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Sunday, December 16, 2007

I Am Legend

Regular readers know me well enough by now to know I seldom kvetch about anything, but if you are going to make a movie called I am Legend then you had bloody well better make it pretty damned legendary or else you are going to just look like some kind of fat-headed egotist for starring in something and thinking your very presence qualifies for such a presumptuous title. It sounds more like something Tom Cruise or John Travolta would insist as the title of their autobiography, though I can’t imagine either would ever allow one to be made considering the editing job involved in such a mammoth undertaking of whitewashing.

As for Will Smith (The Pursuit of Happyness), I’ll chalk the title of the movie up to those mysterious “powers that be,” the suits at the studios that make decisions behind closed doors with no real rhyme nor reason. They could well be the same guys who decided Richard Matheson’s novella “I am Legend” was too pompous a title when it was first adapted for the screen way back in 1964 and so changed the title of the film to The Last Man on Earth. They may even have been at the table talking turkey with that old gobbler himself, Charlton Heston, back in 1972, when the suits decided to give it that hip, cool, ‘70s name The Omega Man, for its second incarnation. Maybe now they are just too tired and old to think of anything new, so they just went with the original title of the book because they don’t care anymore. Who knows? One thing is for sure. Will Smith must have been strutting around the set like a rooster on Viagra in a coop full of lonely hens knowing he was going to have his face plastered all over the world with the phrase
I am Legend under it.

Personally, I don’t have a huge ego, but who wouldn’t want an opportunity like this? Well, I’d want my poster to say I am Fabulous and my movie would be about my ordeal as the last quality-conscious film viewer in 2012 fighting to keep mobs of taste-impaired audiences from sitting
through Balls of Fury IV, Knocked Up 6, or Superbad: The Next Generation. It wouldn’t be much different from I am Legend except that instead of the mindless creatures roaming Smith’s movie looking to feast on blood, my couch potatoes would feed only on theater snacks like popcorn, Swedish Fish and Milk Duds and drink nothing but gi-normous fountain sodas. I suppose for dramatic effect there could be a few occasional theater personnel go missing when they ventured into the dark to clean between movie showings just to add to the excitement (and logical protein content of the mind dead movie-in-a-movie audience’s diet). After all, cinema should be somewhat educational, don’t you think?

Actually, that was my one big gripe with I am Legend (besides the self-important title). If we are to believe halfway through the movie that Smith’s character, Dr. Robert Neville, is the only “normal” man still alive, since everyone else on earth has been infected with a virus that has turned them into something the movie is afraid to call vampires even though that is what they are, then it seems ludicrous that when he does meet another two survivors, a woman named Anna (Alice Braga; Journey to the End of the Night) and a little boy, Ethan (Charlie Tahan; Once Upon a Film), he soon launches into a discourse on the history of Bob Marley and racism of all things. No offense to Mr. Marley or the topic of racism as a social concern, but in this nightmarish world, racism is the absolute last problem Dr. Neville has to worry about at the moment. I don’t think the vampires want to kill him because he’s Black. I really don’t. They may want to kill him for turning what was an exciting action adventure into an "ABC After-School Special" for Black History Month in the middle of the picture, but that’s a whole other thing.

Despite his high-strung diatribes at Anna (he also gives her an earful when she suggests there is a quarantined colony of survivors in Vermont) Robert appears dedicated to his work. Neville believes he is the only researcher left alive who can find a cure and restore the vampire-like “dark-seekers” to some semblance of humanity. It was the well-meaning work of cancer researcher Dr. Krippen (Emma Thompson; Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix) that started the problem. By mutating the measles virus into a cancer cure she accidently created an airborne virus that resulted in this worldwide catastrophe. Kind of like Republicanism.

For some unknown reason Neville is immune to the virus and has spent the past three years still
living in the eerie hollows of what was once bustling New York City. The amazing shots of the city, Times Square, the South Street Seaport, and other landmarks as they would look “ruined” by neglect, damage, age, and overgrowth are remarkable. It also looks positively creepy and makes you realize how uncomfortable and claustrophobic even the largest places can be when you are alone – or possibly alone but not.quite.sure.

I was prepared to either love I am Legend or hate it. I wasn’t sure which, but I knew it would be an either/or situation. I thought the Vincent Price version was okay for its time. It was done in an era when scares were more melodramatic than actually frightening and character development was a luxury not yet granted to low budget fright fests, which is how The Last Man on Earth was perceived. The Omega Man was the perfect 1970s movie because it was just so “1971” in looks and rhetoric. Charlton Heston’s version of Neville seemed more focused on technology than his humanity in a battle against the mutant vampires, who are much more evolved than the creatures in I am Legend. Heston’s foes are led by a very intelligent and vocal Mathias (Anthony Zerbe), so the battle here becomes between science and the new evolutionary order than has replaced humanity. I am Legend is a different animal.

Neville has a family, a wife and a small daughter, who we see in flashbacks, so we know the love that existed and filled the doctor’s heart. We also know their fates, which represent a loss we can all identify with, and we are suckered in quickly by his obvious love of his dog Sam, his only companion for the past three years. We are also privy to the fact that while Neville continues his work on a cure (though for who isn’t really clear at first); he also has a few splinters in the windmills of his mind. He carries on conversations with mannequins in a video store, which borders on cute or psychotic. It is also nerve-wracking because the store is just lit dimly enough that the mannequins could pass for real, and so that moment when one might just JUMP out at him is always in the back of the viewer’s mind. Spooky, I’m telling you. It’s very Dawn of the Dead, you know?

The mutated are downright butt ugly, and they are also 28 Weeks Later fast, so it is “Feet don’t fail me now” time if you run into one of these Bad Boys. That makes for a severe need to keep out of
the dark, whether outside at night or inside during the day, and yet you know in a movie like this Will/Neville is going to end up in just such a situation, not once but twice or three times. Me, I’d have packed up and moved to Alaska, the “Land of the Midnight Sun” and had a house with ceiling windows everywhere, including the closets, just to make sure I was safe.

I am Legend rocks with the jolts and scares, but it does sputter out towards the final twenty minutes or so when the final battle between man and mutants inevitably occurs. Somehow, inexplicably, the mutants seem to have grown brains, and they appear much smarter than they had been previously, which makes you go “huh?” after all is said and done, but, in the moment, who cares? It’s fun and has that “testosterony” appeal I’m sure director Francis Lawrence (Constantine) and Will Smith were aiming for from the beginning. Just don’t expect to go home thinking you’ve seen a classic. This is a pure summertime blockbuster that got lost or something and ended up released at the wrong time of the year. Pretend it’s beach weather, take off your coat, and kick back. Just watch out for the dark.

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