My girlfriend got me into zombie movies. The appeal, at least for me, is complex and multidimensional. On the one hand, there’s a thrilling sense of doom: the world has, if only temporarily, come to an end. There’s almost no one left and survival depends on being able and prepared to kill things that aren’t human but obviously used to be. On the other hand, survival is pretty much your only job, and the world is your shopping mall. There are no late fees for DVDs, there’s free ice cream as long as the electricity keeps the freezers running, and if you can figure out how to get those security tags off you can dress like a runway model. You don’t have a boss, you don’t need money, and no one really cares if you never live up to your potential.
I Am Legend‘s source material had a lot of potential as I recall. I read the novel by Richard Matheson and saw the movie version (The Omega Man) starring Charlton Heston quite some time ago, so I don’t remember a whole lot about them, but I do remember that the bad guys were more like vampires than zombies. They talked, they taunted, they roamed the night in gangs. In Will Smith’s remake, the bad guys have a severe allergy to sunlight but are otherwise basically fast, acrobatic zombies.
This closes down a lot of possibilities, and since (as we discover at the beginning of the film) the zombies were created from a flawed cancer cure, it stretches credibility a bit. The creatures seem less human than in most zombie movies, and unfortunately look much less human as well because as far as I could tell they were all rather obvious CGI. This robs them of a lot of the impact they could have had if played by humans in the closeups, at least.
The good news is that a great deal of the film is extremely well made. Will Smith is terrific in the Heston role as the last man on Earth, Robert Neville, and his backstory very neatly explains why he is not only excellent at survival (despite some inconsistent marksmanship) and a whiz at experimental medicine but also uniquely compelled to do something about humanity’s apocalyptic situation. The details are great, my favorite being that Neville wears two digital watches with redundant alarms to make sure he gets back to his house before sunset, and he gets himself into some truly heart-pounding situations with a minimum of stupid horror-film mistakes. A good horror film requires that its hero get into danger for good reasons and not because he temporarily forgets that he’s not an imbecile. For at least the first two-thirds of the film we’re riveted by Neville’s solitude, his dedication, and his persistent humanity in the face of hopelessness. The mix of humor and heartbreak is most evident in the scenes where Neville goes to the video store (he’s working through the Gs) and converses with the mannequins he’s set up to look like customers and clerks.
The usual zombie-movie tropes follow in mostly non-bullshit ways. There’s Enjoying the Solitude, Foraging For Food and Supplies, the increasingly popular Attacked By Zombie Dogs, Losing a Loved One to the Plague, and Sanctuary Compromised. Then finally we get to I’m Not the Only Survivor After All, and that’s when it starts to ring a little false. By that point Neville has begun to give up hope, and meeting another apparently normal human freaks him out. At first he doesn’t want to believe it, and then he doesn’t want to believe it means anything. But the significance of this encounter finally becomes clear and it leads up to a climax ripped off from Signs, which was an enormous letdown after such a well-crafted plot. It’s not that there are plot holes, at least none that I noticed at the time. It’s just that the takeaway is: science is extremely dangerous and likely to go wrong, and when it goes right it’s through divine intervention. Also: when bad things happen, it’s our fault, and when good things happen, it’s God’s will.
It’s a good film. There were some incredible scenes, like the one where we first see the zombies and the one where we last see the Loved One Lost to the Plague (I almost cried, and that’s saying something). It’s an intelligent movie, elegant and tasteful, except for the Inexplicably (and unremarked-upon) Smart Zombie Leader who tends to screech at the camera for no good reason. And perhaps we should forgive it for ending with spiritual platitudes instead of something deeply significant and human, since the characters’ interpretations of events don’t affect the events themselves. But science fiction is pointless if it ends in fantasy, and a zombie movie is pointless if it’s not about humanity. So it’s a good film, but not a great one.
I must say, though, that even though I didn’t see I, Robot (I gotta get around to reading it first) I’m excited to see Will Smith making more mid-20th-century classic science fiction. I can’t wait to see what he takes on next.
Also, I’m sorry to say the trailer for The Dark Knight was a letdown. Heath Ledger’s Joker does have some Jack Nicholson in the voice, and the makeup is a different choice but I don’t think it quite works. Of course I’m going to see it, no fear. But hopefully it’s going to be better than it looks.