Disappointing is not the appropriate word to describe Will Smith’s latest film, I am Legend, an eagerly awaited adaptation of Richard Matheson’s apocalyptic story. Previously adapted for the big screen as The Omega Man with Charlton Heston, over the past decade, several high profile directors like Ridley Scott have been attached to the project, but budget and script problems have always made Hollywood studios reluctant to commit until that is the most bankable Hollywood film star today came along and decided he wanted to make the film possible. Though it is difficult to associate certain stars with specific genres today, Will Smith’s long running and commercially respectable relationship with the science fiction genre has produced a number of high concept blockbusters over the last decade that have performed remarkable international box office business, ensuring the genre remains very much a safe bet for Hollywood studios. In no doubt inspired by Danny Boyle’s brilliantly effective zombie apocalyptic thriller, ‘28 Days Later’, that opens with a powerful narrative hook in which the central protagonist wanders through the deserted landscape of London city, I am Legend seeks to tempt us with a much short lived promise of a radical departure from the conventions of apocalyptic films. Hollywood’s endless fascination with imagining the end of the world in a broad cinematic spectacle that finds mankind as the endangered species seems to say more about the self-destructive vein that exists within American society than it does about the thematic relevance of the genre.
Will Smith is one of the few genuinely likable film stars working with the mainstream today as his non-offensive off screen persona represents him as the hard working family man. The science fiction genre is the one genre that Will Smith can rightly call his own as it has allowed him to perfect the on screen persona of the charismatic, wise cracking hero who will stop anything to prevent mankind from ceasing to exist. Had I am Legend been released earlier in 2007 then I am sure it would have tried to compete with Spiderman 3 and Pirates 3 for the top spot, but nevertheless, the film has done phenomenal business, eclipsing many of the records Will Smith had set with his previous films. Considering how thoughtfully executed the marketing strategy was behind the release of the film, it surely proves that Will Smith’s star power can ensure a movie opens with a hefty opening weekend. The trailers for the film and the animated shorts which appeared on the website were ingeniously constructed, generating the required buzz for a film with such a big budget. However, discounting the commercial appeal of Will Smith and the current attraction of apocalyptic themed films like Cloverfield, I am Legend falls short of being anything but quite ordinary in it’s execution of a concept that on paper seems tantalising and ripe for allegorical interpretation. Will Smith’s character, Robert Neville, is too close in personality to that of the oddball detective, Del Spooner, in I, Robot, another science fiction which failed to deliver on it’s early promise, and I could not help but wonder why Smith would want to simply play a variation of a role/character that he has tackled before. You could say this is all purely about typecasting and recognising stars in familiar, conventional archetypes but then that would be giving far too much credit to the people involved in this dull and flat film.
I am Legend would have been an infinitely superior picture had a director of some bold artistic reputation been attached, namely Ridley Scott, but instead we are told by the press junkets and producers of the film that we are in the safe hands of an emerging talent, what ever that means. The is the third feature film from the music video director turned film maker, Francis Lawrence, who seems to have built a reputation on being able to instruct Keanu Reeves where to stand in the terribly misconceived comic book film, Constantine. It does seem quite unusual why somebody as woefully talentless as Lawrence was put in charge of such a big budget film with an A list leading actor and a credible technical crew, that is unless the producers were demanding a mediocre film, which is probably in line with the current mentality besieging Hollywood high concept film making.
This is a film that becomes gradually worse as the conventional narrative unfolds in predictable fashion, culminating in an absurd and baffling finale in which Robert Neville (Will Smith) literally self-destructs. The problem with Hollywood blockbusters today is that unlike the a decade ago when the phenomenon of multi platform marketing of a film was relatively new, most of them are overhyped juggernauts that plough their way through the multiplexes, pushing to a side the films that perhaps do matter in terms of artistic value.
No film is really a film when it shoots a number of different endings designed to satisfy the needs of a cynically engineered ‘testing’ system that only proves the apparent worthlessness of Hollywood producers who seem only interested in limiting the kinds of films we want to watch.