'Legend' starts strong, but ...

Reeling It In

Posted: Thursday, December 20, 2007

Hollywood is full of beautiful and successful adaptations of popular novels. So many, you might say, that some years it feels like Tinseltown turns out nothing but adaptation after adaptation. Producers and studios love adaptations because: a. The story is already written for them; and b. There is already (hopefully) a built in fan base who will, ideally, mob the theater on that all-important first weekend.

The problem is a question of courage. It takes a lot of guts to write a novel. You're out there on your own, without the cushion of focus groups, test audiences, and marketing strategists. It's just you and your characters, and their fate is in your hands and yours alone. Consequently, most good novels have an ending that is appropriate to the story. It may not be the ending the readers were hoping for, but it's the right ending, nonetheless. This week's "I Am Legend" comes from a sharp and thoughtful little vampire novel written by Richard Matheson and, while Hollywood gets a lot right with the adaptation, it ultimately lacks the courage of the author, giving us a new ending that literally sucks the life out of the story.

Will Smith is Dr. Robert Neville, a military virologist and, as far as he knows, the last living man on Earth. Three years previously, a promising new cure for cancer went awry, mutating into a deadly virus which wiped out 90 percent of the people on the planet. Of the 10 percent that survived, 1 percent are immune, including our solitary Dr. Neville. The remaining 9 percent have become the walking undead not exactly vampires, but a kind of zombie cross. An extreme allergy to ultraviolet light mixed with an insatiable hunger and an apparent madness makes them the worst kind of neighbors to have. Luckily, they only come out at night, and so, during the day, Neville has the city to himself. He and his trusty German shepherd, Sam, scour the city, looking for food, supplies, and, ever hopeful, survivors.

The first half of the movie is beautifully done. The scenes of an empty and desolate New York are breathtaking. The production design is brilliant. There are details spread throughout that more fully tell the tale of a past that is only briefly touched on in flashback. Spread among the junked cars and overgrown foliage are quarantine signs, posters, banners, and a thousand other little touches describing a society that suddenly crashed. Smith's performance is top notch, portraying a man who, though ever hopeful that he can find a cure, is on the edge of losing his sanity in his isolation. It's very cool, very quiet, and the scares, when they come, are very effective.

Things begin to get a little sketchy when the vampires really show up in earnest. One of the problems is not a story issue, but one of technology. These movie monsters are not complicated. They don't fly, mutate, grow to enormous size or sport tails, wings or horns. So, in my mind, there was absolutely no need to make them computer generated. All this achieves is to make them look slightly fake, and therefore less scary. This is kind of minor point, but it really bugged me.

Worse though, is that the vampires get seriously short-shrifted story-wise. In the book, "Legend" ultimately has more to do with adapting societies than with fighting scary monsters, and it seemed, for a little while, that the movie was going to follow suit. But then, true to form, the "big battle" erupted and everything went to hell in a hand basket. The tacked-on ending feels false, rushed, and completely unsatisfying.

This was kind of a red-letter weekend for me as I got to see two movies instead of my usual single outing. I mention this other film, not only because it's one of the best movies I've seen all year, but because it is also an adaptation, and one that gets the ending right. The ending stinks, but it's right. "No Country for Old Men" is harsh and brilliant and frustrating and beautiful.

The Coen brothers, echoing more of "Fargo" than of "Raising Arizona," have produced a masterpiece with incredible performances by Tommy Lee Jones, Josh Brolin, and Javier Bardem. I was completely blown away.

"I Am Legend" was never going to be a masterpiece, but the first half of the movie --really the first two-thirds -- hints at a much better movie than it ultimately delivers. This film may produce a legendary box office, as movie-goers, hungry for something new and epic, flock to the theaters, but as far as impact, I doubt you'll hear people singing this song even a year from now.

Grade: C

"I Am Legend" is rated PG-13 for violence and intense frights.

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