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Just the two of us: Smith and dog in I Am Legend.

Alone

By Shawn Stone

I Am Legend

Directed by Francis Lawrence

This latest adaptation of Richard Matheson’s novel gets to the point with bracing speed. We are shown a TV interview with a grinning scientist (an unbilled Emma Thompson, deliciously smug) proudly admitting to having cured 10,000 patients of cancer with a genetically engineered virus. The screen goes black, and after the title “three years later,” we are shown a ravaged, abandoned New York City overrun by weeds and utterly devoid of people.

Apparently, something went wrong.

I Am Legend isn’t quite what you might expect. It’s not an action-packed sci-fi extravaganza, though there is plenty of action. It’s an acting tour-de-force for Will Smith, who, as medical biologist Robert Neville, is “the last man on Earth.” What I Am Legend digs into, with surprising emotional force, is the devastating effect this has on Neville. The film is finds its central drama in this question: Why keep going when survival seems pointless?

The “how” of surviving is the audience’s way into the story. Smith is shown going about his daily routine with his beloved German shepherd, Sam: He drives around Manhattan heavily armed, methodically checking empty buildings for signs of life, collecting supplies and “renting” videos.

There are many unexplained peculiarities: He talks to mannequins; he stays out of dark places; he covers his tracks with vinegar.

The film reveals, in due course, everything you want to know about the progress of the plague, what happened to Neville’s family and who Neville is avoiding—the survivors, who have become mindless (sigh) zombies. (The director, Francis Lawrence, does a nice job of building mystery and tension about what Neville’s afraid of.) The drama, however, isn’t in these plot points; it’s in Neville’s very act of living (and trying to find a cure for the disease.) All of this is on Smith’s shoulders, and he carries it with ease.

It’s sort of like Cast Away, only good.

Where I Am Legend comes up short is in the portrayal of the surviving infected, who behave like typical cinematic flesh-eating zombies. This is a shame, especially since (as noted) the director handles the buildup to revealing them so well. They’re not scary; they are five-years-out-of-date-CGI phony. And when Neville catches one for “drug trials,” it looks about as scary as what it is: a quivering latex sack. I wasn’t sure, after the first few encounters between Neville and these creatures, if it was the same male zombie after him all the time, or if all male zombies had the same face—a face as crudely inexpressive as the robot faces in an earlier Smith vehicle, I Robot.

Ultimately, this doesn’t diminish what the filmmakers—and, more crucially, Will Smith—have accomplished. I Am Legend is a thoughtful, unnerving, emotionally effective mood piece about the biggest horror of them all: mass extinction.

Dumbed Down

The Golden Compass

Directed by Chris Weitz

The Golden Compass, the first novel in Philip Pullman’s fantasy trilogy His Dark Materials, would be a monumental challenge for any screenwriter. Bluntly put, screenwriter (and director) Chris Weitz (American Pie, About a Boy) was a really boneheaded choice. To streamline Pullman’s exceedingly dense (by fantasy standards) alternate universe required a literary deftness that Weitz does not possess. Weitz’ workmanlike adaptation is faithful to a fault—the fault being that this heavily metaphorical story needed a sensitive skimming rather than chunks of play-by-play. To simplify: The Golden Compass is similar to The Chronicles of Narnia and the Harry Potter books in that it takes place in a familiar, yet different, parallel universe. What makes the novel especially onerous to adapt is that much of its appeal comes from the sheer volume of characters, incidents, pseudo-scientific thingamabobs, and multiple levels of metaphysics.

This alternate Great Britain is ruled by the Magisterium, an organization with a cruel secret agenda that drives the plot. In this universe, everyone has a daemon, a constant animal companion that is the manifestation of their soul. In the novel, the organization’s resemblance to the Catholic Church is made very gradually; in the film, it’s too murky to grasp, especially since its power has permeated the venerable university where 12-year-old Lyra (Dakota Blue Richards), and her daemon, Pan, live and play among the scholars. Her carefree, tomboy existence changes when her imperious uncle, Lord Asriel (Daniel Craig), appears with a scientific presentation for the university regarding his travels to the far North and a phenomenon called Dust. Shortly after, Lyra’s best friend Roger is kidnapped by a mysterious entity known as the Gobblers. And it gets more complicated from there.

The more accessible elements—warrior ice bears, witches who swoop into action when least expected, a tribe of courageous gypsies—are magnificently realized by the meticulous art direction and special effects. With the exception of Lyra’s protector, a degraded, outcast bear (voiced by Ian McKellen), however, the story’s more enjoyably fantastical elements are lost amid the heavy lifting of the exposition. The disparate plot strands become increasingly distant from one another, especially after Lyra is claimed by an icily alluring benefactress (Nicole Kidman) with a nasty golden-monkey daemon and a desire for Lyra’s “compass,” an occult divination tool.

Though the casting is unobjectionable (Eva Green as a sympathetic witch is the standout), the characters are one-dimensional, due to their brief screen time. Feisty Lyra is, by necessity, always feisty. And as one astonishing scenario disjointedly follows another, The Golden Compass becomes more obviously a feat of moviemaking instead of an alternate world to be beguilingly entered through the big screen.

—Ann Morrow


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