Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Review: I am legend (caution: spoiler warning)

Went to see I Am Legend tonight, the story of a wise cracking military scientist (Will Smith) trying to save a world that's already been lost. It certainly gets an A for effort, but I thought it sadly fell short when it came to originality, plot or a general scare-the-bejeezusness that this kind of film should specialise in.

Based on the classic Charlton Heston film Omega Man (and drawing heavily on 28 days later) 'Legend' follows Robert Neville (Smith) who appears to be the sole New York survivor of a man made infection which swept through the city three years earlier. By day he wanders the empty streets, stocking up on supplies and exploring the city. By night he locks himself into his fortified apartment and works on a cure based on the immunity in his own blood.

Whilst 28 Days captures a stillness and emptiness of a deserted city I rather liked the overgrown animal filled streets of 'Legend' even if they were not quite as emotionally intense. In fact the film feels very close to 28 days in that we have an essentially empty city with pockets of ravaged infected creatures hell bent on murder. But Legend fails to create the saliva flecked rage of all too human assailants and replaces them with obvious CGI shells who feel lightweight and plastic. This fact contributes to the way that at key moments of danger it's far less "heart in your mouth" in favour of "head in your hands".

Phil has some very perceptive things to say about the film's views on gender and it's well worth checking out his review, not least because I'm not entirely in agreement and intend (tomorrow) to put my contrarian opinion to him in the comments box where a discussion has already started to ensue.

Whilst Phil comments are, in my view, highly penetrating I think it draws our attention away from two central, essentially ungendered, threads in the film. First the infected themselves. In Omega Man the infected had a warped society, social structure and had a twisted but sophisticated understanding of the world.

Heston was hated by the infected as a "user of the wheel", someone who believed science and learning were to be valued. They had an ideological opposition to him, burning books and making ranting speeches to justify their revulsion. In Legend the infected are *almost* direct rip offs from 28 days later. There are, of course, hints at the human ancestry of the creatures but they remain essentially a motiveless stage army without a voice, a symbol of America's fear of an anarchic, unchecked world it doesn't understand.

The infected here are a "hive" with a single leader who wordlessly (psychically?) commands his bile filled cannon fodder who are happy to die for the opportunity to take a swipe at Smith. I think this is a wasted opportunity. If more had been made of those hints that do lie within the film we could have developed, even in passing, an understanding that far from being empty CGI zombies these were human beings sick with a ferocious virus but still capable of some semblance of thought.

This thread is a conservative one - but related, in my view, to both a fear of society's collapse and an incomprehension of those who are discontented (whether this is at home or abroad). Omega Man made the effort to understand those it opposed, Legend simply mows them down in their hundreds. casual in its disregard for the lives of the infected.

The second thread I think we need to look at is the religious framework that binds the film together. In Heston's film it's the infected who oppose science, in Smith's I'd say it is the film makers themselves. First of all it is scientific progress which brings us to the Apocalypse and whilst Smith's work is ultimately successful it is only through the agency of God's representative on Earth, Anna, that he is able to reach this opportunity for redemption.

Secondly it is with the introduction of Anna that we really start to understand what a misaligned and screwed up individual Smith is - and we are asked (rather subtly) to link this mental confusion with his atheism and the state of grace Smith ultimately reaches with his new understanding that God did indeed send Anna to him "for a reason".

Anna says she is heading for a colony of survivors in Vermont. Smith is sceptical and asks how she knows that this colony exists. "God told me." Smith is incredulous (as you might be) and reiterates that she has no evidence. She agrees, but is filled with a moral certainty that this is where safety is to be found. Whilst I'm sure many Daily (Maybe) readers will be thankful Anna has never served as a map reader for them on a long car journey in the film it is her faith that is vindicated and Smith's doubt which is suicidal.

In fact Anna's character is bound up with her Christianity from the moment we see her (the shining crucifix dazzling the semi-conscious Smith as he is rescued by his guardian angel) to her final scene where she reaches the promised land. And what a promised land it is - filled with sunshine, an iconic whitewashed church and surrounded by high walls and marines. If that doesn't symbolise the conservative view of a US utopia I don't know what could.

Despite the reactionary subtext to the film it's still watchable and has a number of good points. From the skillful use of a minimalist soundtrack (unlike the clunky Golden Compass) to the excellent performances by Smith and Emma Thompson (in a small but excellent vignette) Legend is a perfectly paced film which reveals its plot in an intelligent and coherent manner.

My main source of disappointment is simply that when a film with the potential to challenge and explore squanders the many talents that went into its production when it slips into cliche, thoughtlessly rehashing very recent films and shies away from even acknowledging that those who oppose "us" are more than mere monsters.

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