I saw I Am Legend last night. The reviews have been mixed, and I’ve read comments criticising the implausibility of the premise – if Will Smith is the only person in New York, where does the electricity come from?
But the film blew me away. Most SF movies are actually action movies, which are light on ideas, high on adrenalin. And this movie certainly delivers some great scary action sequences. But it’s also a very brave piece of storytelling. For long long periods Will Smith is the only human being on screen, talking to his dog, living in a New York which is a wasteland inhabited by antelope and lions. And the film captures, beautifully, his despair, alienation, and growing madness. The man is so damn lonely it breaks your heart.
For reasons you’ll discover when you see the film, New York is not a safe place to be in this (very near) future world. But though the Will Smith character is heroic and resourceful, he’s not an exaggerated ‘movie’ hero. When he gets hurt, it hurts. He does stupid things. He exudes vulnerability. This is not The Matrix, where archetypal characters perform impossible deeds; it’s an altogether more challenging piece of storytelling about a flawed and real central character. (And by the way, I love The Matrix!)
It made me think about the nature of the movie audience. We all know that Hollywood studios target their blockbuster at the 18-24 year old demographic; blockbuster movies are for ‘the kids’ (I have actually heard some producers use that phrase.) But as I recall (it’s a long time ago!!!!) that period from 18 to 24 is very intense, emotionally and intellectually. At that stage in our lives, most of us are asking questions about identity, we have moments of loneliness and angst, and we have a burning curiosity about life, and its meaning, and whether it has a meaning. (And okay, partying and sex and drink and slacking come into the equation too….) But my point is, teenagers, and 18-24 year olds, think, and they think a lot, and they like movies which make them think.
The success of I Am Legend has been attributed to Will Smith’s star power. And there’s certainly some truth in that. But I think it’s also successful because young audiences are up for seeing a movie which makes them imagine and then reflect on what it is like to be terribly, appallingly lonely.
The scenes of the desolate New York are superb. I was in Times Square very recently, so had a frisson at the scene where the antelope run past the poster of Legally Blonde.
I can’t for the life of me remember if I’ve seen the Richard Matheson novel on which this is based. I suspect not, so I’ll have to read it soon.
Answer to the question above, about the electricity: lots of buildings like hospitals have generators, so Will Smith must have installed a generator in his apartment block, fuelled by oil or some other easily available resource. The film doesn’t bother to explain or show this, because it’s a film – you can’t waste time explaining every little thing! By the same token, no one tells us the lions have escaped from the zoo – but we, the audience, are smart, and we figure it out.
Critics can be so annoying sometimes….
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