Sunday, January 06, 2008

I Am Legend

In I AM LEGEND, Will Smith joins the ranks of Vincent Price (in 1964's THE LAST MAN ON EARTH) and Charlton Heston (in 1971's OMEGA MAN) as the star of an adaptation of Richard Matheson's 1954 novel of the same name. Often surprising in its focus on loneliness and loss, this thoughtful, eerie, and restrained sci-fi horror film provides a parade of startling visuals, but never allows special effects to overcome the human element. Smith, in a strong performance very different from his usual persona, is Robert Neville, the lone survivor in a New York City where streets are overgrown and deer gambol among deserted automobiles. Following an epidemic, the Earth's population has been turned into an army of nocturnal zombies. Immune to the virus, military scientist Neville searches for a cure in his Washington Square townhouse. Haunted by visions of his family leaving quarantined Manhattan two years prior, he drives through the city with his German Shepherd, Sam, by day and barricades his home from the monsters nightly. But when Anna (Alice Braga)--another immune stranger-finds him, they will have to fight the onslaught twice as hard.

This movie rocks. I was very impressed with the movie, even though the connection to it's source material (the 1954 novella) is, at best, tenuous. Having recently seen several radically 'updated' adaptations of books and stories, I was very much prepared to see a completely new story loosely based on the original work, which allowed me to appreciate this movie as a separate entity - and appreciate it, I did. Will Smith is exceptional in his portrayal of a man who has quite literally lost everything and struggles daily with loss, guilt and loneliness; kept sane only by sheer drive, routine and his dog. The first half of the film is pretty much Will on his own forging a sympathetic emotional bond with the audience that greatly succeeds in conveying the scope of the Neville character's situation and motivation. I could have easily spent additional time exploring the isolated aspect of Neville's life. The second half if the film is where the intensity picks up and the story truly diverges from the book but, again, that's not really a terrible thing since the tale told is fast paced and never falls into the philosophical trap that could have so easily taken over the rest of the film.

This is a movie designed to appeal to the broadest audience possible without insulting the small p
ercentage who are familiar with books and might actually own one or two. There are several instances involving the 'infected' that really made me stop and wonder about their 'evolution' and, to me, these instances screamed for more exploration but the movie proceeded on, leaving those moments in my mind like afterimages of the sun on my retinas. It's been a couple of weeks since I've seen this film and, yet, I still think of those moments more than any other part of the story. If it was the intent of the filmmakers to leave the audience with those lingering questions rather than simply running short of time and explanation, then all I can say is: Well done.

If you do see this movie and enjoy it, I highly recommend reading a copy of the original novella by Richard Matheson. The book is roughly 150 pages and could easily be read in a couple of days and would give you the true ironic meaning to the title. The novella is concise and well thought, like most of Matheson's work. In fact, most people are probably more familiar with Matheson's work than they realize. Matheson wrote the novel The Shrinking Man which was made into the classic 50's film The Incredible Shrinking Man, he also wrote several episodes of the orignal Twilight Zone series including the famous Nightmare at 20,000 Feet staring William Shatner. And speaking of Shatner, Matheson also wrote the episode The Enemy Within from the original Star Trek series (season 1) where Kirk, because of a transporter accident, is split into two people - one evil and one good. Also written by Matehson, I'll mention Duel - a 70's television movie starring Dennis Weaver and directed by an upcoming director named Steven Spielberg (recently released on DVD), and, one of my favorites, the original television movie The Night Stalker staring Darren McGavin as Carl Kolchak, which went on to become a short lived series and the primary influence behind Chris Carter's The X-Files.

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