Tuesday, January 8, 2008


Emma Thompson destroys the world.
I love it, I love it, I love it! She may have missed out on playing God in Kevin Smith’s Dogma, but boy, she can really bring down the house, can’t she?
In an all-too-brief (and uncredited) cameo, Thompson plays Dr. Alice Krippin, who, in engineering a viral cure for cancer, turns those poor souls unlucky enough not to be Will Smith, into hyper-active, sunlight-fearing CGI constructs.
All this Hollywood insanity can be found in Francis Lawrence’s big budget take on Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend (by way of the script for the 1971 Charlton Heston-starrer, The Omega Man).

For this latest re-do, megastar Smith is Robert Neville, the last uninfected man in New York. Roaming the overgrown, deserted streets by day with his trusty dog Sam—he’s completely immune to the Krippin Virus, while Sam, like all canines, is immune to the airborne strain—holed up in his nice, well-stocked (and fortified) digs by night, Neville continues to try to find a cure for the virus, some three years after the original outbreak.
Thus, for the most part, I Am Legend asks us to spend about an hour and a half watching Smith do his thing. Fortunately, Smith is an A-lister who can actually act, so that part of the equation is dandy.
Smith’s Neville is likeable enough, his rapport with Sam easy and amiable. Soon though, the cracks begin to show, as, realistically, given his situation, Neville really isn’t all there anymore. It’s interesting to watch him go from a subdued version of his usual Will Smith cinema persona, to a slightly crazed semi-loon complete with mini-meltdowns (the one involving Shrek is probably the most disturbing).
So, given that this is nearly a one-man show, Smith effectively carries his own weight. The script meanwhile—which is based on the ’71 adaptation—by Mark Protosevich (The Cell and the upcoming Thor) and Akiva Goldsman (who may have won an Oscar for A Beautiful Mind, but will always be remembered by yours truly as the man responsible for inflicting the script of Batman & Robin upon my delicate sensibilities), smoothly gives Smith leeway to play action hero, obsessed scientist, haunted father, and borderline nutcase, and the man doesn’t miss a beat.
But, like Robert Zemeckis’ Beowulf, the problem isn’t so much in the script (though the third act developments may prove a tad too Hollywood for some) as it is in the pixels.

For some reason, director Lawrence chose to forego the use of human actors to play the KV-infected because he wasn’t quite getting what he was looking for in their performances. What that was, I’m not exactly sure: an air of gross artificiality?
The CGI bits are dodgy, and quite frankly, terribly distracting. As a result, you have a film that has some genuinely moving emotional scenes (notably, Neville’s regular midday idylls), but which falls hard and flat when it comes to the sequences that are supposed to be thrilling and tense.
Actually, the only effective thrill sequence comes when Sam inadvertently chases a deer into a dark, apparently abandoned building, and we catch our first glimpses of the infected. The build up, as Neville desperately tries to find the dog without waking the slumbering occupants, is taut, a well-constructed tension that snaps into so many brittle shards when the CGI monsters wake up and give chase.
The things look patently fake, so, knowing that Smith is out there running from and struggling with a bunch of pixels kind of bursts the bubble, you know? (The fact that Dash Mihok—who recently appeared in Pushing Daisies’ “Pigeon” episode—gets third billing as the “Alpha Male,” is truly odd, considering he’s not recognizable beneath the computer-generated, mo-cap sheen, and the performance doesn’t strike me as one that reaches an Andy Serkis-level.)

It’s sad since I Am Legend could have been a legitimate Hollywood portrait of a viral apocalypse, instead of the hobbled, compromised creature that it is.
Anyone looking for white-knuckle, viral apocalypse thrills would do well to look towards the 28 Days/Weeks Later area of zombie cinema. I Am Legend, while certainly better than Lawrence’s previous effort, the lamentable Constantine, may have a beating heart, but it clearly lacks any real, organic teeth to make it a formidable and threatening cinematic construct.*

* Of course, given that I Am Legend has made, at the time of this review’s writing, a staggering US total of $228 million in just 4 weeks of release (that puts it at # 6 on the US Top Ten Films released in 2007, having just edged out The Bourne Ultimatum by a measly million; it’s also raking in the moolah across the globe—as of January 1, it already had a cumulative gross of $126 million, from 25 markets), shows that the film has found an audience, so what do I know?

Parting shot: Reviews of 28 Weeks Later, Beowulf, and Constantine, as well as episodic recaps of Pushing Daisies, can be found in the Archive.

(I Am Legend OS courtesy of wildaboutmovies.com.)

No comments: