by Mike Shea on 1 June 2008
I had just about gotten over my Will Smith hatred ever since ID4 and watching I Am Legend pushed me well over it. I Am Legend is an excellent science fiction movie with great acting, a great story, and excellent sets. Will Smith does a very good job as the last man on earth and the story does the right thing of spending most of the time focusing on how he deals with isolation in a post-apocalypse New York City rather than focusing on action-packed vampire fighting scenes.
The movie isn't perfect, though, and fails in three ways.
First, I find it hard to believe that a super-virus would happen to create monsters with all of the main characteristics of vampires. The lore of vampires has been around between three hundred and a thousand years. Yet our biotechnology lore only goes back about twenty or thirty years. Monster movies have always explained folklore beasts with modern science. In the 50s and 60s monster movies like Godzilla, the Blob, and Them, explained their big lizards and ants as coming from from nuclear tests. In the 80s the Terminator and War Games explain their monsters with computers and robotics. Now we have Jurassic Park, 28 Days Later, and I Am Legend that explain their monsters with biotechnology. It makes sense to point at a current day unknown variable and tie it to monsters but I think I'd like another plot:
What if a biotechnology kills off every human being on earth save a few hundred thousand and vampires that have lived in our society for thousands of years are the only ones left? Now those few immune regular humans have a new predator that took over the world: vampires. Instead of being mostly mindless zombies that burn in the sun, they could be beings with a thousand years of knowledge hunting the last traces of blood. Hell, they'd probably want to find a way to get humans breeding enough so they could survive. The vampires would kill themselves off as predators would, to keep control of the food supply and then open up horrifying human breeding farms just to keep the supply high. There's a bad guy I could sink my teeth into (pun intended).
My second problem with the movie is the dog, Sam. I knew the minute the dog showed up that she was likely not to survive. I really hoped the writers would find a way to keep her around the whole movie. As good as Will Smith's acting was, I felt manipulated into loving the dog only to feel the filmmakers were working to force me to feel the impact of her death. The actual death scene wasn't so horrible until the dog starts to turn into vampire dog. I couldn't help but think up my own dialog: "Oh my god, my dog just turned into a Shrek CGI monster!" And that leads to the last big problem.
Computer generated effects are killing movies. Only a few really good directors like Peter Jackson know enough to keep CGI out for the most part and only use it when one has to. I Am Legend's CGI vampires made the movie look like Who Framed Roger Rabbit. There wasn't a single vampire that looked real to me until they actually had an actress play the vampire experiment gal. Computer generated characters are a copout. I'm still burning up from the CGI prairie dogs in Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull. Couldn't they have gotten real prairie dogs for crying out loud? How many prairie dogs could they have purchased for the cost of the CGI prairie dogs? More and more directors are falling back on computer generated effects and the tech just isn't there yet to make it worth while. If you're going to do that, go ahead and make it an animated movie like Beowolf. Of course, the power of an action scene is lost when you can create all the effects on a computer. Everyone who considers making zombies or vampires out of CGI should go watch American Werewolf in London and Dawn of the Dead to see how much better (and likely cheaper) costume effects are and how well they last over time.
Quips aside, I was very surprised by how good I Am Legend is. It is the best post-apocalypse movie I've seen in a long time, standing well over 28 Weeks Later, 30 Days of Night, and even Romero's Land of the Dead. It probably isn't as good as Children of Men, but I think its more fun. I highly recommend it.
A side note: the DVD version of the movie contains an alternate ending that is far and away better than the original ending. After seeing both endings, it is clear that the theatrical ending was capped on to appease confused idiotic test audiences while the alternate ending is the way the story should clearly have been. It is also a happier ending. Here you can view the alternate I Am Legend ending.