December 15, 2007

REVIEW: I Am Legend (B+)

Background: The third adaption of Richard Matheson's 1954 novel of the same name, I Am Legend stars Will Smith (The Pursuit of Happyness) in another heroic blockbuster. The film was almost made in the 90's with Arnold Schwarzenegger and Ridley Scott, but production fell apart, fortunately. Will Smith hoped Guillermo del Toro (Pan's Labyrinth) would direct this version, but Francis Lawrence (Constantine) ended up at the helm. Filming was partially done on location and involved thousands of extras and all kinds of expensive production allowances. You can't just shut down Manhattan for a few months, even if you are Will Smith. By the way, his daughter Willow plays his daughter on screen, marking the second time in a year that Smith has played opposite his child in a film.

Synopsis: In 2009, a cure for cancer is found. By 2012, humanity is virtually wiped out - something went wrong with the cure. Specifically, it turned people into cannibalistic vampire mutants called "Dark Seekers." Dr. Robert Neville (Smith) is immune to the virus and is New York City's lone survivor, stranded in Manhattan. He spends his days hunting wild deer in Times Square with his loyal German Shepard, Sam, broadcasting on AM frequency for any sign of life, and trapping mutants to take back to his Washington Square brownstone, which houses a lab for experiments - Neville is trying to find a cure for the cure. One fateful day his world falls apart, and he goes out into the dangerous night on what's essentially a kamikaze mission. Surprisingly he's not killed (that would be quite an ending), as a new twist develops and his mission becomes all the more important. A final man vs. zombie battle culminates in a "legend"ary epilogue. Sorry, couldn't resist.

I Loved:
+ The first five minutes - interview with Emma Thompson (Stranger Than Fiction), cut to stunning empty city shots.
+ Will Smith, whose diligence in selecting roles pays off again here. Dude knows what works.
+ The visual effects, cinematography and set design - truly an achievement in creating a new Manhattan.
+ The voiceovers, especially at the end.

I Liked:
+ The armrest-gripping suspense in the scene where Neville goes into the dark to get Sam.
+ The underlying what-if-that-were-me feeling throughout the movie.
+ Sam - great dog acting here. Seriously.
+ The first night scene we see: Neville and Sam in the bathtub, creepy noises outside.

I Disliked:
- Will Smith's occasional speechifying, only because it slowed the action.
- The all-of-a-sudden final 20 minutes.
- The drawn-out goodbye between Neville and his family. Didn't need to see it so many times.
- The fake look of the deer and lions.

I Hated:
- The "Dark Seekers" - really disappointing execution here, and a total ripoff of Voldemort from Harry Potter. Why do they have super-human strength? Why are they virtually invincible? Why can't they talk? These should have been human actors, not CGI products that sound like velociraptors.

Writing - 8
Acting - 9
Production - 9
Emotional Impact - 10
Music - 4
Significance - 4

Total: 44/50= 88% = B+

Last Word: If ever an out-and-out action thriller produces an Oscar nominee, I Am Legend should be it. Will Smith is perfect for the role, and brings real depth to it (witness the final video store scene). He shouldn't win, mind you, but some recognition isn't as laughable as you'd think. Regardless, he continues to earn his astronomical paychecks because he knows exactly what he's good at, and what people want to see him do. I Am Legend is truly frightening at parts, though the zombies eventually lose their fright factor to mediocre special effects and some cheap thrills. I blame Francis Lawrence, who tried to pull the same tricks in Constantine. His work in the first part of the movie is great, though (the interview with Thompson is excellently placed, and she's excellent in it), and the last scene comes together nicely. I also liked that the world of 2012 looks realistic, though of course human progress has been nonexistent for three years. These philosophical ideas about the human condition are hinted at in some really awkward moments by Smith, but they are nevertheless intriguing, and they've stuck with me. All in all, I Am Legend is a unique and ultimately satisfying thriller that doesn't get too heady, which is a blessing and a curse. One last note regarding the production - wouldn't it have been interesting if Will Smith were silent throughout the movie, save some verbal commands with Sam? Or what if there wasn't even a dog at all? I think it would have created a more tense tone, if that's even possible.


  1. Excellent review. Superb film. Creepy, taut, and thoughtful. I think I would give this an A or A- overall, but I am biased and quite a fan of Will Smith's acting (except for maybe Independence Day, which I seem to be in the minority in thinking that was basically a terrible film overall), and as you noted he really nailed this role.

    I connected exactly with what you said regarding "the underlying what-if-that-were-me feeling throughout the movie." Great point.

    One of the things I would have put into my own "I loved" category for this film is the fact that there was very little scene music throughout (which is also one of the only things I would have put into that category for No Country For Old Men , which had NONE that I can recall). The depth and gravity of the scenes was more arresting left as is ... similar in that sense to Castaway. That relates to another point you had: "wouldn't it have been interesting if Will Smith were silent throughout the movie, save some verbal commands with Sam?" A very interesting idea that I would love to see explored on film, except that here I think, like in Castaway, a healthy human mind might really deal with isolation better if it can carry on verbal conversations, and since Sam the dog was such a good acting partner, I didn't mind.

    "..I think it would have created a more tense tone, if that's even possible." Not sure that would have been possible for me -- although it might have just been the sugary snacks and pop I had before the film -- I was pretty jumpy throughout. And with that, I actually liked the fact that this "epic" didn't have to be 3.5 hours long. I thought this version of the story fit really well into the length it was cut to.

    Yes, it was great to see Emma Thompson again, if only in brief.

    The "Ultra Zombie" issue is a valid one, and also (and this bugged me in 28 Days too), how did they get so fast?

    Personal side note: I have never read, or know anything about the original novel, but I would highly recommend any fellow film buff who enjoyed this to see 1971's The Omega Man starring Charlton Heston. I caught it by accident on cable TV one day, and I was amazed at how such an obviously dated, and in many respects cheesy, movie could be so unsettling. That one was also only rated PG when it came out, and the plot is actually COMPLETELY different, but some key story themes are the same.

    Anyway back to this version, I agree with your assessment of the terrible overall "special" effect with these Dark Seekers. But the film got so many other things right, and attention to detail was much appreciated. I even liked the Times Square Loews Cinema marquee stuck in time forever showing the Batman/Superman combo epic. Big thumbs up for me overall.

  2. Wow, I totally forgot that the music was lacking in No Country for Old Men. Was there really none? I can't remember.Chalk up some more Best Director votes for the Coen brothers.

    Looks like all the critics have the same problem with the zombies. How about climbing up the building like Spider-Man at the end? Or that they were all in peak physical form? I still don't know why they couldn't talk.

    Just as I'm writing this I've remembered that I was really annoyed with the scene where the zombie freaked out on the operating table. Predictable and cliched, I think.


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