By Ray Pride
Look southwest toward distant light and a thin rim along the horizon, up 132, and Providence beckoned; northwest on 109, endless rutted roads to the sky between mile after mile of tall corn running toward Pride; or look up—the stars.
With where I came from, a village in the South, where there was much space and few people, the conceits behind movies like “I Am Legend” have warmed my heart since childhood. Urban annihilation, vast built-up conurbations twined with vines and populated only by confounded wildlife appealed to me as a small boy in a small town. Movies like “On The Beach,” “The Satan Bug” and “The Omega Man” appealed to me almost as much as a box of kitchen matches and a bundle of dry grass. (A French critic once brazenly offered that “Charlton Heston is an axiom of the cinema,” and Heston’s wooden yet wry delivery in “Omega Man,” “There’s never a cop around when you need one,” is lodged in my brain until my memory goes.)
“I Am Legend” is not a melodrama of murder or genocide but of lusty, proud, arrogant self-annihilation—the end, my friend. A gently comic cameo opens the movie, where a female scientist fake-humbly accepts a newscaster’s leading question, “So you’ve cured cancer?” with a fake-abased “Yes, yes, we have.” Cut to the sunken disaster of the entrance to Holland Tunnel with the title, “Three years later.” Enter: Robert Neville (Will Smith), seemingly the last man standing—along with a loveable German Shepherd sidekick—who spends his days seeking survivors block-by-block in a Manhattan that had been isolated years ago, as well as a cure for the infected who huddle and mass and murder in darkness.
The exteriors are stunning, and sadly, an insistent, ongoing metaphor for the script’s inability to suggest much interior life. It’s credited to several writers, including Mark Protosevich (“The Cell”), but likely mostly gets its surface from producer-writer Akiva Goldsman (“The Da Vinci Code,” “Lost in Space”).
The 1990s saw Roland Emmerich-type spectacles of mass destruction, satisfying a larger-scale bloodlust than the 1970s demolition derbies starring Burt Reynolds (the apotheosis of which was H. J. Halicki’s deranged “Gone in 60 Seconds”). But there’s something timeless in the image of cities, vast canyons through which myriad men and many women would effortlessly swim, abandoned to the emptiness, the depopulation of vast rural expanse. There are moments in “I Am Legend” to make even the most jaded moviegoer credulous, the filmmakers imagining emptiness where design and function was over decades successively fashioned for population, urgent and heedless, confident and impulsive.
Whatever you can say about the movie as a whole, director Francis Lawrence (“Constantine”) finds ways to illustrate the terrible notions of aftermath. The minute is made momentous. Posters and clippings litter the apartments of now-dead victims. Neville siphons $7 gallons of gasoline on Canal Street in Chinatown. His townhouse on Washington Square—Henry James’ old haunt!—is filled with canned goods, Top Ramen and antique clocks. (The city’s past its smell-by date.) While a movie like “I Am Legend” needs to provide more than decors, all sorts of choices satisfy, including the sextet of sleek silver Porsche LaCie hard drives Neville ostentatiously saves his get-a-cure data to. (Times Veldt also has a “Superman Vs. Batman” billboard, advertising a 5-15-09 release date.) Packs of deer run wild past the Flatiron building. A survival vehicle races heedlessly down Seventh Avenue, brand names repeating, repeating, for no known consumer. (An action setpiece on the ramp that encircles Grand Central Station repeatedly shows the abstract color-pixel field signage of Altria, looking more like a futuristic travesty than the logo of what was once Philip Morris.) Nostalgically, the movie pretends that the defunct Tower Records video rental store on Lafayette still stands. Neville’s picked up a few nice pieces for the house, including Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” and Rousseau’s “Gypsy Asleep” from MOMA. In another scene, the composition of Rousseau’s “The Hungry Lion Throws Itself on the Antelope” is neatly invoked when a lion pride beats Neville to feeding on a feral deer.
There’s at least one moment of powerful simplicity, when Lawrence chooses to convey a terrible moment of sacrifice by Neville in a sustained close-up. Mostly, the variations clatter. In “The Omega Man,” Heston’s Robert Neville watched the film of “Woodstock” convulsively repeating lines. (Here, Smith mimes Eddie Murphy lines from “Shrek”—so much for hope for humanity). The third act of this third adaptation of Richard Matheson’s 1954 novel does not land gently, unless you enjoy schematic, fanatical invocations of “what God wants” and computer-generated vampire hordes. Superhuman zombies are a day-old loaf, and none of the figures in “Legend” are as individuated (or natty) as Danny Huston’s Euro-striving bloodsucker in the otherwise diffident “30 days And 30 Nights.” There is a nice confrontation, though, that echoes a lyric from the Flaming Lips: “Every single person you or I have ever known is dead. Is DEAD. There is no God. There is. No. God.” The ending’s all over the place, including a scene that resembles the ending of one of M. Night Shyamalan’s least-favored enterprises, but startles most for its lingering assertion that Bob Marley was a “virologist” of racial unity and love. Still, the little boy inside me was more than a little wide-eyed.
“I Am Legend” offers Christmas cheer across the planet on Friday.