Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Review: I Am Legend

Since my Mother-in-Law was in town, me and the Mrs. decided to go see a movie. In my SF induced craze, I managed to convince her that we needed to go see I Am Legend. Frankly, I'm quite happy that she agreed. I Am Legend is Mr. Will Smith's latest flick, and is based upon a Richard Matheson's novel of the same name. This is an older book, set during the mid to late seventies, while this latest movie is set in the near future. I say latest movie, because it has been made as a movie twice in the past, once entitled The Last Man on Earth and starred Vincent Price and the other was The Omega Man and stared Charleton Heston.

Anyways, the plot for I Am Legend is that Robert Neville (Will Smith's character) is attempting to find a cure for a virus which was created to cure cancer, but instead either killed or transformed people into photo-sensitive mutants (called Darkseekers in the movie). It's very similar to the novel's plot in which a bacteria runs rampant and creates what are effectively vampires, yet it fails in a couple of serious ways, at least for the logic minded. First, this 'cure for cancer' is based on the measles virus--but are we not all inoculated against measles at a young age these days? Would not the white blood cells designed to destroy the measles virus attack this cure just as fast? The second thing I'm stuck wondering is why on earth none of the Darkseekers appeared during the human clinical trials; or even better the years upon years of clinical animal trials (and if this isn't a worse-case scenario for animal trials, I don't know what is).

Yet those issues aside, the plot is fine, because it is merely the driving force that allows us to watch Robert Neville. It really doesn't matter what he's fighting or why nearly every person on the planet is dead, what matters is that we get to watch his psychological progression. We drop into his existence as he goes about his daily routine; which includes hunting via a Mustang Shelby, systematically looting the city for essentials, and sitting at the dock waiting for survivors to appear. It's a horrifying situation where he spends days with his dog, and talking to manikins in an attempt to have human interaction. It's a wonderful look at one person's decent into madness at the lack of human contact, similar in nature to what happened to Chuck Noland in Castaway. On the actor side of things, I believe that this is the best performance that I've seen out of Will Smith. I thoroughly enjoyed him in the Men In Black series as well as Independence Day, but I believe that this was his best performance ever. Especially disturbing was the scene where he was quoting Shrek, of course that could be because he was quoting Shrek.

Anyways, the other character of note in this movie are the Darkseekers. These are the survivors of the cancer-cure virus, that have been mutated. UV radiation burns them, and they lose skin pigmentation and hair. At first, we're to believe that they are basically mindless drones, with their only concern being attacking anyone or anything that's not aDarkseeker . This is shown via his experiments on infected rats, and then the sheer fear which Neville displays as dusk comes on. Yet, that is a disservice to theDarkseekers, in the book, and surprisingly in the movie as well.

There are a few thematic issues in this movie. Despite the trappings of a dystopic future (and I call it dystopic, because we can see ourselves destroying ourself using genetic research into curing diseases--or at least I can), there is a strong undercurrent of love, hope and the survivability of man. If anything, this movie shows man's will to survive. As a species we WANT to be on top of the world, and we want to survive. That is so hard-coded into our behavior that we look upon suicide as something obscene and wrong. Likewise, we'll turn against beings that are similar to us, on the off chance that our particular branch of the species survives. Hence Neville's willingness to kill and destroy the Darkseekers, despite the fact that, fundamentally, they just have a disease. But onto the love and hope themes, it shows in the way that even after three years, even believing that he was the last survivor, that he searched for a cure to the Darkseekers disease. Despite the fact that he firmly believed that no one "normal" survived, he still worked to cure them. Despite that he believed that all traces of humanity had gone from the Darkseekers, he still sought to cure them. If that's not hope and love, I'm not certain what is.

In fact, Neville himself talks about this (which is actually a good holdover from the novel) when he's talking to another survivor about Bob Marley. If memory serves, the quote in question is thus:

Bob Marley almost had a virologist way of thinking. He believed that you can cure-actually cure hate and racism, by injecting it with love and music. Two days before Bob Marley was supposed to perform he was shot. Two days later he walked on stage and performed and they asked him in a interview why didn't he rest, and he said 'the people that are trying to make the world worse never take a day off, why should I? Light up the darkness.'
I can admit something here. When they said that quote, I had a sudden fear that the disease was going to be cured by them playing old Bob Marley songs to one of the Darkseekers. Irrational maybe, but I've seen worse endings to movies over the years.

Yet, I digress, the hope shown by Neville is outstanding. Yet, there's a cynicism in his character as well. A desire to not see those attributes in the Darkseekers. He is so set in seeing them as mindless brutes, that he cannot comprehend why he's being stalked by one of the Darkseekers. Which is slightly humorous, because everyone else in the theater seemed to catch onto it.

Finally, the title I Am Legend has a distinct meaning. In the book, the meaning is based upon what Neville does to the vampires, while here, it is what he does for the survivors. A slight shift in context, but fundamentally not a problem. Though, I believe I like the book's stance on it better (as an aside, it makes me wish to go rent The Last Man on Earth as it is supposedly adheres best to the novel's plot line).

Overall, I liked this movie. A lot. Some parts of it scared my wife, and I was startled by the lions, despite seeing them in a preview, but this was fundamentally a SF story, despite the distinct horror leanings of the source material. Viruses, genetic research and man playing God are all horrendously shown in the stark devastation. I am slightly... well, it's not really disturbed, but that is probably the best term, by a religious subplot that was introduced for this movie. Thinking about it now, I can see how it does make a bit of sense, as seeing that the disease suddenly mutated after undergoing 10,000+ clinical human trials, unknowable animal trials, and let's not forget the onerous FDA approval process. Despite some of the film's weaknesses, I enjoyed it, and enjoyed it immensely. It shows a possible horror of tinkering with the building blocks of viruses, and shows us man's capability to hope, and to survive. The only drawback is that whole plot question on its sudden mutations, and the Darkseekers never showing up until the disease gets released into the general population.

So, I'm giving it a 3.7 out of 4.

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