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Non-Review Review: I Am Legend

I Am Legend was always going to be a tough film to adapt, so it’s a surprise that it works as well as it does for as long as it does. Anchored in a fantastic lead performance, the film manages to be a very subtle, thoughtful and occasionally insightful action movie for the first two-thirds of its runtime. The ending falls down a bit, but it’s an enjoyable journey getting there.

It's a jungle out there...

It's a jungle out there...

The main appeal of I Am Legend is its lead actor. Will Smith is always a charismatic talent and is generally a joy to watch. As virtually the only human actor on screen for most the film’s run time (barring flashbacks and a prologue), Smith has to keep us interested and entertained through minimal use of dialogue. His Robert Neville is a fantastic creation – alone, isolated, arrogant – and Smith grants him a humanity that anchors us throughout the film.

Of course, the film provides a truly astonishing look at post-apocalyptic New York. Weeds are growing, the wildlife roams free, even the smallest sound echoes through streets filled with deserted cars. These sequences are fantasticly eerie and accurately convey what a truly abandoned city might look like. There are some lovely moments – Neville playing golf from an aircraft carrier (and improving), hunting food through Times Square, or a confrontation outside a derelict Grand Central Station. In a way, New York becomes as much a character as Neville, deeply scarred and abandoned.

The opening two-thirds smartly focus on these two elements (and the really sweet relationship between Neville and his only companion – his daughter’s puppy) and are the better for it. The third act falls down in seeking to slap an ending on the movie which jars with what we’ve seen before. I’m not suggesting that the ending of the book would suit the film any more – the film is its own animal, for better or worse – but they film seems intent to offer a particular kind of ending that jars with the mood the movie established so well for the first two-thirds.

There are some themes I’m particularly uncomfortably with, in that they don’t seem to fit the tone or mood of the picture. For a film fixated on science, fate and destiny and spirituality are uncomfortably melded on in the third act. There are some very clever ideas here (admittedly borrowed from the book), but they are not really developed. this is particularly true of the creatures that lurk in the darkness. The alternate ending does explore this a bit more, but cramming the development into the last ten minuts runs the risk of making the point so blunt as to blugeon us with it.

It’s worth acknowledging that the CGI is a bit ropey in places. For all the skill in the way the film presents us with a stunningly realistic abandoned metropolis, the creatures that inhabit it (animal and… well, less human) stand out as pixel-based creations. The non-humans in particular seem dodgy, like low-rent Gollums – and this seems particular problematic given one imagines most scenes could have been easily adjusted to feature actual actors. Still it’s a minor complaint, and one of the few of substance.

Ultimately the film relies on its stunning sense of loneliness and a fantastic central performance from a charismatic actor. When the movie sacrifices these two core concepts and dillutes them in order to offer a climax and conclusion, it loses two of its strongest features. The result is a very good film with a very weak ending.

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I Am Legend is directed by Francis Lawrence (Constantine) and stars Will Smith (The Pursuit of Happyness, Independence Day), with a cameo from Emma Thompson (Stranger Than Fiction, Much Ado About Nothing). It was released in the United States on the 14th December 2007 and was released in the UK and Ireland on St. Stephen’s Day.

3 Responses

  1. In my opinion, “Hancock” and “I Am Legend” have one major similarity: They feel like two different movies. The first part of “I Am Legend” is a pretty thoughtful meditation on the nature of loneliness and isolation. Then the vampires — who strike me as fairly unscary CGI-wise — show up and it becomes an action film. I like action films and thought-provokers as much as the next person, but the two parts don’t seem to fit together very well (the same was true for “Hancock”).

    M. Carter at the Movies
    http://mcarteratthemovies.wordpress.com/

  2. […] Nick Frost (Hot Fuzz, Shaun of the Dead), Kenneth Branagh (Hamlet, Frankenstein), Emma Thompson (I Am Legend, Much Ado About Nothing), Gemma Arterton (Quantum of Solice, St. Trinian’s) and Rhys Ifans […]

  3. […] aren’t the only major threat that humanity faces, however. I Am Legend hammered home the threat of unchecked scientific progress with a backfiring cancer vaccine (damn […]

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