There are people out there who don’t like Zombie movies. I suspect there are lots of them, but I think its fairer to say that there aren’t a lot of people who absolutely love them. They’re a sub-genre that is, I suspect, tolerated by fans of the wider genre rather than embraced with the full love and respect afforded to, say, Vampires.
I can definitely understand it. Zombies are, let’s be fair, not usually a very dynamic threat. Until recent evolutions in the genre, your basic Zombie was not really much of a threat to any able bodied adult. What they lacked in individual dynamism, they made up for in pure numbers. And let’s also admit right up front that many Zombie efforts are, well, a bit lame.
Whether this is the main reason, I’m not sure. It has recently occurred to me that a second thing to really not like about Zombie movies is that they depict the utter desolation of human civilization. A zombie has no culture, and no individual personality: and likewise, they force the break-down of the civilization of those who remain alive. Everyone secretly thinks “wow, being a Werewolf would be such a personal tragedy: COOOL!” Or words to that effect. Absolutely nobody wants to be a Zombie. And, if you should find yourself up against The Mummy, you can be sure that your comrades will band together with you. In Zombie movies, the Zombies being so little a threat, it’s the other people you’ve got to watch.
And obviously, accompanying the break-down in civilization is isolation. Human beings are gregarious by nature; and I think that the isolation and loneliness that the Zombie enforces is perhaps his least appealing tool of terror.
Which brings me, before to the movie itself, to the advertising campaign for I am Legend. We see Will Smith, basically alone, and a clip of him saying “social de-evolution is complete.” We expect, as we did in Cast Away, that this movie will have almost exactly 1 actor in it. But, we’re thinking, at least the monster is probably now going to actually be scary, because he doesn’t have a close knit group of survivors to kill him.
The movie itself opens with a break-neck scene of Will Smith powering through desolate and overgrown NYC futilely hunting some kind of large beast. Eventually, he encounters some kind of deformed lions, and we cut into his daily routine of paranoia. Slowly, over the next act, we explore what it means to be the last living man in NYC. And I found this part of the movie to be very engaging. We see a person with all the signs of struggling through adversity. Let’s face it: we love that shit.
Without much preamble, the Zombie is then shoved directly into our face as Will’s dog runs into a “hive”. It’s a very tense and well-shot sequence, which had many people in the audience with me jumping and screaming in fright. The monster is everything we’ve been hoping it will be. A zombie, but fast, and somewhat cunning. It lacks the visceral punch of a rage-infected from 28 Days Later, and suffers a bit from looking unreal. A surfeit of CGI, I suspect. But nevertheless, a terrifying reflection of the human condition that is far more convincing than any Romero Ghoul.
And then, we’re out of the horror movie. The rest of the movie spins out deftly enough, showing the fatal mistake and circumstance that least Will to find the cure for Zombie-ism, and his noble death defending it. We’re introduced to other survivors, and a world that Will clearly knew about, but was concealed from the audience by his blithe dismissal of its reality. We see the circumstances leading up to his present situation, and gain some understanding of little character moments that we’ve observed. All, as I said, executed adroitly enough.
That half hour or so is probably enough to earn the movie the price of admission. It’s the kind of cinema that will be crippled on DVD: it’s old fashioned big-budget stuff that really makes you jump. But the rest of the movie rides that emotional energy into the ground, and slowly trades credibility for plot expediency.
My main problems were three. I found the flashbacks to his life at the time of the outbreak really didn’t bring anything to the story that couldn’t be inferred very easily. So, they come across, and are shown, at distinct breaks in the story flow. Their purpose is clearly, not to build sympathy with the character, but hide the segues between Acts.
The second problem is the ending which is such blatant “Go America” propaganda that it in one blow reduces a tale about the fundamentals of the human condition into an advert for one specific way of life. It feels completely tacked-on: an arbitrary happy ending to pick people up and cheer them up after what is a reasonably grim circumstance.
And the third problem, though by far the least, was the gaping plot hole which opens the third act. It suggested so much, and actually ended up saying very little.
What do I conclude then? It’s a go-to-at-the-movies movie. It delivers the best that Hollywood seems capable of these days in this genre. It is liberally littered with inspired moments of character and story. But it’s not a must-see, because it doesn’t seek to string these moments together into a great movie. It settles, ultimately, for being a Hollywood Blockbuster, and relies upon slick production and a charismatic lead to cover its plot holes and lost potential.
7 / 10