I Am Legend

Published: .
Updated: .
David Swindle
Grade: A

Most men probably won't want to admit it, but deep down, if they're honest with themselves they'll probably eventually cave in and agree with me: your woman is usually right. She might not be right about everything every moment of the day, but chances are she's right about more things, more often than you are. (I'm not sure of the phenomenon's origin. It probably has something to do with the ovaries.)

That ended up being the case with "I Am Legend." After watching it, enjoying it, and declaring it to be probably a B or B+ my fiancée proceeded to argue with me for the next 45 minutes - and throughout the day - insisting the movie to be at least an A-. Passionate debate about our weekly film choice is fairly normal but never had she railed against me so forcefully.

By the next day she had convinced me to give the film another shot. So we went again. And she was right. The second viewing revealed a much richer film than I'd first thought: "I Am Legend" is Hollywood's best big budget, special effects blockbuster of the year. It's clearly superior to "Spider-Man 3," the third "Pirates of the Caribbean" film, "Transformers," and the fifth "Harry Potter."

The reason for the film's success is very simple. One of the memes I've explored in many reviews this year is the concept of evaluating films with two different questions. How well does the movie work as a movie? And how does it work as an experience of its genre?

The first question involves all the typical film criticism concerns. How's the plot? Are the characters interesting and engaging? Do you care about them? Is the dialogue rich and unique? Does the film explore meaningful themes? Does it hit you on an emotional level?

The second is more specific to the kind of film you're watching. If it's a comedy, are you laughing, preferably uncontrollably? If it's a horror film, are you scared? If it's action is it loaded with badass gun battles or thrilling ultra-violence? If it's a blockbuster does it have amazing special effects and stunning visuals?

So many films pour all their energy, creativity, and money into the second question. And that's fine. A lot of them still work. But when a film is willing to take itself a little seriously - pour in a little drama and bother with developing characters - then they have the potential to be infinitely deeper and more satisfying than those that do not.

And that's what "I Am Legend" does. At the core of the film is a serious, incredible performance by Will Smith. By its very nature the film needed this to be even marginally functional.

"I Am Legend" is the third film adaptation of Richard Matheson's 1954 science fiction novel. It was previously done as 1964's "The Last Man on Earth" with Vincent Price and the more well-known 1971 "The Omega Man" starring Charlton Heston. The story is one that's grown familiar with the popularity of the zombie film, a now-staple horror sub-genre pretty heavily indebted to Matheson's novel. "I am Legend" begins with a British scientist on TV describing a revolutionary cancer treatment which works by genetically reprogramming a virus to fight diseases instead of cause them. Cut to a barren New York City where solider/scientist Robert Neville drives through the streets in a sports car with his dog, a German Shepherd named Sam, in the passenger seat. Nature has begun to retake the city with plants growing throughout and deer running between the hordes of abandoned cars. (First of many nods of admiration to the screenwriters' cleverness: hunting deer in a fast car, driving through empty Manhattan streets is a pretty good idea. It certainly is visually thrilling, as most of the film will prove to be as well.) It's pretty obvious what happened.

That respect for the audience's intelligence is refreshing - certainly something you don't see in the other big "event" movies. The film does not go into too much detail about the apparent extinction of humanity. We know that the virus transformed into something that killed off most people and mutated the rest into zombie/vampire-type creatures. There's no need to get technical and lay everything out. The film also knows what territory is worth exploring and what can be skipped. An in-depth set-up about how Neville ended up in his situation is not that relevant. (In fact, the film's decision to provide just a slice of back-story in brief, emotionally-charged flashbacks throughout the primary narrative is brilliant.) No, what we want - and thankfully what we get - is the experience of living alone in New York City during the day and surviving at night when the monsters emerge. The film becomes in many ways a very successful cross of "Cast Away" with a bigger budget "28 Days Later."

Whereas Tom Hanks had Wilson the volleyball as his only friend, Smith is blessed with his dog Sam. The relationship the film establishes is so sincere and beautiful that it's hard to think of a film - or a performance - that has so successfully nailed the deep bond that can develop between man and dog.

The film is also rich in its subtexts. The first is the spirit of Bob Marley who is an inspiration for Neville and whose music populates the soundtrack. There are also Biblical parallels with Neville comparable to both Job and Christ however the film thankfully does not get too explicit or obvious.

So what happens when you've got legitimate drama and substance and inject it into an action/thriller blockbuster? Everything is infinitely more intense. Potential death actually means something instead of just being thrilling in and of itself. I might like Spider-Man, Harry Potter, Optimus Prime, and Jack Sparrow. They might be performed by talented actors. But their stories do not have anywhere near the emotional weight of Robert Neville's.

Not every blockbuster needs to have a drama as its soul. Heck, a blockbuster with a soul is actually something of an oxymoron. And that's fine. Still, though, hopefully the record box office of "I Am Legend" will prompt more studio heads to realize that just because you're spending $150 million on a film with screaming, vicious, computer-generated zombie creatures it doesn't mean the picture can't have depth, meaning, and beauty.

Then again they would probably already know that were they blessed with ovaries.