Thursday, 24 January 2008

I AM LEGEND


PLOT SPOILERS happen big time in what follows…


Before you ask, no this will not be another snobby burial of a Hollywood action film. For one thing, there seems little point seeing Deep Impact then complaining it wasn’t much like Wild Strawberries. Hollywood action films shouldn’t be criticized for just serving up the thrills, particularly when for the most part they can’t even serve up the thrills. They’re less than functional, like a broken toaster or a takeaway that doesn’t even fill you up after you’ve paid for it.

However, every now and then you get a film that’s more than serviceable, that manages to top up the serving with something a bit more tasty. Of course we’re still talking about a takeaway as opposed to a sit-down meal, it’s just a takeaway with some salad added. But sometimes I’ll eat a takeaway, and I prefer them with some salad. I Am Legend deserves comparison to something like Terminator, possibly even Alien, in keeping up its combination of roughage with taste for most of its length. (More on that caveat later.) Perhaps part of its appeal is that its very much a psychological rather than political story. Its ‘enemy’ are not something ‘foreign’ so much as a distorted version of us. As we shouldn’t be expecting anything intelligently political from Hollywood right now (including from the ‘liberal’ camp), this is something to be welcomed.

Channel Four summed it up well when they described it as “a film that blends a blockblustery bluster with a gaunt apocalyptic sobriety to good effect.” I am admittedly a sucker for ‘empty city’ scenarios, but this film put a chunk of its considerable budget into portraying a quite awesome deserted Manhatten. While everyone’s compared these scenes to 28 Days Later they seemed to me much more indebted to 12 Monkeys, with their deliriously incongruous shots of wild animals wandering the boulevards. I might well have been happy with an installation piece rather than a film, which just panned over such shots for ninety minutes then went to the credits.

The empty city is a potent image which is unlikely to be tied to one meaning, in fact it probably lends itself to several quite contradictory meanings. For example, the abundant flora and fauna on Fifth Avenue give off a Ballard-like vibe, portraying the seductiveness of entropy. There’s probably a wealth of existential stuff about the primacy of the self. However the film really focuses on the psychology of being the last man alive in a whole city. At first our hero Neville (Will Smith) seems to be leading quite an idyllic life, hunting game down from a Cadillac like a post-modern hunter-gatherer.

Despite the screech of types it’s akin to the recurrent image of the single walker in a city at night. Only when the hustle and bustle’s taken away can we really see the city for the monument it is. Indeed the absence of others can feel liberating, like all those times you’ve wished those clogging crowds away. Significantly no-one in the early scenes appears dead – merely absent. As director Francis Lawrence has commented, “"We didn't want to make an apocalyptic movie where the landscape felt apocalyptic… there’s something magic about the empty city.”

However, in another sense, the emptiness just enhances the way the city feels anyway. The crowds are so ubiquitous, there’s simply so many other people that they become unindivudated and anonymising. The film flirts with the first take on Neville’s life, only to hit us with the depth of his isolation. When I first heard Will Smith describe the film as primarily a psychological study I was cynical. But the fantastical scenario is genuinely being used merely as a magnifier to explore facets of life we all recognise. The fancy effects and CGI budget are just a means to tell us about a guy who hasn’t been on a date for a long time. His hopeful broadcasts to other survivors sound like the saddest lonely hearts ads out there. (“I haven’t seen another person in three years. If anybody is out there. Anybody. Please.”)

Meanwhile these elaborate survival practices and non-stop checking of his watch start to feel more and more like a bad case of obsessive-compulsive disorder. Needless to say, when one of his daily visits to a non-existant rendezvous actually pays off and he comes across Anna, he doesn’t cope with it very well. This moment is underlined by showing the scene from Shrek where Shrek rejects teaming up with the Donkey. Having clearly been watching this video as regularly as all his other routines, he’s able to mouth along to every one of Shrek’s words. (Yet, as we all know, Shrek eventually accepts the Donkey.)

Even Anna’s Godbothering, though otherwise cringeworthy, adds to the theme. Her faith in God’s plan is matched to her belief that there must be other surivivors, the communal mixed in with the communion. (Though how so naive and unskilled a character has kept alive both herself and a small child is best not gone into.) Naturally, Neville responds by aggressively insisting on the death of everybody, like a neurotic insisting on the special nature of his problem.

As the film progresses we learn there’s two kinds of other folk in Neville’s life, the empty automata of showroom dummies and the Infected, a brutal antagonistic force. (The Infected are riven with the disease from which only Neville is immune.) While one is the passive crowd, the other is the active, antagonistic crowd, the danger in the city streets. While the look of the Infected is admittedly unimaginative (post Lord of the Rings bad guys) and identikit (as you’d expect from CGI creations), this does better enable their plot function – to represent the social group. In a neat plot twist Neville underestimates them, assuming them to be an unindivuated horde. He only learns the truth as they descend pack-like upon him…

Given this description, establishing a mood is obviously of central importance to this film. It must not only be clearly told, and both evocative and thrilling where appropriate, it must put up on the screen Neville’s mental state. Moreover, for much of the film Smith has no-one to act with apart from a dog and a few tailor’s dummies. It succeeds surprisingly well at this, allowing the pace to slow right down where it considers it necessary, a welcome change from the standard freneticism (which also serves to enliven the action scenes when they do arrive). Even when Neville’s dog is ‘vampirified’ by the virus this is not portrayed as a twist or even turns into a fight scene, the camera instead zooms in on the look on his face as he is forced to strangle it.

Moreover the story is conveyed less by exposition than by a kind of patchwork of clues, for example briefly showing a magazine cover on a fridge door that conveys vital information. Neville goes through his daily survival routines, and only later do we recognise the significance of some actions. There are flashbacks (which also allow for juxtaposed scenes of teeming New York streets as everyone tries to flee), but these are smartly kept short – usually cutting off just when we think we’re getting some useful information. One handy side-effect of this implicit approach to storytelling is that the nerds at Wikipedia have driven themselves nuts trying to determine what is ‘plot’ and what is merely interpretation.

Ironically, considering the high budget and heavy reliance on CGI, one of the most effective sequences couldn’t be more simple. In precisely the sort of thing you’d expect to happen in a film like this, our hero has to enter a darkened building likely to host enemy combatants. At this point, and like you would, he starts hyperventilating from fear. It shouldn’t be surprising but it is. It’s not the sort of thing you’d expect from a trained military man, nor from a hero in a mainstream Hollywood movie – and absolutely not the sort of thing you’d expect from Will Smith. Though this simple act, subconscious triggers are pulled and we can’t help but think “well if he’s worried…” (The effect is also heightened by this being our first encounter with the Infected.)

The power of so non-special an effect also exposes the sheer inadequacy of the term ‘plot spoilers’. A plot spoiler would tell you whether he does run into the Infected while he’s in there, or whether he manages to get out again… two things which on a lucky day you might be able to guess. Something like the hyperventilating is rendered unguessable through being so incidental to the plot, yet its very simplicity makes its effectiveness easily crushed by forewarning. It’s simply not going to get to you like it should if it’s preceded by a big caption saying ‘Hyperventilation Scene Coming Up’, it needs the space to steal up on you. It reminds me of the release of Blair Witch Project, a film almost entirely predicated upon such simple devices which was derailed by your knowing the most basic information about. Despite what others argue, ‘plot spoilers’ is not only an issue for films serving stock twists.

Sadly this good stuff can’t be kept up throughout. Most accounts agree the film goes off the boil before the end, but get arguing over where. Certainly the coda, where Anna and the boy are waved into an idyllic-looking citadel of survivors, is possibly the worst bolt-on feelgood ending since the one originally imposed on Blade Runner. You’re best off doing what us old ‘uns had to do with Blade Runner for years – shut your eyes and pretend it isn’t there.

But the real problem is that the actual ending isn’t that much more satisfactory. It’s not just that everything descends into a shoot-‘em-up, you’d kind of expect that. There’s even a strong image in our heroes locked in the laboratory against the teeming hordes, the last bastion of civilization shielded by just one thin sheet of glass. But then Neville merely passes the cure to Anna, then blows himself up to aid her escape. He makes some reference to her “God’s plan” business, which was a latterday and shoehorned theme to start with. You can’t help but think – so what?

As if turns out, a different ending was intended. We were supposed to learn that the Infected are only after the return of the significant other of Alpha Male Infected, who Neville has captured to experiment on. Once she’s back with the family, everyone can part as friends. This version of the ending is thematically much more consistent. Neville has previously dismissed the Infected as subhuman, and has got himself into this predicament precisely by underestimating them. Now he finds that what his survivalist instincts had seen only as adversaries or objects of study… really, they’d been his neighbours all along.

But the problems with this ending start with plot consistency. By this measure, it’s completely stupid. It’s been well established the Infected live off flesh and had been trying to turn Neville into dinner well before he ran off with someone’s girlfriend. Are they now offering to subsist off soyblood? Moreover this forgetting about all animosities, in a Rodney King moment of group hugs, conflicts with the tone of all that’s gone before. (Those familiar with the ending of the original Richard Matheson novel will also recognise this ending for the travesty it is.) But the real problem with it is that it’s both forced and neat, far too tidy a tie-up.

Before developing that point, let’s concede something the film does do well. Despite Neville’s obsession over keeping to his New York post and curing the virus, it’s actually caused by another, otherwise redundant character. (Somewhat unsubtly called Dr. Krippen.) I’m presuming here the film-makers considered the obvious, that as a scientist Neville could have created the virus and they chose to rule it out. If so, we should all be thankful.

By the Hollywood rulebook, a film is always structured around the hero’s ‘journey’ or ‘arc’, with every other character, scene and incident merely there to illustrate some point along this. As Andrew Rilstone has pointed out, the Batman, Daredevil and Spider-Man films all took the common thief who kills the hero’s father figure and turned him into the adversary. (In fact the Spider-Man films even pulled this trick twice just in case we missed it the first time!) It transforms from a random incident triggering the hero to fight crime on behalf of society, to a causal incident causing him to fight his personal enemy. It sucks in quite a literal sense. It sucks everything social and chance from the world, and builds instead a hermetic, even autistic mindset where everything that happens is happening to you and you alone – the perfect epitome of the ‘me’ generation.

Yet even with this saving grace, the intended ending still maps too closely to the Hollywood rulebook. It’s emphasised how Neville isn’t staying in Manhattan out of military duty or compulsiveness, but because to him it’s personal. It’s not even supposed to matter if the Infected totally transform in nature before the film’s over, because they were only ever put there to tell us something about Neville. Moreover, it contradicts with the film’s better instincts. The moral becomes about trusting your neighbours, which is not only somewhat trite but is ill-fitting for a film so obsessively about one man that it echoes his self-centric mindset. Even the other humans aren’t real characters, arriving with the barest of backstories. As the saying goes, there’s no team in I Am Legend.

Okay smartarse, so how should the thing have ended? As Neville has the cure in his bloodstream and all his setbacks revolve around getting it out, it occurred to me he might get eaten by the Infected but in so doing cure them. While this might have been harder to capture on film (perhaps relying on montage and voiceover), it would have created the irony where his own srvival instincts were the thing preventing humanity getting cured. Like genes, his cure would have only been of value while passed on.

Or there might have been an ‘open’ ending. Neville and the others could have been safe behind that extra-thick plexiglass but unable to leave and so unable to use it. Perhaps the lab could have doubled as his living quarters throughout, and contained food supplies. (Something which would also underline his compulsiveness.) Perhaps he devises an airborne cure, which he can’t spread without opening the door yet he’s dead if he does open it. Perhaps the situation even gets ‘normalised’ in that standoff, everything that was happening before on a huge scale reduced down to this one-room microcosm. Then it fades out and we leave the cinema wondering what we would do…

But perhaps there isn’t an alternative ending which would do justice to the film’s themes yet meet the expectations of a multiplex release. The earlier parts of the film combine the feeling of a mood piece or character study with being a chronology of events. But at its finale it loses this balance and finds itself forced to come down on one side or the other. Films will often end in an explosion if they prove difficult to resolve otherwise, such as Hell in the Pacific. So this film obligingly picks up a hand-grenade and autodestructs.

3 comments:

  1. As a fan of the original novel AND 'empty city' films, I agree with a lot of this, though I had other problems with the film myself (the vampires - why all-CGI?).

    As to the ending though, there's a part of me that thinks any ending that takes us away from the central premise - being alone in a deserted world - spoils what we enjoy about the concept in the first place. And yet by the very nature of telling a story, there has to be some progression - the character has to make that journey. In the end, only an ambiguous "he might still be alone... or there might be hope" could work, leaving those of us with empty city fantasies to settle on the former conclusion every time.

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  2. In some ways I was a bit soft on the film, only noting in passing the shoehorned Godbothering theme and the look of the Infected. (Even if they’re
    going to be CGI do they really have to be the same CGI as everywhere else? It’s like when the first commercially available synthesizers came in, there was lots of excitement about the sonic range being opened up but everyone pretty much copied each other into a quite narrow range of sounds.) That probably was because I wanted to spend more time wandering those empty city streets…

    One thing I did mention was that I would have in many ways been quite happy had it been an instillation piece which just followed the character around his routines for a couple of days. I can imagine such a piece playing on a loop in some gallery somewhere. From that point of view it didn’t really need the Infected… though, if you ignore the way they look, they were handled well.
    I can imagine a version where he meets up with The Girl anyway, gets the dilemma whether to go off with her in search of human company or stay wandering the empty streets, then a freeze frame. In fact I even felt something within the film was stretching in that direction, but had to be held back.

    In general I’ve a fixation with the relationship between modernism and the urban environment, how living in that environment has shaped our perception and expectations of art. This, as you can well imagine, has made me quite a hit at parties…

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  3. Ha!

    But who'd need party skills in an empty city anyway?

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