Monday, December 24, 2007

I Am Legend / *** (PG-13)

Robert Neville: Will Smith

Warner Bros. presents a film directed by Francis Lawrence. Written by Mark Protosevich and Akiva Goldsman, based on the novel by Richard Matheson and the 1971 screenplay “The Omega Man” by John William Corrington and Joyce Corrington. Running time: 101 min. Rated PG-13 (for intense sequences of sci-fi action violence).

I remember watching Will Smith in his first big screen starring role. The movie was called “Six Degrees of Separation” and told the true story of a man who conned his way into New York high society by claiming to be the son of Sydney Poitier. It starred such accomplished actors as Stockard Channing, Donald Sutherland and Ian Mckellen, was directed by the great Fred Schepisi and written by renowned playwright John Gaure from his award-winning Broadway play. The character piece was a departure for Smith, who was still making his popular “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” television sit com and was known as a hip hop artist. Although the movie was well handled by the veteran filmmakers, its weak point was Smith’s performance which lacked the deeper inner workings of the more accomplished performers. Few could have guessed at that time what a powerful actor Smith would become. It seems every time he makes a movie he raises the bar a little bit higher. With “I Am Legend”, he has leapt to a height little reached by others in his trade.

In a virtually solo performance, Smith plays Dr. Robert Neville, the sole survivor of a world wide holocaust. Neville wanders a deserted Manhattan hunting and scavenging supplies with his only companion, his dog Sam. Sam is lovingly portrayed by a German Shepherd named Abby, but I think Smith deserves a great deal of credit for carrying her performance as well. Neville has “conversations” with the dog to hold on to his humanity.

If the images of a Manhattan that is beginning to succumb to three years of vegetation growth is not disturbing enough, it is clear that Neville and Sam have many things in this humanless world to fear. Despite the obvious skill with weaponry Neville displays by hunting caribou through the streets of the decimated Big Apple in a sports car, he won’t go into any dark places. He has alarms and elaborate security set up in his apartment compound that are set to keep him locked in from sunset to do sunrise.

Director Francis Lawrence (“Constantine”) and screenwriters Mark Protosevich (“The Cell”) and Akiva Goldsman (“A Beautiful Mind”) do a good job structuring the story so you are given just enough information to make it clear what Neville’s goals are and keep you guessing about his motivations. The action is set three years after a mutating virus first sets in on the human race turning most people into savages with little resemblance of their humanity. Some, like Neville, were immune to the virus, but were killed off by those infected. Through a series of personal flashbacks, Neville shows us the beginnings of the outbreak and what happened to his own family. He had been a military scientist charged with finding a cure. He chose to stay at ground zero to continue his work. Reversing the effects of the virus is his only purpose left.

There is a second wonderful performance in the movie provided by Emma Thompson (“Nanny McFee”). It is perhaps the most nuanced performance I’ve ever seen in an uncredited cameo. She opens the film as a doctor being interviewed on television for having discovered a cure for cancer. Her characters uneasy nature portends the dark developments to come.

I should not ignore some other performances that figure into the ultimate outcome of the plot. Brazilian actress Alice Braga provides a saving grace for Neville late in the film as Anna along with her son Ethan (Charlie Tahan). The filmmakers were wise to realize she could not have affected Neville without the boy. And Dash Mihok (“The Day After Tomorrow”) provides the threatening actions of the alpha male of the infected, who proves cleverer than Neville anticipates. It is a shame, however, that Lawrence felt the need to digitally enhance the infected mutants instead of relying on old fashioned make-up application. The digitally rendered infected have a rubbery, unrealistic appearance that destroys some of the illusion.

Some have criticized the film’s ending and its emphasis on faith and spirituality. Perhaps this is just backlash from the undue criticism of the recent release of “The Golden Compass” for its alleged anti-religious themes. But the filmmakers do a good job supporting their faith-based themes by presenting them simply and not providing extraneous or overwrought examples. Many of the plot’s details are flawed, such as Neville’s resources for power and gas, but other details support the story’s conclusion. Every character has a purpose, which may explain why there are so few. The characters are not aware of their purpose. God provides the materials for salvation, but the characters must provide their own means. As someone who espouses no definitive religious allegiances, I could see this story fitting in with any of the Bible and many other theological allegories.

But above any religious connotations or technical quibbles “I Am Legend” is a wonderful vehicle for the acting talent of Will Smith. This is Smith’s movie, and it contains everything that has made him one of the most respected and popular Hollywood stars. It is sci-fi allegory. It is action packed and thrilling. It is high drama. It is great legend, and Will Smith rises to legendary status for it.


Alan Bacchus said...

Smart and brave Academy voters should give Will Smith an Oscar nomination. It's a longshot, but there is a chance.

Andrew D. Wells said...

True dat!