December 22, 2007

I am Legend: somewhat less than legendary

The short version: good not great, but certainly worth seeing. One of the rare occasions on which I would have preferred a longer movie, since several aspects of the story seemed rushed (or ignored). But it's a good, entertaining thrill ride, even if I would say it doesn't quite live up to the hype.

I remember the first preview I saw for I am Legend, even if I don't entirely remember the movie I was seeing at the time. It was just about perfect, as previews go: you got a few shots of Will Smith in his house, driving through a desolate NYC, hunting with his dog, and you got the voice over of his radio message, which ends with, "you are not alone." Cut to title, cut to black.

That was it, and it was great. I knew that I wanted to see it, and frankly I didn't much want to know more about the movie than that. I desperately hoped that they'd keep it that simple in the marketing. I mean, it was brilliant in its simplicity: show the star, whet the appetite, leave the audience a little confused and a lot curious, and they will flock the theaters to see what happens. Genius, right? Less is more, tantalize them and they will come.

Apparently the commercial writers didn't get that memo.

I seriously want to find the people who write movie commercials and pimp-slap each and every one of them. They come very close to ruining most of the movies they're trying to sell, and I'm very, very tired of it. That's another rant for another time, but they really pissed me off with this movie. Mystery? Gone. Almost all of the anticipation about what the story might involve, the curiosity that the preview created, was pretty much shattered during the very first commercial. Oh, that's what they mean by not alone. Thanks, jackasses.

(In the hopes that some of you escaped the spoiler-filled commercials, I will try to discuss the movie vaguely enough to leave some mystery for you. And if you see a commercial come on, turn the channel immediately. Consider yourself warned).

Anyway, even though I knew more than I wanted about the plot, and even though I was pretty sure I knew what the ending was going to look like, I went and saw the movie anyway.

What I liked:
  • The suspense - this is not as much a scary movie as a jumpy movie. There is a lot of good suspense and tension, not much in the way of blood and gore, which I think is a good thing. My suggestion: no coffee before showtime. You'll thank me.
  • Will Smith - it should not be surprising to hear that Will Smith is pretty darn good in this movie, since he hasn't really clunked one in quite a while. What's most impressive is that he spends most of this movie by himself, in a way reminiscent of Tom Hanks in Cast Away. I don't think he's as good in this as Tom was in that, but there are similar aspects of the performance, including making characters out of his surroundings and having it be believable. But then, he has a dog, which is quite a bit more interactive than a volleyball. In any case, he does very well, particularly in showing how the solitude affects him over time. I don't think a nomination is out of the question, even though it's not the genre of film that award voters tend to look at closely.
  • The dog - you get exactly what you want/need out of this dog: a sympathetic side kick for Smith. The fact that they generate real exchanges, Smith and this dog, is a really a credit to the trainers and to Will's performance, but the whole thing works. You will root for the dog almost as much as you root for Will. Best Supporting Animal? I guess we'll have to wait and see how awards season plays out.
  • Almost no music - one of the things I have always given Cast Away (or more specifically, Tom Hanks) tons of credit for was the ability to create drama without the assistance of the movie's musical score. I applauded the decision then, and I applaud it now. There's not a lot of background music in this movie, and I think that was an excellent choice. It heightens the sense of isolation, and it also forces the actor to perform, and as I mentioned, Smith does a good enough job that he doesn't need the musical assistance that most suspense/drama movies get. For example, you don't get the high-pitched violin score in the background when something scary is happening. You get breathing, and darkness, and footsteps, and creaking of floors, and that's always better. Every time.

What I didn't Like:
  • Duration/pacing - this story could easily have taken a two-and-a-half hour film to really flesh out completely, yet the movie comes in at well under two hours and some of the storytelling suffers as a result. The price you pay is a rushed feeling through several points in the movie, as well as the utter lack of explanation of a few questions that seem fairly obvious to ask, although I won't, since doing so would spoil. But they're there, and you'll want to ask them when you're leaving the theater; unfortunately nobody there will be able to help you. There are many points that could have used further explanation, and the lack of it loses a lot of depth to the film.
  • CGI - considering the success of fully-CG characters in movies over the past several years, I was disappointed with the quality of the CG work in this movie. I fail to see what was gained by not using real people. That's all I'm saying. Maybe it was a budget thing (I'm not sure how much they spent to make this movie), but it detracts a bit from the overall experience
  • The fact that I, with zero military or advanced tactical training, and without being a research doctor, was able to suss out at least two things that somehow completely eluded the main character. Granted, you could argue their necessity for plot movement, but having highly intelligent characters suddenly go completely ignorant and unobservant is one of those devices in movies that always bugs me. Especially someone who has apparently developed such a keen survival sense and situational awareness.
  • The marketing/hype - this has a lot less to do with the movie than with the buzz that the people selling the movie have tried to create. I've already mentioned my issues with the commercials, but the real problem is that this movie has been so highly marketed, so intensely advertised, that I can't imagine it truly living up to the expectations that are set in the minds of the people going to see it. I mean, watching the coverage, you realize that if it's not the second coming of The Godfather or something it's going to be a huge disappointment. I think the larger issue is that studios see the drop in overall box office numbers lately, and they think that every movie has to be The Big One, just to get people in the door. They're doing themselves, and their movies, a disservice, though, because the higher you build something up, the more risk of a fall. Conversely, I really enjoyed Harold and Kumar go to White Castle as much because I had zero expectations going in as because it was funny on its own merits (which it was, but still). Anyway, I think that the studios put movies in general, and this movie in particular, at a disadvantage by talking it up so much. It's a good movie, but I think it would have had to be truly great just to meet the expectations, and that's not fair to the film itself.
Ultimately, I did like the movie quite a bit. Despite some of the issues, it's very engaging, it pulls you along with the story, and there are a few surprises in there that will help mitigate the effects of the commercials. I wasn't all that thrilled with the ending, but I respect the fact that it didn't end the way I thought it would, which I appreciate in and of itself. I think it's definitely worth seeing, and it's a movie experience that is definitely enhanced by seeing it on the big screen (the shots of NYC alone are practically worth the ticket). But you will probably enjoy the movie a lot more if you restrict your expectations to a good roller-coaster kind of movie, rather than some epic story. Think Aliens more than, say, Braveheart, and you'll be in better shape.

I give it a B+ for what it is, but a B- for what I expected it to be.

The commercials get an F. Fuckers.


carrie m said...

I think the biggest problem with the film is that it was based loosely on a short story and it resembled nothing of the story. they took the idea and cut the life out of it. and i don't know why exactly, b/c I think the story would have made a great film. I haven't actually read it, but it was broken down for me and my filmmaker brain immediately saw a great film. I like the movie as well, but it was disappointing in the fact it could have been more.

Tessa said...

I dont know maybe I'm the only one who thinks this but there were a good 3-5 movies recently (past 5 years) with these "zombies" that take over the world. Its getting old.

Will Smith was great though.

Just wasnt impressed with the whole thing like they talked it up to be.

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