Most often than not the big budget films of the year will pander to their audiences; too much handed to us, too much force fed. Excitement is equated with explosion. Ideas are sacrificed for marketability. Character development is exchanged for a big climax. I Am Legend does none of this. Except for maybe the big climax – but it’s well deserved.
Quickly, a virus breaks out, kills everyone except for the scientist hard at work at ground zero, also known as New York City. The island is cut off. The rest that survived can’t be explained. I will only say that it’s a world full of tension, the silence of a naked city is almost worse than what’s waiting around the corner. Though what’s waiting around the corner is deadly too. Robert Neville, our scientist, our hero, is left to live in this world alone. His only connection with life is his German Shepherd. He lives out a routine, perhaps so he doesn’t go mad. The dog has become more than a companion, he’s the last shred of reality that Neville clings to, and Will Smith lets you know this. And not by saying it, but by giving a surprisingly strong and sympathetic performance. There’s a reason why Will Smith is the biggest international superstar we have, and it’s not only based on box office receipts, its because he cares about the roles he takes on. He could have easily been Will Smith, strolling through this movie, letting us fall prey to the pandering, but he doesn’t…
Every time I see Smith these days he’s bringing something completely different to the screen. Here he uses his face in ways I haven’t seen him do to show how deeply Neville has been affected by his situation. This is a man that’s seen the crumbling of the world around him. A man who’s so caught up in his routine that he can’t see his own hope dangling by a thread that’s slowly shredding. And when a man loses hope, what’s worth fighting for? What Smith does is more than just show us what’s he’s going through, he allows us to go through it with him. That sort of openness and fearlessness when it comes to performing doesn’t only make a superstar, it makes a great actor. To say that Smith carries this film is correct, but the film does a good job keeping up.
When Akiva Goldsman wrote Batman Forever and Batman and Robin I figured his career was over but since A Beautiful Mind he’s been able to take everything he’s touched and turn it into a fascinating time at the movies. This time with the help of Mark Protosevich and the director Francis Lawrence, as director, they’ve made it an utterly involving experience.
There are two things a science fiction film needs to do to be so involving (and to say this is a science fiction film alone would cheapen it) the first is to show us things we haven’t seen before, and while the empty streets of New York City is nothing new to cinema – never have those streets felt so lonely and desolate, so quiet. And the things that are explored within the barriers of the Island show a level of ingenuity that perhaps only a digital era could do. The second thing is to connect it to a struggle that humans face in reality. Godzilla was about nuclear power, The Host was about chemical waste and the environment, and Event Horizon, Dawn of the Dead, Sunshine…the list goes on, all deal with relevant issues from God, to regret, to consumerism. About 3/4s of the way into I Am Legend Neville hints at what else could be going on and how his world relates to ours when he talks about and quotes Bob Marley. Come into the light. It’s a powerful speech, one that allows us to see why his struggle has been so hard, especially if what he is fighting is a metaphor for the reason he quotes Bob Marley. The fact that what Neville fights is a mob mentality in it’s most primitive state only heightens these ideas. The fact that his battle takes place in a ground zero New York City allows you to connect the dots and reflect more specifically on what people have had to face in recent years.
Smartly the directors and writers take the idea of come into the light, and being in the darkness and do some extraordinary things with it. The well thought out use of light and darkness and of things not seen, coupled with Smith’s tip toe performance helped create the most intense scene I’ve sat through at the movie theatre this year. There’s a point where Smith, with trepidation, leans around a corner, revealing the next hallway in slow deliberate chunks, and I realized I was leaning to the right to look around the corner with him, then I realized my friend to the right of me was doing the same.
My friend said the end comes quickly, too quickly perhaps. But with a movie that’s all about a slow building of tension, there comes a point in which that balloon has to pop, and when it does you’ve spent so much time in Robert Neville’s shoes, living his pain and loneliness, that the flood of badness knocking at his door is far more frightening than it would have been if he had been fighting tooth and nail the whole film.
And those up for another chilling surprise should watch the original movie that was based on the book by Richard Matheson. “The Last Man on Earth” (1964), a black and white film starring Vincent Price that predates Romero’s zombie infested film “Night of the Living Dead” by a solid four years. It’s a tense and surreal experience. One on par with Legend.