Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Movie Log: I Am Legend

I've neither read Richard Matheson's original novel nor seen the first two movies made from it, so I came to I Am Legend fresh.

(I also came to the world premiere, which is a bit ironic -- I was a professional genre editor for sixteen years, but the first genre movie premiere I got into was afterwards, and I won that in an Internet contest.)

From a few quick searches, the new I Am Legend movie seems to incorporate some elements from the Charlton Heston movie The Omega Man and to add some very different views of the material all its own (the New York setting, the feral nature of the "darkseekers"). It's not clear what's left of the original Richard Matheson novel, but I expect those who hoped for a close adaptation will be disappointed.

The story is a mixed version of all of its predecessors: Dr. Robert Nevill (Will Smith) was an Army scientist in New York City in 2009, in charge of the effort to contain a miracle cancer cure that went wrong. (The cure was a modified virus, and that virus mutated again, into a lethal airborne form.) The bulk of the movie takes place three years later, with Neville and his dog Sam possibly the last of their kind as uninfected inhabitants of Manhattan island. (Most of those infected with the virus just die, but a few turn into "darkseekers" -- pale, feral humanoids, of limited intelligence and no tool-using ability, apparently organized in packs and instantly burned by sunlight, who immediately attack all non-infected creatures. At least some other mammals -- rats and dogs, notably -- are affected by the disease in the same way, though whitetail deer clearly are not.) Nevill still hopes to find a cure for the virus, and also is broadcasting a message to other potential survivors. Things go on from there, of course.

My first impressions mostly fell into three areas:
  • the first half-hour or so has absolutely gorgeous views of an abandoned New York City; I'm not sure how effective they'll be for people who don't know central Manhattan, but this crowd -- including me -- certainly appreciated it
  • but the movie soon gets very dark and very frightening, full of horror-movie monsters jumping out at high speed, vocalizing and with fangs bared (an older couple immediately in front of me left the first time the "darkseekers" appeared, and others left later)
  • and Will Smith is a very plausible candidate for an Oscar nomination this year; he's not only very good (and in nearly every shot of the movie), but also pushes several of the Academy's known buttons in his role.
Other than that, I don't want to say too much about a movie that hasn't opened yet; it is a gorgeous-looking film from beginning to end, drenched in golden sunlight during the daytime scenes (and, once or twice, even before Neville actually opens his metal shutters) and steeped in inky blackness at night. The light is nearly a character in the movie -- which is good; there aren't many characters to begin with -- and it adds immeasurably to the movie's view of an empty Manhattan.

The action scenes, however, are very hard to follow. The darkseekers move very very quickly, and are obviously in the dark. So it can be exceptionally difficult to see what's actually happening; there are clearly monsters doing things, but what, precisely, isn't always as clear. On the other hand, the darkseekers are reportedly entirely motion-capture CGI, and they've completely believable when they slow down enough to be seen clearly.

(I'll leave criticism of Neville's deer-hunting techniques to the experts -- such as my former colleague the "Deer Doctor," Peter Fiduccia -- but I must say chasing them in a Mustang isn't a strategy I've seen before.)

The bottom line: it's much better than I expected, in any number of ways. It's still in large part an action-horror movie, with all the requirements of that genre, but it does have its more thoughtful moments as well. If you don't mind ugly screechy things jumping out of the darkness at regular intervals, you'll probably enjoy I Am Legend.

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