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Saturday, December 15, 2007

I Am Legend: The IMAX Experience (***)



The rightful winner of the Best Supporting Actresss Oscar for 2007 has been found. Her name is Abbey, she's three years old, and she plays Samantha in I Am Legend. That Abbey is a German Shepherd will disqualify her from consideration from those specists in the Academy. Speciesm! I hate speciesm. I don't care who gets nominated for the Oscar this year, Abbey's performance pwns all those other bitches. Show me a better supporting performance by a human actress in a motion picture this year. Even though she'll be robbed of an Oscar she deserves, it won't matter to Abbey. Abbey doesn't care about awards or the Oscars. She's a good girl. Good girl. Have a cookie. Christ, I loved that dog. 

I Am Legend is pretty solid all around. Sometimes terrifying, kind of despressing, exhilirating but not too exhilirating, yet generally effective and satisfying. Unfortunately, the final act isn't nearly as good as what came before it. The movie never quite recovers from the pivotal tragedy that ended the second act. However, there is a palpable feeling of dread that creeps in as things fall apart for Robert Neville, the Last Man on Earth, and it becomes clear he's more screwed than he was before. 

Will Smith was really good. Big Willie delivers one of the best lead performances in a big budget sci-fi action thriller that I've seen in quite a while. It was a bit of a pill to swallow that Will Smith was a brilliant scientist trying desperately to cure the viral infection that turned 90% of the world's population into vampires, but he's a hell of a lot more convincing than some other actors and actresses Hollywood has asked us to buy as brilliant scientists.

Beyond his relationship with his wonderful dog, the best stuff Smith did was convey how the three years alone with his dog in Manhattan drove him insane. His life is an endless series of routine designed to keep himself and his dog alive: wake, exercise, hunt for meat, forage for supplies, broadcast emergency SOS and look for other survivors, back home before dark, set up defenses, try to sleep while 5 million vampires party outside all night. Beyond that, Smith's Robert Neville carries the agonizing guilt of being partly responsible for the virus and for the death of his wife and daughter. Coupled with his loneliness and desperate need for human contact, this is some of Smith's best work. When he traps a vampire female, brings her back to his lab, and tests potential cures on her, it feels like he's not so much trying to be the savior of humanity as he is hoping she'll wake up and provide a dinner companion that doesn't eat off the floor.

Robert Neville's insanity due to his isolation was quite interesting. He goes to video stores during the day and rents DVDs of the Today Show so he can hear human voices and maybe pretend things are the way they used to be. He has conversations and relationships with mannquins he dressed in clothes. When you compare what Neville has to what Tom Hanks had in Castaway, a soccer ball named Wilson, Neville is far better off but still, being the Last Man on Earth is really depressing. I also liked that despite his routine and his precautions, Neville was getting careless. The first time we see him he's chasing deer around Manhattan in his Shelby Mustang and runs head long into a pride of lions escaped from the zoo. Later we see he's staying out later and later, barely making it back to his home by sundown. It was inevitable he'd lose what little he had left by his own behavior and carelessness. It's actually amazing Neville and Sam lasted the three years they did alone in Manhattan surrounded by vampires.

An idea that didn't quite get across as well as it could have was that the vampires were watching Robert Neville and learned from him. The pivotal event of the film begins when one of Neville's mannequins suddenly appears at Grand Central Station and this cracks Neville's fragile psyche. How did "Fred" get there? The movie was a little unclear about it. At first I believed that Neville had simply forgotten he had moved "Fred" and he walked into one of his own vampire traps. I later realized what had actually happened: the "Alpha" vampire that Neville encountered previously saw how his vampire trap worked and set one for him.

The vampires were not well explored in terms of their behavior and whatever "culture" they had. That makes sense since the audience's POV was with Robert Neville. We only see what he sees and know what he knows about them. No one can blame Robert Neville for not descending into the dark vampire hives to do studies on how they spend their days. (The most frightening sequence in the movie is when Sam runs after a deer into a hive warehouse and Neville has to go in after her.) All we know about vampires is that they're hairless, pale, UV light is fatal to them, the CGI used to make them wasn't so great, and they're superfast and superstrong like movie monsters are these days.

Still, there are many questions about the vampires that were left unanswered, especially about what they retained of their human personalities, memory capacity, and identity. The Alpha vampire was more overtly "villainous" than expected by the end. He really seemed to have it out for Neville. Maybe he heard Neville dubbed him and his vampire pals "dark seekers" and thought it was a dumb name. One of the best parts of the novel "I Am Legend" by Richard Matheson was that the vampires knew Robert Neville; the ones who stalked him were once his neighbors and friends. At night, they'd pound on his doors and call his name ("Neville! Come out!") and the female vampires would behave in sexually suggestive ways to entice him to come out. I'd have liked to have seen some of those aspects from the vampires in the movie.

What I really didn't like was A) all that Shrek in the movie (Neville really likes Shrek but I really don't. I've never seen a movie use dialogue from another movie to convey its characters' motivations quite like Legend does Shrek.), and B) Anna the plot device and Ethan, the boy who never talks. The appearance of Anna the plot device right when Neville has lost his best friend and his will to live is right out of the deus ex machina playbook. Anna the plot device doesn't even make any sense: she and Mute Boy somehow survived the vampire apocalypse yet they seem to have stepped out of central casting. They don't look or act like survivors. They have no weapons, no training. Their story was full of holes. They were driving up the East Coast to the last human colony in Vermont and heard Neville's SOS? How the hell did they get onto the island? The flashbacks clearly established all the bridges were destroyed. Assume all the tunnels were as well. Anna is so jarringly out of place and is so clearly a device, it's distracting. We don't care about Anna and her crazy "God told me to drive to Vermont" stories. We don't care about Mute Boy surviving. We care about Robert Neville. We wanted to see Robert Neville set foot in the survivor colony and teach the last humans to get jiggy wit it Big Willie Style. The ending is ultimately a letdown.

If there's one important lession I Am Legend teaches us, however, it's that Emma Thompson will destroy human civilization as we know it. It's all her fault. Somebody stop her before it's too late.