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Apocalypse Not Quite

Somehow, we made it to the earliest matinee of I Am Legend (dir. Francis Lawrence), which I think was 11:30 a.m. (12:30 CaST). And with the usual caveat that I am not a film reviewer, and these are merely my reactions, not a genuine review, here are my thoughts — behind the cut, because there are major spoilers.



What I saw this afternoon was about 9/10ths of a brilliant film. Which is to say — while in most respects Lawrence's I Am Legend is more genuinely a remake of The Omega Man* (1971, dir. Boris Sagal) than it is an adaptation of Richard Matheson's 1954 novel — it almost manages the the trick of creating a brutally honest and sublimely bleak vision. But at the end, at the very end, it flinches. And it's not a little flinch. It's a gargantuan flinch that in no way follows logically or artistically from the first 9/10ths of the film. In short, it's a cop-out, and I suspect it's a cop-out arising from the belief of the studio that the same huge audience that will be drawn to a Will Smith film about the end of humanity as we know it wouldn't be pleased to discover it really is a film about the end of humanity as we know it. Call me cynical, but I'd wager the studio is right.

What makes commenting on this film so difficult (to me at least), is that right up until that grand flinch at the end, I Am Legend is almost a perfect film. Will Smith, who finally impressed me last year as an actor with non-comedic talent in The Pursuit of Happyness, delivers a superb performance. And this really is one-man's film. It's success or failure is carried on the shoulders of one actor, and Will Smith succeeds completely. Moreover, the film is visually breathtaking, delivering one of the most convincing and arresting visions of a post-human world ever filmed. I Am Legend is, by turns, terrifying, heart-breaking, and utterly stunning. It is almost an Oscar contender.

Except for that flinch at the end. I won't even get into the absurd science required to make the ending work, because I try not to pick on iffy and bad science in otherwise good films. But morally, the ending is a failure, letting down both the film and the film's audience. The ending is, quite simply, a lie, both in its deviation from Matheson's novel and its deviation from the rest of the film and, most importantly, in its propagation of the conceit that no matter what hell mankind visits upon itself and the world, everything will be okay in the end. One moment, we have a tour de force speech from Robert Neville proclaiming that there is no god and no safe haven and no happy ending on the horizon for those who keep The Faith. Half an hour later, the film tries to convince us that, despite this, just the opposite is true. You only have to drive as far as Vermont, where a gated community guarded by soldiers keeps the last humans safe from the Big Bad. The ending is, to be blunt, bullshit.

I am not opposed the apocalyptic films with endings wherein the world is somehow saved, despite the odds against it. For example, I was fine with the ending of Steven Spielberg's War of the Worlds (2005), and, more recently, with the concluding scene of Danny Boyle's triumphant Sunshine. In neither case are the "happy endings" deceits. Considering both the successes and the failed ending of I Am Legend, I am reminded (because I just saw it again Wednesday night) of Carpenter's Starman and the title character's declaration that mankind "is at your best when things are at their worst." That is the message that those first 9/10ths of I Am Legend presents, through the perseverance and compassion of Robert Neville. But it is not a message supported by that scene of Anna and Ethan driving through the autumn splendor of a picturesque New England countryside into the "safe zone."

I still recommend this film, and I still recommend it strongly, because what works here works in spades. But I also recommend that you walk out the moment Neville spots the butterfly tattoo on Anna's neck. Meanwhile, I shall keep my fingers crossed that the DVD release will contain an alternate and more truthful ending.

* It should be noted that the screenwriters of The Omega Man (also an adaptation of Matheson's novel), John William Corrington and Joyce Hooper Corrington, are credited in Lawrence's film.

Comments

( 7 comments — Have your say! )
tanthe
Dec. 14th, 2007 08:46 pm (UTC)
It's a pity they couldn't hold true to the ending of the story. I knew that if they fucked one thing up, that would be the thing, and as always for the Hollywood ending.

The thing I've always loved about Matheson's story was that it was gritty and went through with it to the very end, and didn't deviate from its course to its proper and perfect ending.

Pity the film does.
sclerotic_rings
Dec. 14th, 2007 09:10 pm (UTC)
Thanks for letting me know this. As with you, I don't necessarily have a problem with a happy ending: one of my favorite films is George Romero's Day of the Dead, which ends with an upbeat ending that still leaves a lot of ambiguity as to humanity's fate. It's just that I much prefer endings that leave the audience to wonder what's really happening after the film ends, the way Before Sunrise and Brazil do. As a fan of Matheson's original novel, I may skip out on it in the theaters, but I'll definitely get it on DVD if it has what was probably the authentic filmed ending.
chris_walsh
Dec. 14th, 2007 09:39 pm (UTC)
Parts of the film were reshot, just last month in fact, which cut things insanely close. Don't know exactly what was reshot, but I'd say speculate away. (The director portrays the reshoots as little bits of stuff here and there redone after seeing the finished computer effects. Maybe we'll see if that is so.)

And if I see it, I'll take your advice.
serizawa3000
Dec. 14th, 2007 11:00 pm (UTC)
...
Um... having read the book, and being aware of previous film adaptations (and reading an early screenplay by Mark Protosevich... I think that was the name)... but not yet having seen the movie (I'm still on the fence about it, no thanks to having blundered across a fairly scathing review)...

I know I was concerned when I read that "they aren't vampires" this time around... again. And changing the locale from Los Angeles to New York.

I was also a leetle concerned when I heard that Will Smith was cast... would he have the gravitas?

Truth to tell, I'm most concerned about how they'd handle the stuff with the dog (again, having read the book. And, well, the stuff with the dog is heartbreaking). Little surprised to see that this time around Neville has the dog from the beginning (as opposed to finding one later on and trying to keep it), and from seeing the trailer, apparently the plague or whatever effects dogs (or animals in general?), and... I'll stop.

I just want to know what happens to the dog this time... silly of me, I know...

And I'm guessing there's no Ben Cortman to yell "Come out, Neville!" at inopportune times...?
savage_satyrn
Dec. 18th, 2007 05:32 pm (UTC)
Re: ...
(I actually haven't read the book though I am looking forward to do so soon.) And I totally see what Caitlin is saying, since I figured that the ending had NOTHING to do with anything in the book.
Will Smith was quite amazing and held your emotions on the edge the entire time. I was so impressed by him, I had no idea he could act. (And no, I haven't seen The Pursuit of Happyness yet.)
The dog, the scene with the dog is heartbreaking in the film. I cried. I cried hard. You just have to see it, sorry.
And, haha, no Ben Cortman at all. (Was there in Omega Man? Because in The Last Man on Earth, his name was changed to Robert Morgan. hmmm...)
(Deleted comment)
loosechanj
Dec. 15th, 2007 09:59 pm (UTC)
I just saw it today, and I think it was more faithful to the original novel than Omega Man was. (Seriously, there was no new 'society' or anything.) I agree about the ending, but I didn't think it was *that* bad, I was more disappointed that Anna and the kid weren't day-walking zampires than I was with the mega-happy hollyweird ending.
happyspector
Dec. 16th, 2007 10:39 pm (UTC)
Yeah, basically, you summed it up. What killed the ending for me was this whole "recruitment propaganda" blowjob subtext that's infecting more and more action-adventure these days, and just gave it this feel of "the Big System that fucked humanity in the first place will still provide the heroes who'll shelter you in the end," which I'm sure you'll agree is bullshit. I'd buy that Vermont as the spot for humanity's last stand for survival, but those armed guards at the end would have bloody well been grizzled granite-faced native Vermont paramilitary or some such. In the immortal words of Randal, "Now that would have been an Academy Award-worthy ending!"
( 7 comments — Have your say! )