Wherein I Fix “I Am Legend”

January 2, 2008 at 10:01 pm Leave a comment

Spoiler Alert

I like to think (even though it’s not true) that this blog serves as something of a public service. I see things or read things and then let people know about them, and what should be done about it.

It is in this spirit that I offer you “The Proper Way to View I Am Legend

Step One
-Purchase your ticket at the theatre
Step Two
-Watch the movie
Step Three
-About 2/3 of the way through there will be a scene in which Will Smith’s character goes on a suicide run. Wait until this scene is nearly over, then immediately exit the theater.

If you follow these steps, you will have seen an excellent movie.

The real tragedy of “I Am Legend” is that it’s one of the best movies I’ve seen all year… up until the last 45 minutes, when it goes completely off the rails.

The majority of the movie follows Will Smith as Robert Neville as he tools around a post-apocalyptic New York with his dog. It turns out a cancer cure has mutated into a terrible disease that turns people into kinda-not-really-zombies, and Will Smith was just badass enough to be the last man alive.

The movie is, for the most part, a look into Neville’s life; hunting deer from a sports car, scavenging for supplies, and looking for a cure to zombiism. It quickly becomes clear he’s been on his own for over three years, and his mental state has seriously degraded (among other things, Neville sets up mannequins around the city to serve as companionship).

At night, the creatures come out. The CGI on them isn’t that great, and they’re much better when they’re not directly shown; their first “appearance”, in a darkened building, is fantastically creepy. Their appearances in giant action scenes are much less so (not coincidentally, these scenes mainly occur near the end of the movie, which isn’t very good).

There’s a lot of things that make this part of the film great, including some fantastic cinematography, but the main draw is Will Smith’s incredible acting. He’s better here than anything I’ve seen him in before (in fact, his acting is much better than I previously believed it could be). His portrayal of a man with nothing left, slowly going insane, is incredible moving. And yet, he’s still a badass (the most emotional scene in the film involves him choking something to death with his bare hands).

So, what’s the problem then? The last 45 minutes introduces two other survivors, and the film immediately goes off the rails. Smith’s performance prior to this has been so good that the addition of others only detracts from it. Their presence marks the films sudden change to “dumb action movie”. And for no particular reason, the whole thing becomes about religion.

At least when Signs did it, it made sense; Mel Gibson’s character was established early on to be a preacher struggling with his faith, so a religious ending is an appropriate conclusion. But with “I Am Legend”, the theme comes entirely out of the blue in the last act. It’s terrible writing; after an hour and a half with no real mention of religion, it suddenly dominates the film.

And of course, there’s the whole “Science has damned us; religion is the answer to our problems!” tone of the thing which I do not appreciate at all.

So, what happened? Why does the movie go from intelligent, subtle character-study to stupid action film with a random religious moral? Who is to blame for this?

…it’s hard to say for sure, but I think the problem is with audiences.

In Hollywood, it’s a common practice to test screen movies to get audience opinions. The movie is then changed to make it appeal to a wider audience, based on these tests. Often movies will be written and shot to try and appeal to test audiences from the get-go.

Audiences are fucking idiots. Allow me to quote some choice comments about the movie I’ve retrieved from the internet.

“why did Neville fall for his own trap?”
The zombies set the trap, you idiot.

In response to a scene where Neville finds piles of money: “Man, I would be grabbin’ all that cash”
Yeah, money is going to do you a lot of good as the last man alive, you jackass.

“I didnt think that we needed a “boss” vampire/zombie… and after [Neville] noting that “all human socialisation has been completely lost” – seeing [the boss zombie] being intelligent and having control over infected dogs etc didnt seem right.”
Neville was wrong about the creatures! That was the whole point, you shithead!

This is why we can’t have nice things. Film audiences are stupid and can’t understand something unless it’s spelled out to them.

So, how do we fix the movie? In it’s current ending, the title “I Am Legend” comes into play when Neville saves humanity and thus becomes a legend. Standard, feel-good Hollywood crap. In the original novel, however, Neville gradually discovers that the creatures are intelligent, and they’ve built a primitive society. Needless to say, they are scared and pissed that some guy is capturing them and performing experiments on their friends while it’s daylight and they’re helpless. Just before he’s killed in the end, Neville realizes that he has become a legendary monster to them, like a vampire or ghoul; a creature which steals them from their homes when they’re helpless. They are the normal ones now, and he is the strange, terrible monster.

Yeah, that’s pretty much a much better ending. And it would only take a little tinkering with the movie to bring it about (plus, you could get rid of the annoying other survivors). But since it’s not a feel-good Hollywood ending, it would never get approved.

I’m going to go make myself a stiff drink and seriously rethink why I chose to work in this industry.

Editor’s Note: Some time after I wrote this view the original ending of the film was released; it’s much, much better. And, like I suspected, we didn’t get to see it because of test audiences. Goddamn.

Seriously. In this ending, we have Neville being forced to see that the “monsters” he’s been killing really are intelligent, and get a fantastic shot where he looks at the wall covered in the photos of those he’s killed and realizes he is essentially a mass-murderer. It’s a classic “man is the real monster” ending, but it’s pulled off really well. And by ending with them looking for the last human settlement rather than actually finding it, the religious themes are made much more natural and less galling. It’s so much better.

Audiences: They’re why we can’t have nice things.

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For Auld Lang Syne… Exit Music for a Film

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