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Monday, January 7, 2008

REEL REVIEW: I Am Legend: the IMAX experience (2007) ***

I Am Legend (2007) one sheet

PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi action and violence.
1 hr. 40 min.

written by: Akiva Goldsman & Mark Protosevich with source material from John William & Joyce Hopper Corrington("The Omega Man") and Richard B. Matheson (novel: I Am Legend)
produced by: David Heyman, Neal H.Moritz, Akiva Goldsman & James Lassiter
directed by: Francis Lawrence

I had just finished a Christmas show performance on December 23rd at church (you can check out the pics here) which required a set of tedious rehearsals and I knew I needed some kinda outlet. For me, this outlet usually involves gettin' out and seein' a movie. I wanted some kinda escape, so I planned one which consisted of some of the usual suspects. The plan was to take in a 9pm showing of "I Am Legend" at the IMAX at Navy Pier. It would turn out to be one of the coldest, windiest nights yet. On the way there I started doubting my sanity which is exactly what I would see Will Smith do on a gigantic screen. But first....

I chose to see this film in IMAX for two reasons: 1.) it would be cool on the big-big screen 2.) it had a prologue for "The Dark Knight" playing before it. All the non-IMAX showings of this film just had the new trailer for "The Dark Knight" but this was the actual beginning of the movie....and it was awesome! Filmed in IMAX, the intense prologue showed The Joker (Heath Ledger) and his masked goons robbing the Gotham National Bank. The way this is implemented is pretty twisted and ingenious (just like the comic book Joker) and in one particular scene where the goons are swinging to the roof of the bank from an adjacent skyscraper (clearly Chicago, yes!)....quite dizzying (yay for IMAX)! It was great to see the bank manager (the great William Fichtner) go up against the goons and Joker with a shotgun in the bank. It was also great to see how Joker deals with him and flees the bank (onto what looks like Jackson Blvd!) Something tells me this sequel will surpass the previous one in greatness. Heck, just the sheer joy of noticing all the Chicago locations will be worth it. Plus, it would be nice to spot myself as well but that may be wishful thinking.

After seeing that, I was all excited and looking forward to seeing Dr. Robert Neville (Will Smith) go at it alone in a desolate Manhattan of the near future. By now, you're likely aware of the story....he's the Last Man on Earth! Whoa. How'd that happen? Well, it's 2012 and it turns out back in 2009 there was this virile outbreak that wiped out 90% of civilization by years end.The film starts out with some news recordings that reveal a genetically engineered measles virus that had been created by a Dr. Alice Krippin (an uncredited cameo by Emma Thompson-how'd they get her?) as a cure for cancer. Little did she know it would mutate into a lethal strain which would rapidly infect humans and animals. So, of the 10% left of civilization 9% were infected, but did not die. These survivors spiraled into a primal state of aggression and began to react painfully to UV rays, forcing them to hide in buildings and other dark places during the day. Less than 1% remained completely immune to the virus, but were hunted and killed by the infected.

Will Smith in Warner Bros. Pictures' I Am Legend

That's how US Army virologist Lieutenant Colonel Robert Neville is left as the supposed last healthy human in NYC and quite possibly the entire world. We're shown in some well-done flashbacks that when the breakout went live, Neville being the army doc he is was able to get his wife Zoe (Chicago's own Salli Richardson) and daughter Marley (Smith's own Willow Smith) on a helicopter off Manhattan to hopeful safety. That was more than three years ago and now Neville's daily routine is trying to find a cure for cure for cancer. He feels it's his responsibility to see if their is a way to reverse the infected. Of course he and his daughter's German Shephard Sam (short for Samantha, played by Kona) need to stay away from the infected at night and do so in the safety of his fortified home.

Slowly drained of his sanity and growing weary of battling the vampire-like infected that attack during the night, Neville is losing hope that his nightmare will end. By far, the finest moments of the picture are easily the sequences of the him and Sam driving around the city streets, interacting with a frozen world. Hunting deer or shooting golf balls into buildings off an aircraft carrier, Neville has the world to himself in the daytime, employing careful street geography sharpened over three years of seclusion. In this game of boredom and survival there appears to be no winner, just survival. The balance between the two is where "Legend" finds the strongest dramatic flavor, carefully studying Neville's fragile sanity while upping the tension with the menacing "Dark Seekers" and their escalating aggression toward the viral survivors.

Neville's daily routine includes experimentation on the infected he manages to capture in order to find a cure for the virus as well as trips through a Manhattan devoid of humanity to hunt for food and supplies. He even goes through the local video store starting from A to Z, he's got the time (something I would do). He also makes friends with mannequins he's positioned in the store, he knows their names and back stories. Waiting each day for a response to his continuous transmission broadcasts, which instruct any survivors to meet him at midday at the South Street Seaport. When other survivors finally do start to surface, the revelation stuns Neville, who finds his struggle to remain optimistic is in constant battle with his knowledge that humanity has likely been snuffed out for good. Smith handles their appearance in a very real way. It's still hard to comprehend that he's not alone, that there are others out there beside these metropolitan night creatures.

Francis Lawrence (who also directed "Constantine") is a skilled enough director to pull off the visual apocalypse of a deteriorated New York City and he also successfully sets up an environment for Smith to allow you to feel what it would be like to live in this world. The reason some of the scenes I mentioned work is due to the total silence Lawrence uses during the opening acts. He does this not just to amp suspense, but to have you feel the unnerving stillness in the air. One of the best, nail-biting scenes has Sam wander off in daylight into a building. A big no-no cuz we and Neville know that those insatiable creatures are lurking in there. It really draws out the horror, fear and dependence he has with his only companion.

So, Lawrence succeeds in making the first three fourths of this film an excellent look at isolation, loneliness and aloneness. But (there had to be one) the final half hour just seem rushed. Once Anna (Alice Braga) and her son Ethan (Charlie Tahan), the two survivors who find him come into the story everything speeds up into an adrenalized action picture. The slow, tense build-up Lawrence gave us is replaced with a video game feel with the CGI-heavy creatures swarming all three of them. It had to come, I knew the action would kick up a notch as I watched it but I though it woulda been a notch, not full throttle. Ah well.

Will Smith in Warner Bros. Pictures' I Am Legend

Some viewers have commented on how lame the infected creatures were in the film. They're saying they felt too similar to something you'd find in a video game, not life-like enough. At first, I didn't mind them (maybe cuz I saw less of them) but I have to admit something about them after awhile felt....goofy. This could be some of the worst CGI creatures put to film, making them look more like crude animation tests. What ever happened to the magic of makeup?Maybe it's cuz we don't know any of them to begin with, I mean supposedly all of those infected were once averages people, right? Yet, they all are skinny, half-naked and veiny, resembling Johnsonville brats. They all look the same! Why aren't they all different sizes? Average people are short and tall and fat and skinny so how'd they get this way? I know that Lawrence started out using real actors for these creatures but later opted for CGI. That's too bad.

Obviously not just any actor can handle a role where the majority of the film you're hanging either by yourself or with a German Shephard. Tom Hanks could only do it for so long and then he needed (or rather the movie needed) a volleyball. But Smith has the charisma and talent to take on the character, putting in his best sci-fi acting work to date. He effectively portrays a man pushed to the brink of madness dealing with great loss and feeling burdened with trying to cure those infected. Smith offers up fantastic work here, from singing Bob Marley to Sam to his thickening depression. It's a dark and desperate performance that feels real but "Legend" is a dark and desperate film. Anyone stereotyping Smith's talent and expecting something similar to his previous work, will be surprised.

Honestly, I woulda preferred watching an entire film of Neville confronting his despondent life, but Lawrence doesn't have the patience to see his mounting despair all the way through to the end. Instead, the third act is rushed and the ending a tad too tidy for me. I know the films overall look does benefit from 2007 technology but it is also ruined by it. As for the benefit of seeing it in IMAX, maybe I'm getting old but the IMAX films I see the more I seem to miss especially in action films. I tend to lose a lotta detail when a screen five stories tall is giving me dizzying visuals. So, unless it's filmed in IMAX, it's kinda hard to make everything out. In the end, the film slumps to the finish line, failing to find a pathway to a stimulating, satisfying finale. While there are some great things going on for the majority of the film, it's just too bad it runs out of gas as it speeds it's way to mediocrity.

Will Smith and director Francis Lawrence on the set of Warner Bros. Pictures' I Am Legend

The Skinny:

  • American writer Richard Matheson typically wrote in the fantasy, horror, or science fiction genre for television (the most famous being the William Shatner episode of The Twilight Zone"Nightmare at 20,000 Feet") and various films (Somewhere in Time, What Dreams May Come and Stir of Echoes, to name a few).
  • This film is the third adaptation of Matheson's 1954 novel I Am Legend and following 1964's The Last Man on Earth with Vincent Price in the lead and 1971's The Omega Man with Charlton Heston.
  • None of these have ever completely loyal to his novel which is to be expected. All of them, including this one hold up for their time period. Obviously the previous two feel a bit outdated, of those I've only recently seen the first one with Price. I couldn't really tell what city in takes place in but the year is 1968, which seems kinda limiting if you ask me.
  • The novel implied that the vampire plague resulted from environmental destruction resulting from nuclear wars but the origin of the disease was not explained in the first film and was altered in the subsequent adaptations.
  • Now any "last-man-on-earth" concept is initially a very cool concept to me. It's something that's been around in science-fiction forever. Maybe I like the idea cuz at some point in our lives I think we all wish that everyone could just go away and just for once we could be left alone and do whatever we want. One of my favorite 'last man" stories was with Burgess Meredith on the classic first season of The Twilight Zone, in an episode entitled Time Enough at Last. That episode had many themes one of which is the whole "be careful what you ask for" idea. In the end though, as much as one would like to be left alone, eventually left alone with your own thoughts....you're gonna lose it. Man was not meant to be alone.
  • Cameron Monaghan auditioned for the part of Ethan.
  • Smith left the production for a couple of days to attend Tom Cruise's wedding to Katie Holmes in Rome, Italy.
  • Guillermo del Toro, Smith's first choice, turned down the offer to direct this film so he could make 2008's "Hellboy II: The Golden Army".
  • Warner Bros. has owned the rights to the book since the 1970s. The studio's first attempt adapting it was as 1971's "The Omega Man", director by Boris Sagal. Then as "I Am Legend" with director Ridley Scott, starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, which fell through when the production went over-budget. And then in 2002, Michael Bay was set to direct Smith, but they decided to make 2003's "Bad Boys II" instead.
  • The scenes at the Brooklyn Bridge involved over 1000 extras and various military vehicles and aircraft.
  • Much of this film was shot on location in New York City's Washington Square Park during fall and winter 2006-2007, causing holiday decorations to be taken down and replaced tumultuously for over three months.
  • The studio spent an estimated $5,000,000 for a 6 night shoot in New York involving the Brooklyn Bridge. To film in this location, the producers needed the approval of up to 14 government agencies. The producers had to bring in a crew of 250, plus 1,000 extras, including 160 members of the National Guard in full combat gear.
  • The film was green-lit without a script.
  • Warner Brothers initially opposed filming in New York because of costs and logistical challenges. However, Michael Tadross, a veteran New York production manager got the city to approve closing the Grand Central viaduct, several blocks of Fifth Avenue and Washington Square Park, albeit at night and on weekends, between September 2006 and April 2007.
  • Plants were transported via trucks from Florida to dress up the city streets as if weeds had overtaken them.
  • The noise from the special effects explosions used in the scenes along the East River interrupted voice recording on the Nickelodeon children's show, "The Wonder Pets", which has its production offices one block from where shooting took place.
  • In the scene in Times Square, there is a billboard for the fictional "Superman/Batman" movie (which a logo that has been used for somtime now by DC for it's Superman/Batman comic title), slated to open 5/15/10. Additionally, in the video store, there are movie posters for "Green Lantern" and "Teen Titans". All of these properties are from DC Comics, which is owned by Warner Brothers, the studio producing the movie, and either are or at one time potential upcoming releases.
  • In the film, Smith's character holds up a CD calling it "...the best album ever made." The album is Bob Marley's "Legend." Neville's daughter is named Marley in the movie.
  • All of the paintings in Dr. Neville's house were taken from the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.
  • At the New York premier, Smith apologized for the disruption shooting the movie caused to the city residents. He said, "I would like to issue a public apology to the citizens of New York. There were a couple of streets we had to close off during the filming of I Am Legend. I am very sorry. People were kind of upset with me."
  • Release prints were delivered to theaters with the fake title 'Blood Allies'.
  • Smith grew so enamored of his canine co-star, Abby, that he tried to adopt her when the shooting was finished, but the dog's trainer could not be persuaded to give her up.
  • Smith found Neville to be his toughest acting challenge since portraying Muhammad Ali. He said that "when you're on your own, it is kind of hard to find conflict." The film's dark tone and exploration of whether Neville has gone insane during his isolation meant Smith had to restrain himself from falling into a humorous routine during takes.
  • To prepare for his role, Smith visited the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Georgia. He also met with a person who had been in solitary confinement and a former prisoner of war.
  • Smith compared Neville to Job, who lost his children, livelihood and health. Like the Book of Job, I Am Legend studies the questions, "Can he find a reason to continue? Can he find the hope or desire to excel and advance in life? Or does the death of everything around him create imminent death for himself?"
  • A week into filming, Lawrence felt the infected, who were being portrayed by actors wearing prosthetics, were not convincing. His decision to use CGI meant post-production had to be extended and the budget increased. Lawrence explained, "They needed to have an abandon in their performance that you just can’t get out of people in the middle of the night when they’re barefoot. And their metabolisms are really spiked, so they’re constantly hyperventilating, which you can’t really get actors to do for a long time or they pass out."
  • While the infected become vampires in the novel, the film script avoids such a direct reference; even though the character Anna calls them "dark seekers", and they consume living flesh, their design is inspired more by the concept of their adrenal glands being open all the time than by conventional vampire imagery. The actors remained on set to provide motion capture.
  • The film's producers and sound people wanted the creatures in the movie to sound somewhat human, but not the standard, so Mike Patton, former lead singer of Alternative rock band Faith No More, was engaged to provide all of the infecteds' screams and howls.
  • In addition, CGI was used for the lions and deer in the film, and to erase pedestrians in shots of New York. Workers visible in windows, spectators and moving cars in the distance were all removed.
  • In his vision of an empty New York, Lawrence cited John Ford as his influence: "We didn't want to make an apocalyptic movie where the landscape felt apocalyptic. A lot of the movie takes place on a beautiful day. There's something magical about the empty city as opposed to dark and scary."
  • A tie-in comic from DC and Vertigo Comics has been created.The project draws upon collaboration from artist Bill Sienkiewicz, screenwriter Mark Protosevich, and author Orson Scott Card. The son of the original book's author, Richard Christian Matheson, also collaborated on the project.
  • In October 2007, Warner Bros. in conjunction with the Electric Sheep Company launched the online multiplayer game I Am Legend: Survival in the virtual world Second Life. The game is the largest launched in the virtual world in support of a film release, permitting people to play against each other as the infected or the uninfected across a replicated 60 acres of New York City.
  • The studio also hired the ad agency Crew Creative to develop a website that would be specifically viewable on Apple's iPhone.
  • NPR critic Bob Mondello noted the film's subtext concerning global terrorism and that this aspect made the film fit in perfectly with other, more direct cinematic explorations of the subject.
  • Richard Roeper gave the film a positive review on the television program At the Movies with Ebert & Roeper, commending Smith as being in "prime form", also saying there are "some amazing sequences" and that there was "a pretty heavy screenplay for an action film."
  • Much of the negative criticism has concerned the use of CGI effects, which many critics have labeled as excessive and unrealistic, as well as an unsatisfactory third act.

I Am Legend (2007) teaser

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