Friday, December 14, 2007

Tarnished Legend

Lost City readers will appreciate the opening sequences of I Am Legend, which Warner Bros. opens today. The film details life in a New York City shorn of its citizens, leaving only the buildings standing in a Manhattan rendered as a concrete grassland, where uncaged zoo lions stalk herds of deer that bound around Midtown. The last man standing in 2012 (thanks to a cancer cure virus inadvertently unleashed by cameoing experimenter Emma Thompson) is military scientist Robert Neville (Will Smith) who, faithful dog in tow, zips around the streets in search of venison of his own--and, sometimes, vampiric members of "the infected," whose rabidly dangerous bodies he injects with his own immune blood, in hopes of curing the disease that claimed most human life three years earlier.

Two prior versions of Richard Matheson's novel have made it to the screen. I've seen 1971's The Omega Man once or twice--its screenplay was the basis of this new one--but outside of star Charlton Heston pining for the past while watching Woodstock, a black-cowled Anthony Zerbe as the cult-like leader of the dead-ish, and an albino Rosalind Cash an in-betweener not much stands out (I recall it taking place in L.A., which typically betrays little sign of human life outside of the people driving cars). A much greater impression was seared into my moviegoing memory by the first one, 1964's The Last Man on Earth, with Vincent Price barricaded in his house at night as hordes of the shuffling dead feebly seek access (Calling his name: "Morgan!" "Come out, Morgan!")--it scared my sister half to death, and the creepy, black-and-white ambiance, reinforced by its taking place in a not-quite-America forged from the backlots of Italy where it was shot, burrows under the skin and stays there.

Last Man has an unforgettable flashback to Price searching a ghastly funeral pyre for his little girl as the contagion spreads. This new one being an impersonal, crowd-pleasing, A-list/PG-13 studio project, it ties our stomach up in knots over the fate of the dog while barely raising the hackles over the fate of mankind. A certain scale and perspective is missing, not that director Francis Lawrence, of the bum supernatural shocker Constantine, or writer-co-producer Akiva Goldsman, of Smith's hackwork version of I, Robot, could have been expected to provide it. The goal is to pile on the wow factor moments that move the merchandise through multiplexes, and they have done with reasonable sobriety, outside of a few too many jump-out-the-seat sound effects accompanying the nightly ravages of the near-dead. (The uber-personable Smith goes easy on the strutting this time, though those inoculated against his charm still may cringe at the fortunately fleeting "showbiz" moments he has here.)

About those infected: Like similar ghouls in the Dawn of the Dead remake and the quirkier, superior 28 Days Later pictures, they gallop after their prey, and don't have much to say. These also roar like jungle cats, which doesn't make a lot of sense given clearly failing lung power. The big difference, though, is that are almost entirely CGI creations, and as such come across as insubstantial. Once characterized, and personalized, by Andy Serkis, Gollum and King Kong could be run through the computer to assume their corporeal form onscreen. These creatures, with their bad attitudes and super strength, come straight from the workstation and ten other movies and not from someone's dark and imaginative heart. After their first "boo" moments they lack palpable menace, like aggressors in a videogame played once too often.

(The digitalization of the cityscape is more apt, but inexact. The TKTS booth scheduled for next year is open on Duffy Square in the film, but surrounded by billboards of the long-closed Broadway shows The Producers and Lestat, indicating that the data was dumped into the computer a year or so ago. How Lestat and Legally Blonde, whose billboard is also glimpsed, could play the Palace at the same time is a mystery greater than the virus. And if Neville is watching episodes of the Today show from 2009, before life got tougher, why is Katie Couric still on the program--or are the scripters somehow clairvoyant about her future prospects? Don't get me wrong, I dug the trompe l'oeil, but someone in research should have been swifter on the draw.)

In Last Man, the infected, who as in The Omega Man are sentient (but not as verbose) know exactly where the Price character lives, and give him grief every night. A plot point here is that they don't know Smith's well-fortified Washington Square address, which he leaves every day to see if his radio broadcasts, urging fellow humans to meet him at the Fulton pier, have attracted company. Late in the story he is joined by a pious, "Christian" without being too religious woman (Alice Braga) and the little boy she is taking to presumed refuge, in a commune in Vermont (natch). Why does Neville never leave the city in the daytime to more proactively find others if the infected (whom pious woman calls, with fake profundity, the "dark-seekers") don't know where he is in the first place? And why does Neville's final...well, you may know how the story ends from the prior films, but his gesture toward the rebooting of humanity seems poorly motivated and ill-considered here.

Maybe it comes down to this: A future that looks centered around churches just isn't as exciting as riding shotgun in the canyons of New York.

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