the two of us: Smith and dog in I Am Legend.
by Francis Lawrence
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.
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 They’re not scary; they are five-years-out-of-date-CGI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.
by Chris Weitz
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.