I just got back from the Science Fiction / Horror movie I Am Legend. I have to say it's probably one of the best movies out this year, especially in the Science Fiction or Horror genres. The movie, for those of you don't know, takes place three years after a global epidemic that wiped out almost 90% of the earth's population. One survivor, played by Will Smith, has eked out a living in a now abandoned New York City, along with his dog, Samantha. He drives around the city in expensive cars that are now abandoned, plays golf off of an abandoned aircraft carrier and hunts deer in Central Park and Times Square. Oh, and locks up his house and never goes out anywhere without his rifle, because those who weren't killed off by the virus have been turned into a sort of primitive zombie-vampire, who eat anything that they can find after nightfall.
From the beginning, I was reminded of a book that I read earlier this year, called The World Without Us, by Alan Weisman. The book is based on a couple of premises - the first and foremost being about what would happen if everyone vanished - especially New York City. In the book, he presents some of the same things - the subways filling with water, roads falling into disrepair, wildlife returning to the places in which humans formerly lived and plant life springing up everywhere.
Here, the movie presents a fairly accurate vision of this sort of future - like Weisman suggests, the roads have fallen into disrepair, trees and grasses spring up everywhere, deer and lions have returned (or just escaped from somewhere), as well as the subways filling with water. However, unlike in Weisman's world, the tall skyscrapers are still standing tall, (Weisman suggests that they would topple with their foundations becoming waterlogged), the roads are still intact (it's suggested that they would collapse with the subways) and the entire eastern seaboard wasn't radioactive glass, suggesting that the nuclear reactors in the United States hadn't overheated and were destroyed without anybody to staff them.
The first half of the movie is outstandingly done - Smith's character goes about his day, alone with his dog in the city, talking to store dummies that he seems to have placed around in a couple of places that he frequents. He sends out a radio beacon to alert any other survivors that he's out there, to help them. In all likelihood, it's probably mostly for his own sanity, the hope that there is someone else out there. We can see that he's lonely. Some of the best scenes are the ones that are the quietest, looking over the abandoned city while Smith walks around.
In the times that he's not wandering around, we see that Smith has a lab in his basement, where he spends more of his free time working out a cure, based on the immunity that he seems to have against the virus.
It's not an easy feat to virtually carry a movie almost completely on the shoulders of one actor, but Smith really manages to pull it off, especially with the help of his dog, who accompanies him everywhere he goes. While a good proportion of the film takes place in 2012, we do see a couple of glimpses into the past, just prior to the outbreak and during the evacuation. In 2009, a scientist came up with a cure for cancer, with 10,009 human clinical trials. In another glimpse, we see that those trials had horrible side effects, with the virus mutating into something that turns people into a snarling beast that was burned by the sun - almost like rabies. Smith tries to get his wife and daughter out of Manhattan before it's cut off from the rest of the world - he was a colonel in the US Army, and he used his position to try and get them to safety.
The flashbacks are interesting, because the movie takes place afterwards, and there's little setup - the viewers are merely thrown into the mix, with little explanation. The setup's in the first half of the movie, where it works extremely well, and brings the viewer up to the second half, where the action takes over - Smith looses it when Sam is turned, and he tries to kill as many of the zombies as he can, when another pair of survivors turn up, telling him that they heard his message and stopped by as they were on their way to Bethel Vermont, where there is apparently a colony of survivors.
This is perhaps one of the better parts of the film, where Smith hears this news - his first reaction is to throw his dish across the room and shout. He plays it off extremely well, as he finally has somebody to talk to, besides his pet and the television (he can follow along with the dialog of Shrek perfectly). The use of the movie Shrek was very cleverly done - it uses a quote that really parallels their current situation. While he was resistant to the idea of going with them to start anew, he uses the movie to communicate, using things that he does know to get ideas across. We see the other survivor do the same thing, and it takes them a little while to relax a little.
I thought that it was interesting that they chose Vermont as a place for survivors, especially Bethel, which is a real town, and which I've been through a number of times. One of the survivors makes an offhand comment that the cold helped prevent the spread of the virus. It's a bit of a common misperception about Vermont, that it's cold here all the time - while we do have fairly cold winters, it's hardly Hoth year-round - the spring, summer and fall seasons are all quite nice. Winter's just a little longer than most places. Although, from what we do see of the zombie-vampire things, they wouldn't last long at all in the cold of Vermont, or probably anywhere outside of a city environment.
One of the more interesting parts of the film was the way the survivors operate. Smith stockpiles supplies, guns, locks up his doors to the extreme measures and generally does what he can to survive. The colony, which we see in the end of the film, seems to operate on that principle - behind the walls, there's a wind farm and a farm (another Vermont stereotype), and people walking around without bite marks everywhere.
The film succeeds on a number of levels - the strength of the acting - I'm continually surprised at Will Smith in films - I thought that he was abysmal in Independence Day, but thought that he did a good job in I, Robot, and by all reports, he did a very good job in Pursuit of Happiness. Here, he does an excellent job largely on his own - the scenes with him and Sam are the best in the movie and perhaps in this genre, at least in a long time.
The progression of the story is also a strength here, as we're slowly introduced to the situation and what life is like in a post-apocalyptic world. The film goes beyond a mere horror-zombie film. There's true depth here, in the isolation of Smith's character and his lack of belief in god and fate. What we're presented with is a solid film, with solid acting and a very good addition to the genre, as well as a fairly accurate vision of what would happen if everyone in the planet just died off. Go check out this movie, and while on your way to the theater, go pick up Alan Weisman's book, because if you like this, you'll be interested in what he has to say, the answer to the question : What would happen if everyone on the planet vanished? I Am Legend has quite an interesting take on that question - Plus zombies. I do admit, The World Without Us would be a fun read if it had them in it.