New Line, the studio behind the supposed box office epic The Golden Compass, must be scratching their heads. After all, only a week after their movie flopped with a resounding thud, Will Smith came along and proved why he is the box office king. His I Am Legend, a movie in which he stars almost unilaterally, opened to the biggest box office weekend in the history of Decembers, topping even The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King. Unlike The Golden Compass, anticipation was there... but where there's hype, there can be disappointment, and some fans have experienced such an emotion this holiday season.
However, I liked the movie. I Am Legend is not perfect, and there are a few times where you, like New Line, are left scratching your head wondering why director Francis Lawrence did one thing instead of another, but the movie exceeds expectations if you go into it expecting a mindless popcorn movie. Let's cover the good before we get to the bad...
To begin, the entire first half of the movie is incredible. Strangely, several audience members have complained that the first half is too slow and boring, but I don't know what they were watching. Lawrence and his crew have created a truly visual experience as he guides the camera through a devastated and utterly deserted New York City. Nature has taken over, and the visual effects team need to be congratulated for the background visuals; same goes to the sound team for relaying to the audience the eerie silence that no one would ever expect to hear in the Big Apple. The first half of I Am Legend is crushingly depressing at times, as Smith goes about his work and you wonder what it would be like to feel as though you were really alone.
Aside from the impact of the visuals and mood of the first half, there is nothing boring about it. Even though there is little true action in the beginning, Lawrence maintains an extreme level of tension throughout, as if at any time one of the mutated humans - which are pretty much a mix of zombies (they're infected and mindlessly love to feed off human flesh) and vampires (their skin burns in the light, and as such they only come out at night) - could jump out of nowhere. There really are some nail-biting moments, and since much of the movie is rather silent, you know that a loud, sudden moment is going to send you out of your seat.
Many people have compared I Am Legend to a sci-fi version of Cast Away, and that's not that far from the truth. Will Smith has to do what Tom Hanks did, which in itself is the near impossible: he has to develop his character when he has absolutely no one to talk to. And thankfully, Smith chose this movie to deliver his best performance since Ali. Smith is absolutely terrific, and I can't think of too many other actors able to pull this off. Smith delivers a mix of his trademark humor (he talks to his loyal dog, the zombies and even a bunch of mannequins he has set up around the town) and lonely seriousness, with hints of psychological breakdown as the movie progresses.
Now, for the not so good stuff...
The zompires (read: zombies + vampires = zompires) just aren't good enough. In fact, most of the animated special effects just aren't very good at all. While the scenery is breathtaking, little money or thought seems to have been put into I Am Legend's creatures, which not only include mutated humans but also deer and lions. I have a big problem when movies try to turn "infected" humans into monsters and give them extraordinary abilities that are just impossible. I Am Legend is meant to be a serious sci-fi film, but the zompires look like a mix of the robots in I, Robot and something out of The Mummy. While the zompires don't look nearly as bad as they did in the previews, they move exactly like the robots in I, Robot and do things that no human - mutated or not - could do. They climb sides of buildings, hang from ceilings and more, but nothing about the infection indicates that their bodies are transforming into monkeys. Furthermore, how the hell do their jaws stretch that far?
This may be picky, but if the physical threat in a movie doesn't look or act real, it's hard to get into a picture. After a tense first half, when the creatures finally become a constant threat, the excitement level drops. A LOT. Aside from being allergic to sunlight, these zompires are essentially zombies, and when there have been so many good zombie movies lately with real actors as the creatures (think of 28 Weeks Later and Dawn of the Dead), it doesn't make any sense why Lawrence would opt for CGI creatures. After all, dressing up people as zombies (even if you want them to look different than your ordinary zombie) is a lot less expensive and a lot more realistic.
I haven't read the Richard Matheson book or watched any of the previous film adaptations, so I realize that some plot points I have issue with may be written in stone, but I'm going to give my opinion as if there are no previous iterations of the story. So, my second issue with the movie is the final act, and I'm just going to be direct: I didn't like the woman, and I didn't like it that Will Smith dies at the end. The woman (Alice Braga) shows up at the end and does absolutely nothing useful, and even manages to spit out some silly religious rhetoric. The movie ends with her surviving, but why should we care about this useless piece of screen space? Furthermore, I am perfectly fine with the lead character dying in dramas, but when it's a popcorn movie, it's hard to pull off the death of the only interesting character. Had his death been useful in some way - or had Lawrence taken the more depressing route and essentially implied that the death of Smith meant the death of humanity - it might of worked, but as is, I was not very impressed.
The ending in general isn't very good, either. After nearly an hour and forty five minutes of not much happening, Lawrence seems to have grown bored and slapped an action-packed finale onto his picture. The result is a rushed sequence with no build-up or intriguing conclusion, and a bitter taste while leaving the theater.
Overall, I Am Legend is a well done movie and a much better one than what critics and general audiences have indicated, but it is hard to get past the CGI zompires and the rather chaotic ending.
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.
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