You may be Legend but I am unimpressed.
I am writing this to you while the one thousand skinny fingers of contagion scrape against my windows and infected faces press against the glass.
JK, I’m fine. It’s the wind blowing branches against my house. And luckily for me, any terror that I Am Legend instilled was easily eradicated after I watched just one episode of HBO’s Big Love. I say “luckily” because I don’t actual handle scary movies very well, especially ones involving infectious diseases, mass anarchy, and zombie/vampire hybrids. So it was with a heavy heart that I took my seat for I Am Legend, a film about a guy stuck alone in Manhattan after an infectious disease caused mass anarchy before zombie/vampire hybrids wiped everyone out. But, as my options were limited, I chose to face my fears and just accept the fact that those nightmares that plagued me after 28 Days Later were going to make their triumphant return.
I had been poised to jump out of my seat and flee the premises, because this highly anticipated* Will Smith vehicle began with brilliance, terror, and despair. Director Francis Lawrence seemed to understand perfectly how to manipulate our horror of the unknown. We’re not sure why Dr. Robert Neville is stalking moodily around a desolate Manhattan with only a dog for company, although through his dreams we pick up bits and pieces of the traumatic events that led to his current isolation. We figure out that a virus has ripped through the city and that Neville stayed behind to discover a cure. We begin to realize that not only is he alone on that island, he’s quite possibly alone in the entire world. But one part of his daily routine doesn’t exactly fit in with your average plague-takes-New-York plot. Why does he methodically fortify his house every day at sunset, sleep in the bathtub with a gun, and who or what is causing the ghoulish screams that surround his house at night?
OK, even remembering that part makes me feel weak with fear. What could possibly be worse than being alone in a world that is now populated with things that make that horrible sound? Things that require iron plates across your windows and giant bolts on your door. Turns out the virus doesn’t just kill people. Nope, it sometimes causes them to turn into monsters that come out at night and eat human flesh.
It’s no wonder Neville is clearly consumed by grief and despair, which Will Smith actually pulls off rather well. He’s immune, so not only is he unable to “just join them,” which is what I always tell myself to do in case of a zombie attack**, but he has to trudge through each day, fighting for his existence, with little to no hope that he will ever find a cure.
This frustration comes to a point in the last scary scene in the film, in which Neville’s forced to go into a dark abandoned warehouse in the middle of the day to search for his dog. He’s so nervous that he can barely breathe, and the silence is suffocating. This guy is a seasoned veteran of scary stuff, and even he is afraid to find out what the darkness hides. It’s one of the best-directed horror scenes I’ve seen in a good while, and I feared for my own cardiovascular health as my pulse skyrocketed and everyone in the theater simultaneously hid behind their hands.
Thank you, CGI professionals. I was honestly worried that I would never sleep again, but your completely unrealistic, video-game-reminiscent monsters couldn’t scare even me. The tension broke, my nerves were restored to their proper places, and suddenly I was able to focus on the simplistic symbolism and over the top religious imagery that infected the latter half of the movie. What had started out a smart and grim portrait of a horror humankind could very likely face (not to mention a thrilling exercise in pacing and suspense) dissolved into a predictable, prepackaged ending worthy of the soulless summer blockbusters in which Smith typically excels.
I keep trying to search my emotions for disappointment, but instead I only come up with sweet relief. I would have been in agony afterwards if this movie had been as terrifying as it wanted to be. Instead, aside from a little wistfulness at lost potential and wasted celluloid, I’m able to brush aside the questions it almost asked about human nature in the five minutes it takes to watch twin baby pandas on YouTube. I’d like to believe that the filmmakers in this instance bowed to what the studios would have felt would make an easier movie to digest and, if given the chance, would have further explored the terrors upon which they initially touched. However…I’m the one who went to a Will Smith movie made by the director of Constantine. It’s almost scarier to think I expected more.
*”Anticipated” in that my boyfriend who lives in NYC complained about all the hay that littered the streets while it was being filmed.
**Think about it, why bother spending your whole life being terrified that these zombies are going to get you. Zombies don’t know they’re zombies! They seem pretty content! Join your mom and your friends! Get zombified!