12/1/07

R057 I am Legend

(2007, SciFi/Horror/Drama, color)

Riffers:

Mike Nelson, Bill Corbett and Kevin Murphy

Man is dead. Only his corporate logos survived.

Rating: ***

In a nutshell:

A lonely apocalypse survivor struggles to find a cure for the zombie virus.

Summary:

Why keep the title if you've deviated so far from the book as to render it meaningless?We begin with television footage of a morning talk show host interviewing Dr. Alice Krippin (Emma Thompson) about how she has cured cancer. Dr. Krippin explains that she has modified a virus to attack cancer cells after it infects the body.

Three years later, Dr. Robert Neville (Will Smith) is a military scientist living alone in New York City. Literally alone, as all the other inhabitants of the city have either been killed outright or turned into bloodthirsty mutants by the virus’ mutated strain. These mutants cannot stand exposure to ultraviolet light, so during the day they stay hidden in derelict buildings to avoid the sun. Dr. Neville wanders the city gathering supplies and hunting for food by day with his only companion, a dog named Sam. To mitigate his loneliness, he sets up mannequins around the video rental place he frequents, and talks to them as if they were people. Throughout the film, Neville has depressing dreams and flashbacks about the attempted evacuation three years earlier, leading up to the deaths of his wife and daughter.

By night he shuts himself in his laboratory, trying to figure out how to transfer his immunity to the virus to others, testing his various serums on a collection of mutant rats. One day he sees a rat that appears to be recovering. He decides to catch a mutated human for further tests of that particular serum.

His opportunity arrives when Sam chases a deer into an abandoned building, finding a nest of mutants. They barely escape with their lives, but armed with the knowledge of the mutants’ location, Neville sets up a snare trap just inside the door, and baits it with a vial of his own blood. A female mutant (called Alpha Female in the credits) arrives and is snared. A male mutant (Alpha Male) tries to save her, but is forced to go back inside when the sun burns his skin. Neville takes her back to his lab to try out his new serum on her. It works for a few moments, but then kills her. He injects her with the original virus, and it revives her. He sedates her and locks her up.

Two doomed characters.The next morning, one of his mannequins has been moved to the middle of a bridge. Neville freaks out and shoots it. He goes to investigate and gets caught in a snare trap almost exactly like the one he used to catch Alpha Female. He hits his head on the way up, and passes out. He regains consciousness near sunset, when his dog Sam finally wakes him up with frantic barking. He cuts himself down but lands on his knife, which breaks off in his thigh. He crawls back to his car, but not before Alpha Male releases a trio of mutant dogs on him. Sam defends Neville from them until he can get to his gun in the car. He shoots the mutant dogs, but not before Sam has been bitten and infected with the virus. He takes Sam back to his lab and tries to inoculate her, but it’s no good. She turns into a mutant, forcing him to strangle her to death.

He buries her the next day and becomes suicidal with grief. He decides to take as many mutants with him as he can. He drives an SUV through crowds of them that night, until they finally flip his vehicle over. They climb into the SUV after him, but get frightened away by the deus ex machina—a UV light carried by Brazilian girl Anna and her child sidekick Ethan. He tells them about his apartment and warns them to drive around until dawn so that the mutants don’t find it.

Next day he wakes up with his wounds stitched and breakfast waiting. He flips out when he sees that Anna’s cooked the bacon he was saving for Sam, and goes upstairs for a little while to calm down. The scenes that follow contain a soulless recitation of Shrek, a brief overview of his work with the virus, a paean to Bob Marley, and an argument on the subject of religion. All this comes crashing to an end when night falls, and they discover that Anna didn’t wait long enough before dragging him back to his apartment. Alpha Male has led an army of mutants to their front door. The mutants push through his defenses and into the house in short order, forcing Neville and his guests to take shelter in the basement laboratory.

In the lab, they discover yet another deus ex machina—Neville’s latest attempt at curing the virus has succeeded, returning Alpha Female almost to normal. He takes a sample of her blood and gives it to Anna. Anna and Ethan hide in a reinforced hole while Neville blows up himself and the invading mutants with a grenade. Afterwards, Anna and Ethan drive Neville’s car north to a survivor colony in Vermont, and hand the blood sample over to the scientists there.

Thoughts:

Anna Ex Machina.Well whaddya know, when he takes the trouble to curb his unceasing semi-comic blather, Will Smith can actually act. I suppose this means I can now add him to my list of blabbermouth comedians who are far less irritating and sometimes even moving in dramatic roles. Or rather, I can call it a list now that there’s someone besides Robin Williams who fits that description.

And, whaddya know, the movie wasn’t nearly as bad as I thought it would be. Not overall, anyway. The first act deals with Neville’s survivalist efforts, and it is fantastic. Its pitch-perfect tone worms us into Neville’s paranoia and loneliness with affecting precision. The second act wobbles ever so slightly but keeps its feet on the strength of the first act, and on gradually introduced evidence that the mutants aren’t quite as inhuman as Neville believes.

Unfortunately, just before the beginning of the third act, someone at the studio apparently dropped by and said, “Hey, isn’t this supposed to be a zombie movie?” At this point they ignore everything they set up in the second act by turning the mutants back into mindless killing machines. They add a beautiful survivor girl and a survivor child whose only function is to stand around and be both cute and in danger. (Seriously, this kid has no lines, and does nothing but follow Anna and Neville around like a human-shaped puppy. Sam the dog had more personality.) Neville discovers the cure at the last possible moment despite not having worked on it since the last attempt failed, and then turns into a brainless, gun-toting martyr.

(For the record: Yes, I know there’s an alternate ending, and yes, I know it goes back to the “mutants aren’t quite as inhuman as Neville believes” element introduced in Act II. The preceding act still doesn’t develop this element before falling back on it, and still commits all the sins mentioned in the previous paragraph, making this ending completely nonsensical. The theatrical ending is stupid and trite, but at least it’s not trying to pull a whole new theme out of its derriere at the last minute.)

Mike, Bill and Kevin are on hand for the commentary, and much like the movie, most of the good moments arrive in the first two acts. As Neville gets a deer in his sights, Mike says, “Time to get twitterpated, you Bambi sonofa...” When he wakes up and reaches for his gun before turning off the alarm clock, Bill says, “The gun alarm clock: you snooze, you lose.” As he attempts to engage the various mannequins in conversation, Kevin notes, “Behaving insane is the only way to keep his sanity.” Also amusing are Kevin’s rendition of the Mr. Rogers theme song, followed by, “I’d kill for a neighbor,” and a lengthy series of laxative jokes by Bill. Things go downhill once we get to third act. Oh, there are flashes of brilliance—the discussion about Neville’s storm trooper training being responsible for his inability to aim is hilarious—but like us, the Rifftrax crew mostly just can’t believe what they’re seeing. It’s an uneven movie with an uneven commentary, but both tilt heavily towards “good”.