Thursday, December 27, 2007

I Am Legend

The Verdict: '28 Days Later' meets 'Cast Away' in this derivative of 'The Omega Man'. Slow-burning, watchable and inoffensive, but not legendary.

The Rating: 6/10

Will Smith has been at the helm of many star vehicles over the course of his career, so it may come as a bit of a surprise that he’s only been in a couple of sci-fi movies. (Unless you count wicky wicky Wild Wild west!? – Ed). Since the execrable 'Independence Day', he’s flogged a couple of franchises to death ('Men In Black' and 'Bad Boys'), made plenty of home-cooked apple-pie family entertainment ('Hitch' and 'The Pursuit Of Happyness') and even had a realistic Oscar shot ('Ali'). My own opinions of the man and the relative quality of these movies aside for a moment, I must doff my cap to the Fresh Prince, for he has quietly and carefully crafted a Hollywood career for himself, and now sits indisputably in the exclusive A-list category.

Big Willy Will's latest star vehicle had a stellar opening weekend, raking in $76 million in U.S. theatres. However, it may be stating the obvious, but box-office success isn't any guarantee of quality: two relevant examples illustrating this point being 'Bad Boys II' and 'The Pursuit of Happyness'. Hollywood marketing is as powerful as any propaganda machine, and if the right sort of internet buzz is also behind a movie, a wide-scale big bang release at the right weekend can generate a huge return before any negative word-of-mouth can spoil the party.

Although more of a slow-burning cruise than a wham-bam roller-coaster ride, I have to admit, I am Legend is a lot better than many of Will Smith's previous big screen outings. Giving a nod, a wink, and masonically baring its nipple to zombie movie classics, and essentially deriving a story outline from 'The Omega Man' (Smith's character shares the name of Charlton Heston's from that movie), the movie starts with the Fresh Willenium as the last man alive in New York. Around a thousand days have passed since some sort of cataclysmic event, and W2K is struggling to survive, hold on to his sanity, and feed his dog.

The opening scenes are very reminiscent of '28 Days Later', and there is one moment that was almost entirely lifted from 'Shaun of The Dead', but the scenes in an abandoned New York, overgrown with tundra, and awash with wild animals are interesting and unique enough to grab the attention of the audience in the opening moments. The pace of the movie is very different to those two however, owing more in terms of inspiration to Tom Hanks’ Castaway, although without the scraggly beard and cries of "Willsooonnn!" to grate on the nerves.

It's a neat script, with a slow-burning opening sequence, a well-timed turning point around half-way through, followed by a neatly packaged ending. Fresh Willy has enough presence to keep the audience's interest and sympathies in the first hour, and the understandably creeping insanity of his character adds a nice edge to his usually syrupy good-guy persona. The fact that he's accompanied by a dog in the first hour of the movie allows for conventional dialogue (man-dog as opposed to man-volleyball - Ed), and these initial scenes, although the slowest of the movie, are in my opinion the strongest. Although gradually, we learn more about the cataclysm and some rather zombie-like survivors eventually surface, the post-reveal scenes are something approaching more conventional Hollywood action fare, and were less exciting for this reviewer.

'I am Legend' has enough quality and production value to make it watchable, and it certainly has its moments. The thing is, in the hands of a less 'bankable' lead actor, perhaps willing to take more genuine risks, the script could have been a little less flat-packed, and perhaps displayed more imagination. The infected, for example, were simply monsters in the dark, and only scary enough to earn this movie a PG-13 rating. I felt more could have been done with this aspect of the film.

As it is, 'I Am Legend' will reward fans of this genre with references to well known apocalypse and zombie movies past, and also be off-beat enough to engage those new to the genre. Fans of the big Willie will see him acting his socks off, and in fairness to him, he delivers a decent performance.

All in all, another good career move for big Will in terms of the high-stakes popularity contest that is Tinseltown. He may not achieve legendary status as a pioneering craftsman of original movies, but he's certainly a bona fide Hollywood star.

I am Legend is in cinemas now.

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