My eternal friend, the beloved Colonel Giddens, has horrible taste in movies. I swear, I love the girl. As human beings go, she’s the pinnacle of evolution. We’ve shared many films together, each inflicting untold horrors on the other. Payback is a bitch, and one of these days I’m going to find my old copy of Attack of the Killer Tomatoes and the Colonel will pay (oh yes, she will pay) for her enthusiastic recommendation of Michael Bay’s Transformers.
In the meantime, you and I can hash out the Colonel’s latest recommendation: I Am Legend, a film I dismissed out of hand once I learned the identity of its star. Nothing personal against Mr. Smith; I’ve never met the man. And if, on some planet, on some distant day, I ever have the occasion, I won’t let the fact I that he’s now an adherent of a certain batshit-insane religion get in the way of being polite. But let’s face it: most of his movies are forgettable trash at best (Wild Wild West), roaring monstrosities at worst (Bad Boys). Memories of his reign as the Fresh Prince of Bell-Air will forever hobble his attempts to be a “serious actor.” What is a man named Smith to do? Another Men in Black sequel? Perish the thought.
No. Instead, Smith has once again transubstantiated himself into a sci-fi/action hero. This metamorphosis struck him in preparation for (the undeservedly-named) I, Robot, with results that were predictably horrible. I admit I cringed in anticipation of this film, too. It could’ve been much worse. Had it been rushed into production…oh, say…four years ago…it would have been. Such is tonight’s slim, silver lining.
Our corner of the world is all-too familiar with this story. Originally a novella written by mid-twentieth century genre-bender Richard Matheson (the man who wrote all those Twilight Zone episodes you remember), I Am Legend follows the frequently-drunken adventures of the Last Man on Earth, a hapless schmuck from Compton named Robert Neville.
A brief word on the text: Matheson wrote I Am Legend in 1954, back when white people still called Compton home. The novella, for those not in the know, is a stark examination of the lengths one man must go to remain healthy, living, and sane in a post-apocalyptic world where a great plague has decimated most of the human race and turned the rest into vampires. They stalk the night streets, feeding on any living thing they can catch…including each other. Each night they pound away at Robert’s barricaded doors and windows, while inside he desperately tries to drown them out with whiskey and classical music. Over the course of the story, loneliness and desperation drive Robert to study the creatures who’ve taken over his world. His discoveries make up the most holistic explanation of vampirism I’ve ever seen, elegant for its pseudo-scientific simplicity.
And, as with most of the movies I review, the book need not concern us further. Doesn’t it go without saying that this movie bears no resemblance to the book beyond a seeming coincidence of title? You’re all smart kids with good backgrounds. You know what’s what. But did you know that this was an American film made in a post-9/11 world? I’ll bet you could’ve guessed. Indeed, I contend that a movie of this nature could only exist in a post-9/11 world, a product of the schizophrenic, infantile, traumatized culture that dominates our land, turning all our stories into shallow pap and all our heroes into drunken monsters.
We open with a cable news anchor interviewing a lady doctor named Krippen. Dr. Krippen claims to have just cured cancer. How? By “reprogramming” the measles virus into a sort of biological highway patrol officer. “Imagine the virus as a very fast car being driven by a very bad man,” she tells the cable news talking head. “Obviously that’s gonna do a lot of damage…Now, if you replace that bad man with a cop–” Stop right there, Doctor. As far as I’m concerned you’ve just swapped bad for bad. How’s your pork, Dr. Krippen? Good? As we fade to black I think, Gee, Doc, what could possibly go wrong with a triple-A rated plan like that?
Three years later, Will Smith is the Last Man on Earth, hunting herds of deer through the deserted, weed-infested streets of New York City in a new (to us–this takes place in 2012, so, from his perspective, it’s a late model) Ford GT. You’ll never see this car again; it disappears from the rest of the film and leaves me wondering, What the fuck is it with Will Smith movies and cars? I hope to all the non-existent gods this doesn’t turn into another military recruitment/car commercial, less than meets the eyes.
No, thankfully. The sun is setting. It’s time for Robert Neville, the Last Man on Earth, to haul ass back inside his posh Washington Square Park townhome. Time to give Sam, the Last Dog on Earth (because he just has to have one) a bath. As night falls and his watch incessantly beeps, Neville storm-shutters his windows and curls up inside his tub next to Sam. Gradually, in the most effective scene of the film, the disembodied screams of the nightbreed fill the streets as the undead citizens of New York emerge from the lightless hiding places and do…whatever it is they do. We’re not shown what that might be. I can only say that the music of these children of the night would reduce even Dracula to tears.
Robert, though, sleeps on ’till morning, ignorant of its pleasing tones. After a gratuitously shirtless work-out it’s down to his basement lab, where Dr. Neville begins what is obviously yet another step in his quest to cure the “Krippen Virus.”
The results are generally bad…most of his “cures” either kill the host or fail to kill the virus…save one. “Begin human trials,” he speaks into whatever hidden microphone he’s using to keep records of these experiments. After one successful rat test he’s beginning human trials. Oh, if only real-life scientists behaved like movie scientists. Then all our cars would fall apart after twenty thousand miles, satellites would fall from the sky, and prescription allergy pills would come complete with side effects that might include vomiting, sleepless, and/or diarrhea…hmm…wait a tick…
Dr. Neville’s human trials involve setting snares in lightless places, bating them with his own blood, and waiting around for one of the nightbreed to blunder into things. This, in contrast to the book (I know I said it need not concern us further, but sue me), is about the only proactive step our Smith-Neville takes against the dark creatures that were once his fellow human beings. We do not see Smith, the last (black) man on earth, mercilessly slaughtering the vampiric hordes during their daytime sleep, that way a certain Vincent Price once did when he brought this role to life. Dr. Neville is no Daywalker and, like any decent American, his guns are only for huntin’ up game…or self-defense. Imagine if a white man (say, Hugh Jackman) had landed this part and “KV” turned its hosts as black as the ace of spades. Would Our Hero still be such a compassionate humanitarian? Our would he grab the nearest gun and mow down whole hordes of zombified New Yorkers, ’80s Action Hero Style (or, for you gamers out there, Resident Evil 4 Style)?
In any case, Neville’s snipe hunt succeeds. With his new test subject heavily sedated, he begins human trials. And in a fine example of movie Science, Dr. Neville falls into a hissy-fit when his compound fails to instantly cure the subject. The rest of the movie proceeds rather like you’d expect, and for a very good reason: it has no idea what to do with itself. I don’t really consider the following a capital S Spoiler. I give the Alert out of courtesy to the mentally impaired…though even they should be able to guess the outcome of this film.
Neville’s isolation and workaholism finally push him to do something stupid. Sam, the Last Dog on Earth, dies as a result. Neville takes this poorly, inspiring an action sequence, and just when it looks like all hope is lost Our Hero gets rescued. By a woman named Anna (Alice Braga) who, for some reason, is carrying around a child name Ethan (Charlie Tahan). The Last Nuclear Family on Earth congeals at Neville’s townhouse and, once Ethan’s tucked off to bed, its time for Anna to reveal that everything’s really alright. There’s a Survivors Colony somewhere in Vermont, free and open to the uninfected public. Life goes on. It’s all part of God’s glorious plan. We can hear Him speak to us if we only listen.
“There is no God,” Neville retorts…only so he can be proven wrong by the end of the film after the climactic Special Effects sequence puts the skids on any further theological discussions. Will Our Hero (no pun intended) also hit upon a last-minute, miraculous cure for the KV plague before the final bell tolls? Gosh, Davey, I wonder…
I digress into plot-pointing because this film does not offer much up for analysis. There’s little fat on this movie’s bones and very little meat either. This is a story stripped down by Hollywood carrion-eaters, rebuilt into a shambling, Frankenstein message of Hope. But before the Hope must come the despair, and a whole lot of watching Will Smith go through the motions of post-Apocalyptic life. He returns movies to the neighborhood video store, passing a quick, “Hi,” to the mannequins he’s set up along the isles. He breaks-and-enters into deserted apartments, hunting up supplies as plague sheets flutter around empty beds in the broken-window draft of sunny, sleepy New York City. Every day at noon he announces his presence on all AM frequencies from his broadcasting desk in the South Street Seaport. He plays golf off of the tailfin of an SR-71. He and Sam hunt up dinner.
And in the thrill of the chase, Sam follows their prey (Bambi’s uncle, or cousin, probably) into the bowls of a darkened building nowhere near as deserted as it appears. Robert Neville hesitates…he breathes in shuddered gasps…he stage-whisper-shouts for the Last Dog On Earth…and in a very human moment that really sells the movie’s monsters, he almost leaves the dog behind. “I gotta go, Sam,” he tells the darkness. “I gotta go.”
But, being the hero and all, he soon douses the light on his gun and walks inside. The tense scene that follows is the highlight of the film, and our introduction to what Ann will later call “the darkseakers.” The word “vampire” does not appear in this movie, which is fitting, considering I Am Legend‘s monsters bear no resemblance to their literary counterparts. (At least Ben Cortman could speak.) They are children of the recent big-ticket zombie pictures I’ve studiously ignored: weightless, acrobatic, CGI characters with an inexplicable vulnerability to ultra-violet light. Dangerous in the dark, but a simple bullet will put them down for the count. Not terribly dynamic foes, really. Vampires rarely are outside of the Buffyverse. If this were 1998 this movie might be innovative. Alas, in 2008, it seems merely derivative.
And, in the end, Hopeful. Of course it’s Hopeful. You can’t make a movie without a happy ending these days. Damnit, people, we’re still at War. We have to do whatever vacuous thing it is we’re supposed to be doing. Lighting up “the darkness,” or some such damn thing.
The Last Man on Earth (as Matheson originally conceived him) did stand against the darkness. He was lighthouse keeper of the past: the sunlit, day-bright, now-lost world where wives and children still live and breathe and vampires don’t exist. They were the dark, standing against the Last Man on Earth, the incarnate onslaught of a present already pregnant with an inhospitable future, feeding ruthlessly upon the past. The Last Man on Earth fights to resurrect that past, alone in his house of artifacts, rationality, and Science.
At least Matheson grasped that this is an impossible fight on his part. The past is dead and cannot return to life except as farce, or shambling horror. The Last Man on Earth refuses to understand this and do what the rest of us (in the real world) are continually forced to do: move on to the new place, whatever that might be. Instead, the new place, and the new people who live there and call it their home, move in on him, and Robert Neville must face up to the fact that you can’t go home again.
Except in Hollywood, of course. There, the belligerent infantilism of American popular culture insists that you can have your cake and be it, too. That everything will work out in the end if you just hold your breath until you turn blue and click your heels together. Even if your dog, wife, and child die there’s still the great, benevolent Sky Daddy up There, and we can always count on Him to whisper sweet nothings into our ears. After all, He has a plan. A plan that, apparently, involves rekindling the ashen remains of Dr. Robert Neville’s faith in…something or other. Bob Marley, perhaps? Would’ve been nice, but…no. It’s the same kind of shallow Hollywood Deism you’d see in M. Night Shyamalan’s Mel Gibson movie, Signs. Because you can’t make a movie without Hope, and you can’t have Hope without a little nod to God…a god left purposely vague enough for everyone…right?
Well, no. Because, as with Signs, the only gods at work here are the filmmakers–the small army of deities that, through their own strange alchemy, turned a few thousand feet of nitrate into a coherent story. And then they have to go and mess with everything by throwing in a deux ex machina. If you’re going to write yourself into a post-apocalyptic corner I expect a little bit more than, “Oh, don’t worry, it’s alright. God has a plan for all this meaningless suffering.”
Well, of course He does…or They do, in this case. They also have shooting scripts, scene-clappers, day boards, clip boards, light- and sounding-boards, computers, cameras, Starbucks coffee cups with philosophical sayings on the sides…all this and so much more. I knew that going in.I’m watching a movie, for petessake, so don’t assume I’ll be so easily deflected by meaningless sentiments. If I want that, I can read Chicken Soup for the Misanthropic Soul…which, since no such thing exists, I’ll have to write myself.
Apart from that, I have no complaints about this movie. James Berardinelli of Real Views rightly called it “workmanlike,” which is movie-reviewer code for “pretty, but stupid.” Cinematic empty calories. When we’re alone with Will Smith at least we have time to empathize with the Last Man on Earth and his skin-of-his-teeth grip on sanity. It is a pretty picture. You’d never guess director Francis Lawrence came from the MTV generation…until the final action sequence. “Workmanlike” is just the word to describe his largely-uninteresting camerawork. Kudos to him, then, for not getting in the way. And nuts to you, Francis, for letting the script run off its rails.
Further nuts go to the screenwriters. I’ve seen Mark Protosevich’s work before. He wrote The Cell, and I feel right in assuming all the good ideas of this script come from him. Akiva Goldsman and I are old enemies, going all the way back to his “work” on Batman Forever and Batman and Robin, “work” that earns him voodoo curses still to this day. That he continues to find work should tell you something about the veracity of voodoo…unless there are other, higher forces at work, protecting Goldsman’s career. What evil entities benefit from his watered down pap, junk science and pandering to my former homeland, the fly-over states (including Orange County, California)? I mean, come on–this man can write Starsky and Hutch and Lost In Space and still he has a career? He’s not human I tell you!
Notwithstanding Goldsman’s species of origin (or his possible alliance with evil, otherworldly forces), I was quite ready to give this film a passing grade…but for that fucking ending. Yet another movie that doesn’t end so much as stop. That gives up when it was just getting good. That serves up a tepid, sea grass soup of warmed-over Hope in a silver bowel rimmed with gold leaf and set on a centuries-old oak table. Watch I Am Legend if you honestly have nothing else to do. But don’t expect any surprise. Because if there’s one thing Hollywood excels at these days, it’s defying already-subterranean expectations.