Will Smith shines in 'I am Legend'

A post-apocalyptic premise in films and literature &

as opposed to a looming apocalyptic event as depicted in "The Day After Tomorrow" &

can be compelling if not thrilling.

Abruptly the world is absent billions of people. Streets are now silent, abandoned cars litter the roadways, buildings stand vacant. Everyone is gone. Wild animals roam the streets: deer, feral dogs, mountain lions. Already green is creeping in where only concrete and tarmac once covered all.

Films of this ilk can create an engaging tension that is effective on many levels. It's also a theme that poses narrative risks as we see in "I am Legend."

At the outset, there is something shamefully exciting about seeing the highly structured postmodern world suddenly transformed and stripped of the claustrophobic press of crowds of people competing for space. Such films may also speak to the ambivalence we feel about our technologically, highly structured society where we are dependent on the grid and far removed from the natural world.

The nudging predicate of the post-apocalyptic genre is that we possess a latent prejudice against the insulation of modernity and are therefore predisposed to resonate with the utopian idea of surviving in a place absent mankind and the concomitant scaffolding, and a milieu wherein we edge closer to being survivalists as compared to relying on what we know is a fragile grid. The electricity can go out. Gasoline at the pump can stop. Supermarkets can become bare. And suddenly we are isolated. To live off the grid can be a seductive idea promising a simpler, more authentic life, free of all that ensnares us.

In films such as "I am Legend" there is of course the inherent contradiction of the lone survivor living in the vacant metropolis while cannibalizing the remnants of the now extinguished society: pumping gasoline from underground service station tanks, using generators for power, carrying rifles with serviceable bullets to hunt, and an endless supply of cars and clothing and medicines. An empty city suddenly becomes an Army Surplus &

Wal Mart, with muscle cars and tricked out SUVs there for the taking.

For the first third, if not the first half of "Legend," the story is essentially a character study: how does the protagonist deal with the sudden absence of people. Will Smith, portraying a famous soldier-scientist, Robert Neville, who has lost all he holds dear (his wife and small daughter), is struggling to cope. Intelligent, resourceful, and carrying out his pre-apocalyptic mission of finding a cure for the virus that has decimated the global population, he carries on, imposing a structure on his life that is reminiscent of pre-calamitous times.

Smith gives a killer performance and carries the entire film from the opening frame. Not unlike Tom Hanks in "Cast Away," wherein Hanks portrays a Fed Ex employee marooned on a tropical island, his only companion Wilson the volleyball.

But screenwriters and authors of the genre know that there is only so much mileage to be gleaned from the central character adapting to the stunning isolation. Now what? For Hanks the tension sprang from his efforts to get off the island, realizing that he was physically and psychologically coming apart. Smith, in contrast, knows he can leave his island, Manhattan; however, he is convinced there is no there there. All is gone. So what will be the source of conflict which is necessary to keep the audience engaged?

This is the turning point in every post-apocalyptic film and sci-fi novel. In Kevin Costner's "The Postman," he discovers a community of survivors and then leads a war of survival against a marauding band of renegades who live by pillaging small post-apocalyptic communities, killing the people or taking them hostage.

In "I am Legend," regrettably, the threat to Neville's survival (and the survival of anyone else who might have escaped the virus) is bleached, hairless mutants, Zombies, really &

a newly evolved, subhuman life form which has been infected by the virus and now lives in an underworld of darkness. Like vampires, sunlight is terminal. If they can capture Neville or Sam, who only venture out in daylight, they will kill and devour them.

Introducing zombies into the narrative takes the film in a completely new direction, requiring a total suspension of disbelief. And this is no small thing. In "The Postman," or in "Waterworld," it was far easier to imagine renegades who took from those who had. Or even ETs arriving on earth to consume the planet's resources as in "Independence Day." But zombies, well, the challenge for the writers is far greater if not insurmountable.

"I am Legend" is rich in its setting and in its acting. The film cost more than $150 million to produce and it shows. But like all sci-fi films, it all comes down to the story. Act III of "Legend" might work for hard-core sci-fi fans, but in general it loses the survival creep factor which imbued acts I and II. But sci-fi horror films always face that critical moment when the audience is shown the monster to which the dorsal fin is attached. Had Neville faced a far different antagonist, far less otherworldly, the film would have carried a far greater punch in terms of verisimilitude. There is also the question of originality: zombie movies have been done, and done well, before. Often. Recently, there was "28 Days" followed by "28 Weeks," both post-apocalyptic films with mutant zombies.

And then there's the ending. Is there a zombie free zone? Can Neville make the journey successfully? Is anyone out there? Writing great endings for zombie films is a rabbit in a hat. There has to be a lot of luck and a bit of magic. And that's what we go to movies for, isn't it? A bit of magic?

Share This Story