughter who die in a plane crash to really sell us on Neville’s depression, Anna is fairly useless and feels forced, I don’t mind that she’s a believer in God but I don’t like that her entire purpose in the film feels like a tacked on ‘Message from God’ type deal. And Ethan’s utterly pointless, I’ll go easier on him due to there being a canonical prologue that shows Ethan witnessing the violent and fucking traumatising deaths of his mother, father and brother which has rendered him catatonic, explains the silence but he’s still pointless.
True to form though this is Smith’s film and I gotta be honest I don’t give Smith enough credit as an actor, outside of some of his Fresh Prince work I’ve always felt like he’s been Will Smith the movie star rather than Will Smith the actor but going by this I’ve misjudged him. Smith easily has the charisma to carry the entire film but he goes beyond that, there’s little moments that show that Neville isn’t all there, how he’s set up mannequins at a video store to talk to like regular people, how he still maintains the illusion of going to the video store despite no-one being there to stop him from taking anything, the way he’ll go into a trance from hearing the alarm go off for sundown hinting at possibly PTSD, watching recorded news footage in the hopes of keeping up the illusion of normality. As brilliant a scientist as Neville is he’s clearly not functioning at full capacity and the prospect of spending another year alone with no further progress on the cure is weighing heavily on him, after a particularly traumatic scene Neville begs one of the mannequins to talk to him just so he could have somebody, anybody talk to him and he could share in his pain. There are other little moments to Neville’s character that Smith brings out like how terrified he is when stuck in an infected nest or how socially backwards he is when talking to Anna due to not having anyone but Sam to speak to for three years but on the whole, Smith absolutely makes this film, he’s charming enough, intense enough and unhinged enough to make all aspects of Neville’s character work and feel genuine to the storyline.
Direction from Francis Lawrence is pretty good, the daylight segments are where he’s at his strongest because he’s able to emphasis the emptiness of a place like New York, just having absolutely no-one around in the busiest city on Earth is quite unnerving to start with but as you ease into it, it gets to be where any sudden moment or inconsistency gets your nerves going. End of the world movies have been done before and 28 Days Later did a similar empty city with London 5 years previously, but to my mind nothing has been done to reach the scale of New York, and they actually shot on New York which is doubly impressive. The addition of very minimal, almost non-existent music highlights just how lonely the world has become for Neville, there’s nothing there and it’s such a strange feeling.
The night time sections fall flat, there aren’t as many as I expected going in but the increase in action feels counter-intuitive to the morning scenes previously. That’s not to say any of it is actually bad, it’s just less engaging, a problem exacerbated by the shoddy CGI of the infected humans and dogs, to the film’s credit they did try it with live actors but it looked ridiculous so the CGI look was used instead and unfortunately it’s kinda shit, like it fell into the uncanny valley and took up residence, the animals even more so because they’re usually moving so fast they become an uncharacteristic blob of brown and grey and just feel like a cartoon. It’s unfortunate because the added adrenaline could’ve been the boost the film needed to keep things going in-between bouts of Mr Smith Goes To The Video Store and thankfully the film doesn’t rely on the action sequence too heavily but it’s still a missed opportunity.
Part of me thinks that I should know I Am Legend down a point for how bad it’s last half hour is and how badly they fucked the ending, but I can’t, there’s so much that works in that first hour, all of it Smith and his dog and that’s more than enough to carry the film. Yes there are issues like the Uncanny Infected or the deviations from the source novel but as a study of one man’s fractured psyche dealing with loneliness, depression and PTSD it’s almost amazing.
Just a shame they had to ruin it with people.