Writing, Reviewing and Criticism In The Internet Age

Tag: Will Smith

Will Smith is better than this, or, I am not that stupid am I?

Ri –

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…

Will Smith, or, ‘One of these things is not like the other.’




Let’s take a moment and talk about intellectual property and how books, comics or graphic novels get made into movies for a little while. For those who don’t know how this sometimes strange process works let me explain for a second. Someone, let’s say an author or creative type has a great idea and writes their book – unless they were already an established author they now have a lot more work to do. First they have to find a literary agent who recognises that the novel they’ve written is worthwhile. Next comes a deal with a publisher who is the one who turns the manuscript into a book, along with the editors, the jacket designers, the advertisers and the people who promote the work. Next comes the risky part when the book is published and the public get to make their choice as to whether or not they like it – and if the publishers have done their job well and the book gathers some momentum and the author is not without some talent then it might, MIGHT just turn into a success.

Then what happens is that a movie studio comes a-calling and what was once yours gets turned, via the medium of a large amount of money, into ‘intellectual property’ or IP. Basically, the book or characters or concept can be ‘optioned’ off to the studio who pays the most, leaving you with the original book but now the movie studio are the only people allowed to use YOUR ideas in a movie setting. Quite a few authors are fairly happy about this arrangement as it allows them a healthy and much-needed boost to their bank accounts and allows them to stay inside writing books. Studios like it because it means that what they’ve bought already has name recognition with the public and as such they can whip up a marketing storm which is what passes for fun in a big Hollywood studio. Now, if all this sounds like authors get a pretty sweet deal, please bear in mind that I am grossly simplifying and generalizing the process and have missed out one important detail for author types. This process does not necessarily need you involved. You don’t even have to be alive for it to happen.  In fact, from the studios point of view it is often better if you are dead because you don’t have to be paid. Hear that authors of the world!? MOVIE STUDIOS WANT YOU DEAD! (Sorry. Not at all true…all hyperbole etc. etc.) If an author has been dead for long enough then the work generally is released from copyright  – hopefully that explains why there have been so many adaptations of Shakespeare, Dickens, Austen and so forth; not just because they are classics but because from an economic stand point they are easy to get into production.

And you can usually tell that an author hasn’t had much to do with the film adaptation when you see it because it usually ends up looking like this week’s film which is one of the most naked money-grubbing and shallow adaptations I’ve ever sat through. I just wish Will Smith wasn’t in it…

So, in 2004 I, Robot came out, that used the name and the key concepts of the classic collection by one of the greatest sci-fi writers of all time, Isaac Asimov. Now, let’s be clear – this is by no means a bad film; it’s not great but it is a lot of fun. Will Smith is, as always, great to watch and the action is fun and the CGI and effects are cool and it even has a few cool action movie lines. So that’s good. But as an adaptation – it is simply god-awful.

As per usual, trying to avoid all the major spoilers and let you know what happens in the film and how this differs from the book. The film follows a cynical detective Del Spooner in Chicago in 2035 as anthropomorphic robots have become common place. These robots are supposed to be failsafe and utterly devoted to the protection of humanity but following the apparent suicide of the head of the world’s largest robotics company, Spooner slowly unravels the conspiracy and the danger the human race is in.

The film is little more than a string of action sequences strung together by little exposition – as with all action films – and what it does is very well executed. The cast all do good work but have very little to do with the book so the majority of them I won’t mention. The only one that shares a characteristic with those in the book is Bridget Monahan’s character Dr Susan Calvin. Her character is a robo-psychologist whose job title is fairly self-explanatory, (I hope) and her interest in the mind is reflected in her complete lack of interest in emotions and I think the film’s version of Calvin is actually a good adaptation from the source material. As for the rest of the film, I think the extent that it doesn’t work as an adaptation will become clearer when one turns to the book it’s based on.

The book is a collection of short stories published in serial form and published again as a complete collection in 1950. As a whole they serve as a history of the rise of robotics from the opening chapter dealing with the first primitive robots used as childcare and finishing with the world being run by machines for the benefit of humankind. The stories are framed as an interview with the retiring Dr Susan Calvin and her recollections of how robotics have changed and changed the life of every single person on the planet. What makes the stories so good as a whole is the excellent way that the problem scales up. From beginning with just one person being impacted by robots and it concludes in chilling fashion with machines running the world – deliberately endangering and killing people to safeguard the future of humanity as a whole.

The book deals with things like technology, humanity and the relationship between the two; along with issues such as power, control and the idea of moral agency. The film doesn’t have that ambition, skill or scope of vision. It feels designed to make money – not helped by the film’s absolute saturation in brand labels, product placement and cool shiny stuff that we are supposed to see and then rush out and consume. It didn’t have to be like this – there was a chance that this film could have been very different. In the 1970’s when, crucially Asimov was still on this plane of life, Warner Brothers asked for a script. So along with the great Harlan Ellison these two literary heavyweights teamed up with the aim of producing, in Asimov’s own words, the first really adult, complex, worthwhile science fiction movie ever made.’ Something that would have blown Blade Runner away – a film the two writers had been inspired to write from watching Citizen Kane. This could have changed how sci-fi is viewed in cinema permanently.

Instead, what did we get? Will Smith, in a cool car saving the world. The ideas are so watered down and so obviously attempting to get into your wallet that it just feels tacky when you read the book. It isn’t bad, but if you are a genius level sci-fi writer, please don’t settle on the big chunk of cash without giving the rest of us some thought…