Warner Bros. long in the works re-make of I AM LEGEND hits theaters this Friday, and I found myself rather surprised to find it quite a sensation, as I truly expected it to be the typical Hollywood case of dumbing down the original novel. Of course, this third big screen version is still not very faithful to Richard Matheson’s book, but it’s easily the best of the three movie versions that have been produced so far. And naturally, if analyzed too closely, there are some plot holes in the logic of the story, but to be truthful, what movie (and especially what fantasy movie) can’t be faulted in this regard? The prime example in this area would be most of Alfred Hitchcock’s movies, including his masterpiece, VERTIGO. They all have lapses of logic, but as Hitchcock knew so well, the trick was to keep the audience from noticing them as they were watching the film. In this regard, I AM LEGEND succeeds admirably. Director Lawrence also seems to know when less is more, as like Hitchcock in THE BIRDS, he carefully follows his suspense set pieces with quiet reflective scenes that allow an audience the chance to recover.
Needless to say, for any current Hollywood film that costs over $100 million, the technical aspects on display are quite incredible. That includes not only the beautiful fluid cinematography of Andrew Lesnie, who provides amazing overhead tracking shots down Park Ave, but also the special effects and animation work, headed by Janek Sirrs, along with the awesome sound effects led by veteran sound mixer Tod Maitland. It seems quite likely that in all of these areas, I AM LEGEND will easily be a front-runner for Oscar consideration.
In fact, it’s really due to the beautiful marriage of visuals and sound effects that the film manages to be so frightening. There is a real atmosphere of dread and fear surrounding Will Smith’s encounters with the infected “night seekers” who are not the traditional vampires of Matheson’s novel, but are still unable to venture into the daylight without instantly dissolving. Director Lawrence also seems to have wisely taken a page from Val Lewton’s notebook, and used his soundtrack to accent and surprise the audience. There are long passages of total silence that are suddenly broken by a loud sound effect that literarily jolts you out of your seat.
As Richard Matheson told me in 1983, the three movies that actually caused him to “recoil in his chair in a movie theater,” were similarly dependent on the melding of the soundtrack and the image. Matheson said he was scared by the scene in “DIABOLIQUE, when the dead husband pops up out of the bathtub, and as simple a thing as Roy Scheider dumping the gunk in the water in JAWS and then suddenly the shark appearing behind the boat.” Matheson noted that, “it’s a simple effect to do that, but nobody ever seems to do it. Also, THE HAUNTING and Val Lewton’s pictures. Lewton did wonderfully scary stuff.”
Matheson, also praised Will Smith’s turn as his hero, in this new version of his novel. “I think Will Smith is the perfect person to portray Robert Neville,” say Matheson. “I’ve seen almost every film he has made, and he is always totally convincing in whatever role he is playing. In this story, his character is key and, therefore, he is key.”
Indeed, there is little doubt Will Smith gives a far better performance than either Vincent Price or Charlton Heston, in the two previous film versions. Adding a special note of pathos to Smith’s lonely plight as the last man on earth, is the nice touch of giving him a faithful dog, Sam, as his only companion in his daytime wanderings through the deserted streets of Manhattan. Sam is played by a three-year old German Shepard named Abbey, and I think anyone who sees the film will agree that Abbey gives the best performance by a supporting dog you will see this year.
A final note must go to the stunning production design of Naomi Shohan, whose best known previous work was the gritty Los Angeles drug world on view in TRAINING DAY. The empty Manhattan streets around Park Avenue and Grand Central Station, along with Will Smith’s townhouse fortress on Washington Square Park at One Fifth Avenue are simply stunning. While the use of real Manhattan locations obviously had to be enhanced with computer graphics, it’s literally impossible to detect any flaws in their design that is so often the case when sets are enhanced or built entirely in the computer.
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