27 December 2007

This is my site! I can fix this!

There was a line in 'Voyage of the Damned', the Christmas episode of Doctor Who, where one of the characters remarked to the Doctor:
'Of all the people to survive, he's not the one you would have chosen, is he? But if you could chose, Doctor, if you could decide who lives and who dies -- that would make you a monster.'
There is, of course, a fine line between heroes and monsters, as I've discussed already here. This idea which was central to the Christmas episode of Doctor Who, strikes me in retrospect as having been curiously underplayed I Am Legend, which I saw -- and enjoyed -- last night.

Based on Richard Matheson's 1954 novel of the same name, I Am Legend has already been filmed twice, but I'm afraid that having neither read the book nor seen Vincent Price and Charlton Heston do their respective things in The Last Man on Earth and The Omega Man, I wasn't really sure what to expect from the new film. Sure, I had a vague notion of Will Smith being the last real human left alive in a world where some kind of plague had turned everyone else into vampires, but while that's pretty much the premise of the film it didn't really prepare me for what unfolded.

Obviously owing an immense amount to 28 Days Later, a film which itself owes more than a little to Matheson's novel, the film is almost wholly set in 2012 on a feral Manhattan island, cut off from the mainland, where for three years a military virologist named Robert Neville has lived alone with just his dog for company, somehow immune to a virus that has almost totally annihilated mankind.

90 per cent of those who contracted the virus when it developed in 2009 had died; almost all the survivors had mutated into rabid monsters with a craving for living flesh and a marked aversion to daylight.

As far as he knows, Neville is the only normal human left alive in the world, although this doesn't stop him from sending out a daily radio signal to whoever might be listening, and every day waiting where he promises to wait, in the vain hope of meeting just one other survivor. His days are dedicated -- when he's not picking corn in Central Park or hunting deer in Times Square -- to a seemingly endless quest to identify what it is that makes him immune, and by replicating that immunity to somehow cure the mutations and save humanity from what it's become.

Although there are quite a few glitches in the script, especially towards the end where some things really don't quite add up, it's a fascinating idea, beautifully executed in the main, with a handful of real jump-out-of-your-seat moments and some nice touches -- I rather liked the wind turbines of the final shot. It's particularly interesting in how it meditates on the notion of the importance of hope, with Neville being like Chesterton's dedicated sentinel at an unknown watch, but it seems that it strays radically from Matheson's book, especially in the sense of how Neville is a 'legend'.

It seems that Matheson's book, set in California rather than New York, features rather more conventional vampires and a third grouping, humans termed 'the still living' who are indistinguishable from the vampires themselves. Unable to distinguish predators from prey, Matheson's Neville kills both groups indiscriminately, becoming a mythical monster to them, the 'legend' of the title.

It's a shame that this aspect of the story was abandoned in the movie, as it would surely have added layers of depth to a film that already goes somewhat beyond typical holiday blockbuster fare. Well, that's not quite fair, as the theme isn't so much abandoned as transferred. Unlike in the book, the film's plague has been caused by an attempt to cure cancer through the creation of a manipulated strain of the virus that causes measles. Instead of Neville becoming a monster through usurping God's power of life and death, this dubious distinction is bestowed on poor Dr Krippin, Emma Thompson's well-meaning scientist who in an attempt to save the world created the mutant virus and unleashed Hell on Earth.

(I know, as a warning against scientists who might be tempted to play God, it's rather melodramatic; I'm just saying that the theme's not quite absent from the film.)

Aside from the eerily beautiful shots of New York being reclaimed by the wild -- albeit improbably quickly -- the film's main strength is Will Smith himself, who puts in a fine performance in an atypically grim role.

Through much of the film Neville comes across as a somewhat Quixotic character, as pathetic as he is noble, reliving the same day every day, following the same patterns, slowly going mad but with his madness keeping him sane, his obsessive-compulsive patterns creating a boundary of civilization and order between him and the monstrously depraved -- albeit smarter and better organised than Neville realises -- remnants of humanity. His quest to cure the virus seems pointless, as even were he to succeed in replicating his immunity, what hope would he really have of redeeming humanity?

Does he know this? Does he realise the futility of his mission? Is he staying put out of a sense of duty, or out of a sense of arrogance, or purely out of obsession? His constant mantra is 'I can fix this!', which -- driven though it is by both necessity and obligation -- might smack of hubris were it not for the fact that, well, he kind of does.

There's a lesson there somewhere. It's an interesting film. I just wish they'd taken an extra two minutes or so to fill in those annoying holes in the plot.

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