Thursday, January 10, 2008

'I Am Legend' is more brains than brawn

“I Am Legend” is likely to surprise a lot of people. It is not your typical big-budget, big-bang Will Smith blockbuster. Things do certainly blow up really well, but this is by no means a wall-to-wall action film. Instead it is a surprisingly quiet, even moving film about the struggle of being the last man in New York, possibly the world.

Smith stars as military scientist Robert Neville, the survivor of a virus that turns those it infects into super strong, blood-thirsty night creatures with a deadly allergy to light.

In the Richard Matheson novel of the same name — which also inspired 1971’s “The Omega Man” — the virus turned humans into vampire-like creatures. Here the monsters most closely resemble the zombies of Danny Boyle’s “28 Days Later.” In fact, much of the film recalls Boyle’s 2003 low-budget gem, and that’s a good thing — especially considering the misfire of that film’s official big-budget sequel, “28 Weeks Later.”

“28 Days” opened with Cillian Murphy walking the eerily empty streets of London. “I Am Legend” capitalizes on that same sense of isolation, with Smith spending the majority of the film walking or driving the desolate streets of Manhattan with his dog Sam.

The visuals of the empty city, including images of blown out bridges and overgrown plants, are quite extraordinary and striking. These scenes feel authentic, and they are an impressive achievement in production design and visual effects. Director Francis Lawrence (“Constantine”) doesn’t pile on big action set pieces or go for cheap scares, but instead focuses on creating the lonely world in which Smith exists.

While the film does feature some genuinely frightening encounters with the monsters, the movie is much more interested in exploring Smith’s situation and the effects of his isolation from human contact. Smith’s Robert Neville isn’t your typical hero. He is fit and muscular, but is afraid of the world he lives in. He doesn’t attempt to battle his foes, but merely survive them. The search for a cure and his loyal dog are the only things keeping him going.

The script by Akiva Goldsman (“The Cinderella Man,” “A Beautiful Mind”) and Mark Protosevich (“The Cell”) allows Neville’s sanity to be thrown into question. Neville has posted mannequins throughout the city and has given them names and personalities. He talks to them as if they were real, but it is unclear whether Neville knows it is fantasy anymore.
Smith is basically doing a one-man show, and his performance recalls Tom Hanks’ similar struggle in “Cast Away.” His “conversations” with Sam the dog are full of light humor, yet at the same time Smith also manages to create a genuine relationship with the dog.

We know Smith can be funny, but there’s more to this performance than just a series of one-liners. Smith has some scenes that are quite affecting in ways you don’t necessarily expect in something marketed as a creature feature. The visual achievement of the emptied streets of New York is matched by Smith’s performance that shows a man barely keeping his sanity in a world of solitude.

There are some logistical questions that could be raised about Neville’s existence, but they don’t distract from the overall story. The film sets up its world and you accept it. But there is one hugely disappointing aspect of the film, which for some may be so distracting as to undermine the whole film.

The film’s super-human monsters are mediocre CGI creations that look out of place in a film of such high-quality visuals. The strength of Smith’s performance and the film’s creepy atmosphere may not be enough for special effects aficionados to let these cheap-looking monsters slide. Try to look past this flaw, though, for “I Am Legend” is far more than just a monster movie. It is a rich character study full of heart and humor.

1 comment:

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