Will Smith is better than this, or, I am not that stupid am I?
I can’t do it. I just can’t do it this time. I can’t dance around the issue and have an opening paragraph that leads into the issue. I just can’t do it. Because this week we’re talking about something that is bad. Really bad. Now, after doing this for a little while – swimming around in the shallow end of internet criticism- you sort of notice a pattern of the different kinds of ‘bad’ and all different kinds of ‘awful.’ There is the soul-less, terrible ‘bad’ that only exists to make some money off people impressed by the cool product placement and explosions, there is the ‘bad’ that isn’t really all that terrible and then there is the bad that makes me hate the person who put it into the world as it misses the mark so badly. I’ve dealt with all shapes and sizes of terrible thus far but this week’s column is quite special because it deals with a very special variety of bad film – the movie that was very nearly good.
In a way this flavour of terrible is by far the most frustrating, as it introduces a particularly bitter undertone – hope. Watching the film you begin to let down your critical guard, start enjoying the plot, the action and you start to become emotionally invested in the characters and then at the last minute the film whips it all away from you with a cynical and evil laugh as it shoves you face first into the garbage it was waiting to fling in your face.
It could have been great. It could have been something bold and original in a genre that badly needed an injection of creativity and originality. Instead, it ended up as the 7th highest grossing movie of 2007, ‘I Am Legend.’ Yes, this one features Will Smith too – I get the feeling that he may be in danger of turning into my new Ben Affleck…
Okay, roll up your sleeves and follow me – a quick recap of the film first of all, because to explain the problem with this adaptation you need to know about the book and the movie. Will Smith plays the military scientist Robert Neville, the last man in a post-apocalyptic New York. The human race has been 90% wiped out by a mutated virus with survivors turned into creatures that seem broadly similar to vampires. Robert Neville spends his days wandering the ruins of the city looking for supplies, tortured by the loss of his family and the lack of companionship in his search for a cure. The plot moves on when an immune woman and her son arrive on the scene and tell him about a camp of survivors that God told them about. In the course of the experiments Neville takes an infected woman and as the infected hoards attack his house he realises he has found the cure in the infected woman’s blood. As the masses swarm him, he kills himself to protect his cure and the woman and her son. The film ends with the two entering the survivor camp and handing over the cure.
Right, so, there is the basic outline and it seems only fair to give credit where it is due. Will Smith is very, very good in this – really good. He’s pretty much the only thing on screen for much of the film’s opening and he commands the attention of the watcher – especially when we see him chat with his dog and the shop dummies he sets up to stop himself from going completely crazy. These scenes are incredibly affecting and prove conclusively that Smith has some serious talent as an actor. He convinces as an action star too, able to kick ass but remain human, so that, unlike Arnie say, you actually feel the threat that makes the action scenes involving and viscerally exciting.
Now, onto the bad – first the CGI baddies have not aged well. Even at the time the effects were not great and showed the effects of re-shooting. The story falls apart by the third act when it decided to abandon the creepy build-up of tension and well developed character moments and instead turn the film into a survival horror film. The obvious downside being, that monsters are scary the less you see of them – and with dodgy CGI these monsters are not scary and we see far too much of them. They aren’t laughable monsters, just generic and slightly dull and the tension dissipates into action in the rush to get to the conclusion. Now, this by itself doesn’t sound awful right? And it isn’t. But there is one major problem that I’m getting to, that will require a slight detour.
Ready? Here we go – the film is based on the 1954 novel of the same name by Richard Matheson and is widely believed to be one of the formative influences on the idea of zombie being part of literature. The plot follows Robert Neville, who goes through bouts of depression and alcoholism and in the course of his research manages to figure out how the virus is spread, (one of the things I really like about the film is how it updates these character traits to the modern setting and uses them to make Will Smith’s character more interesting). He comes across an apparently uninfected woman in the sunlight and takes a blood sample. Here is where the film and the book majorly divulge. It turns out the infected have started to beat the disease and are trying to rebuild society. Robert Neville is captured and sentenced to death as the meaning of the title becomes chillingly clear. Neville is the legend of these infected people, the monster that stalks them and kills them. The book ends with Neville accepting the need for his own death and a plea for the new society to be a just one.
Now, re-read my recap of the film plot. NOTICE ANYTHING!?
The thing that really ramps up the frustration is that I think the film was going to try to attempt the same thing. Maybe not as boldly but for what is basically a zombie movie it would have been a gutsy move. The infected show signs of intelligence, even outwitting Smith at one point and they share an emotional connection to one another. Seen in this way the final act of the film becomes even worse. Far from being an attack, the creatures are trying to rescue one of their own stolen kidnapped by a monster. And yet, the movie ends with Will Smith killing himself, and these potentially fascinating creatures reduced the dumb role of movie monster there to be killed by the morally good hero. From doing a bit of research I found that the makers of the film originally ended the film with Will Smith and the leader of the infected recognising the intelligence in their opposite number – a similar switch that happens in the book – and it would finish with Smith escaping New York to the survivor camp as well, after he returns the infected woman to her own kind.
But they re-shot the ending. Because it was too dark. Too downbeat. Audiences wouldn’t like it.
The only response I can give to this level of intellectual patronizing is this. It can’t be just me that is tired of being spoon fed a product that has been watered down, and made less challenging because the people who hold the purse strings are terrified that someone somewhere might not like it. Frankly, that’s insulting. To artists, to writers, to actors and to the people who make movies but more importantly, it is insulting to the people who go and see movies. Let me be clear – I have no problem with a zombie action film. But this film, until the conclusion, is not that. When you look at the film through the lens of the book you see just how odd and out of place the ending is. It is shamelessly pandering to the bottom line at the expense of the film’s own narrative coherence. It denigrates the intellectual appetite of the viewer and tries to replace the interesting premise and set-up with explosions and a cheap, exploitative death.
The film disrespects the source material, and disrespects the act of re-telling it. Enough. Just enough.
PS Wow…bit rant heavy wasn’t it?
PPS The bit where the dog dies, (spoiler) does make me tear up a little…