Thursday, 27 December 2007

review: i am legend (francis lawrence, 2007)

It was only a matter of time. I Am Legend continues the recent resurgence of dark, apocalyptic sci-fi, as seen in 28 Days Later (Danny Boyle, 2002) and Children of Men (Alfonso Cuaron, 2006) (and soon in Neil Marshall's Doomsday - see trailer), but does it the brute-force, big-budget, softened-edges, Hollywood way. Where the aforementioned films tiptoed around comparatively limited budgets with inventive mise-en-scene, effects work and production design, I Am Legend $150 million budget simply erases any limitation, as well as the need for finesse. Where 28 Days Later and Children of Men refused to flinch in following their visions to their darkest implications, I Am Legend can almost be felt crashing into a focus-group-controlled line it cannot afford to cross.

Which is not to say it is entirely your typical blockbuster. For a considerable portion of its running time,
I Am Legend seems, to a somewhat surprising degree, primarily interested in painting an intimate psychological portrait of Robert Neville (Will Smith), seemingly the last surviving human on Earth, plagued by loneliness and guilt which fuel his obsessive, Sisyphean quest to cure the disease that has decimated the human race. As the film follows his daily schedule and documents survival instincts - hunting, scavenging, hiding - become routine, it is at its most interesting. Even here the flaws are evident - the slips into delusion that are intended to signify Neville's increasingly precarious mental state are crashingly heavy-handed and simplistic, not helped by Smith's often agonisingly cringeworthy performance (which has been inexplicably praised from some quarters). From the outset, the film exhibits little sensitivity or subtlety in it technique, which often feels random and unconsidered - as in the overuse of shaky handheld camera. And that line I mentioned already makes itself felt - Lawrence seems unwilling or unable to take the portrait into the depths of despair, misery and existential and physical terror it clearly demands. Nonetheless, and despite these limitations, there is a melancholy resignedness and a tragic quality to this first section that makes these scenes engrossing and effective.

A large part of these scenes' impact, of course, lies in the backdrop.
I Am Legend's (clearly digitally-created, but entirely convincing) vision of a completely still, barren and dilapitaded New York is an astonishing piece of work, and it's the film's strongest point, lending an eerie, tense yet beautifully elegiac quality to those opening moments. 28 Days Later and its sequel 28 Weeks Later (Juan Carlos Fresnadillo, 2007 - review) already gave us similar remarkable visions of a depopulated, post-apocalyptic London, but what we see in I Am Legend is on a different level entirely. If the film is to be remembered at all, it will be for this.

The
real problems begin when I Am Legend decides to shift gear. Just as we have settled in for a good, if unremarkable, science-fiction drama, night falls, things go wrong, the plot develops,and it becomes the action-horror blockbuster it was marketed as. I've got nothing against action-horror blockbusters, per se; the problem is that a) the shift feels sudden and unsuited to the story, and b) as a horror film, I Am Legend is - apart from one standout scene - an utter, miserable failure. When the vampiric, zombie-like infected make their plainly artificial, CGI appearance, any atmosphere and tension the film had managed to build up to that point dissipates in an instant. I cannot even begin to fathom what Lawrence was thinking when he decided to opt for CG (and, as it happens, atrocious CG) to depict the infected - what we have here must have cost ten times as much as dressing up the extras in 28 Days Later, but is not even a tenth as effective. The rushing hordes of pale, leathery-skinned, screaming monstrosities, and the run-and-gun direction the narrative takes, bring nothing to mind so much as the worst moments of the Stephen Sommers Mummy films. Lawrence's direction, which before felt workmanlike and unsubtle, here descends into unabashed action-movie cliche.

The film continues to get worse and worse as it approaches a blatantly tacked-on, ridiculous happy ending that directly contradicts and demolishes everything interesting, unique and affecting in the story. This story has a natural, obvious, dramatically satisfying ending, and it is not the ending we get on screen. Not to mention that (SPOILER) in envisioning a salvation for the human race in the form of a neo-puritanical commune complete with a church bell calling the congregation to mass, it unintentionally manages to create a vision of the future even more terrifying than the annihilation of the human race.

6 comments:

Noel Tanti said...

ha ha... loved your last sentence...

Lara said...

Hekk kont se nghid! Hehe!

magnum said...

I am Legend was panned (and quite rightfully) by some of atheist community's more vocal members on the fact that Will Smiths' character goes in a state of lack of believe in god because of all the horror that happened, before finding salvation by going back to religion...

Oh and you forgot to mention Cloverfield in the list of big budget apocalypse movies (even if this time it's via giant monster). Clearly now is one allowed to destroy New York City landmarks again!

Jean said...

"I am Legend was panned (and quite rightfully) by some of atheist community's more vocal members on the fact that Will Smiths' character goes in a state of lack of believe in god because of all the horror that happened, before finding salvation by going back to religion..."

Bunch o' fuddy-duddies... ;)

Jean said...

Cloverfield looks nice btw...

magnum said...

Jean: Cloverfield IS nice. Potentially nausea inducing, but very interesting.