Letter From The Editor - Issue 59 - October 2017

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Writing Fantasy

  
At The Picture Show
December 2007

I am Jack's unsatisfying ending

After effective start, 'Legend' rushes to ill-timed climax

I Am Legend
Warner Bros. Pictures
Director: Francis Lawrence
Screenplay: Mark Protosevich and Akiva Goldsman, based on the novel by Richard Matheson
Starring: Will Smith, Alice Braga, Charlie Tahan, Salli Richardson and Willow Smith
Rated PG-13 / 1 hour, 41 minutes
Opened December 14, 2007
(out of four)

I Am Legend is like two-thirds of a good movie. Don't misunderstand: I don't mean the first two acts are good and the third act tails off - that's common enough.

What I mean is, the first two acts are good and then the movie ends. The third act is practically nonexistent, featuring a conclusion contracted into about five minutes. What happens or doesn't happen is not the problem - I can go with the ideas of the ending. Except that they are never explored or set up in any detail, so the "climax" (if that's what you want to call it) comes across as abruptness of the worst kind.

It's the kind of payoff that is intended to wrap things up both dramatically and thematically, but only manages to make us feel cheated. In particular, the eventual fate of the two characters that enter the story two-thirds of the way through must matter in order for the final scene to work, and it doesn't. As the camera zooms out and narration explains what has happened, we can only ask, "And?"

Which is a shame because the movie prior to the last five minutes is a great set-up, but ends up being a set-up for nothing. I have no comparison to work with, having not read the book nor seen the first two adaptations, 1964's The Last Man on Earth and 1971's The Omega Man.

It's just as well. I Am Legend develops smoothly enough that the story - and the main (and for a long time, only) character - speaks for itself.

We open with the foreboding optimism of a doctor (Emma Thompson, in a surprise cameo) who has seemingly developed a cure for cancer. Without delving into too much needless exposition, the film cuts back and forth between the present - in which nearly all human life has been wiped out, leaving military scientist Robert Neville (Will Smith) as a sole survivor in New York City - and a few years earlier, when the supposed miracle drug has instead had catastrophic consequences on all of humanity.

Those who come in contact with the virus caused by the drug begin to exhibit signs of rabies, and turn into what we would recognize as zombies, crawling the streets at night preying on humans and animals. They're most similar to the Rage-infected "zombies" (a term refuted in context by zombie purists, and yes there is such a thing) from 28 Days Later . . ., running in packs with alarming speed and strength.

Still convinced that hope is not lost somehow, that he can still reverse the effects of the drug, Robert captures one of them from time to time in order to test new drugs on them. As of yet, nothing has worked.

Like Tom Hanks in Cast Away, Will Smith has to spend most of the film in isolation, accompanied only by his dog and the various mannequins he's set up around the city as pseudo-human comforts. There's something poignant in the way the character goes about his meticulously-planned day. He has the whole city to himself, of course, but he doesn't treat it that way. He still goes to the video store and "checks out" a new DVD every day. He carries on conversations with his fellow "customers" (the mannequins, all of whom have names, of course) - even a shy flirtation with a particularly alluring brunette.

It's all just to keep himself sane. To provide some sense of normalcy to an otherwise unbearable existence. We get snapshots of his past life - his wife, his child, his career, all the chaos that surrounds a quarantined New York as the virus has spun out of control.

Despite some poor CGI work (I'm getting really sick of saying that, but too many filmmakers seem satisfied with mediocre special effects), director Francis Lawrence (Constantine) creates a compelling sense of urgent isolation, which in reality isn't an easy trick under the circumstances.

Aside from a few pure suspense sequences, most of the first hour or so consists of the tedious day-to-day of Robert's life. Lawrence and Smith manage to focus in on Robert's unspoken anguish and create an eerie atmospheric presence. That feeling remains consistent nearly throughout - only when the story is rushed to its conclusion does the film get stripped of nearly all its energy.

Read more by Chris Bellamy


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