December 27, 2007

I Am Legend

A superb speculative future thriller, and a career peak for Will Smith. The trailers and TV spots would lead you to believe that this movie is Will Smith Versus The Chalk-Faced Goons, but it's more like Cast Away than a zombie movie or vampire tale.
Smith is Dr. Robert Neville, and he has been alone on Manhattan, his own fully stocked desert isle, for three years. Smith and his German Shepherd Sam travel the island like any other wilderness, farming, hunting...and defending themselves from the rabid, cannibalistic, heliophobic "humans" who hide in the shadows by day and go wilding at night. There are thousands of these "Dark Seekers" on the island with Smith, so why does he remain on what was the most densely populated island on Earth? Neville was a Army scientist who was indirectly responsible for failing to contain the deadly virus which killed 90% of human life on Earth. A thousand days have passed, and Neville lives on only to try and cure what's left of the human race.
It's not really an action movie. But there are several thrilling and scary sequences which avoid cheap thrills for quietly satisfying ones. Even when you know there's a monster around the corner, it scares us in a fair and satisfying way.
Will Smith carries the weight of this movie on his shoulders alone, and completely succeeds. He spends most of the movie thinking to himself, examining the world around him, and talking to his dog. When he eventually unravels, he does so in a convincing manner, so we believe his poor judgment is honest instead of a screenwriting convenience.
A brief note about the dog: Abby plays the German Shepherd Samantha, and she's wonderful. Whatever great lengths the trainers and Smith went through to make Smith and Abby act like best friends, it works. The whole audience fell in love with her.
We are told nearly nothing about what happened in Manhattan between 2007 and 2012. We are shown exactly what the result is, and the results are spectacularly real-looking. This visualization is a thoughtful and precise idea of what it might look like if all the people were removed from the biggest city in the world. It was kinda creepy that we never saw even one dead body, not one skeleton anywhere. I don't know why they decided to make that creative choice, but it was a little distracting. The city has been emptied, but not in a UFO abduction kind of way: the city looks like it died out over time, and now Nature is taking back all it can. I didn't think much about "how did they shoot this", and we can thank the sound designers for that- the sounds guys removed all city sounds, indeed, all man-made sounds, and replaced them with lots of birdsong and nature sounds, but not in a overwhelming way.
I am a little disappointed in the truncated character development of the chalk-faced goons, specifically the Alpha male who seems to risk his life and stages a vendetta against Neville after Neville traps and captures a female goon. Neville writes off his irrational behavior as the last vestiges of humanity finally being stripped away, but there's further character development which is not completely explored. It made for good post-movie conversation!
Who wielded the megaphone for this fine movie? I had never heard of Francis Lawrence. I had to look him up online: Lawrence is a former music video director who has only helmed one feature film before: the mediocre, effects-heavy graphic novel adaptation Constantine. This is not a hope-inspiring pedigree! For every music video director who turned into a above-average movie director (Spike Jonze, David Fincher), there's a pile of Russell Mulcahys out there. Who knows if Lawrence can make another good movie, but I Am Legend was directed with intelligence and finesse I was not expecting.