I always look forward to movies in the huge digital screen theater in my area, the kind where even a not so great movie at least comes out looking its best. That’s why I especially looked forward to I Am Legend starring Will Smith. I had been treated to the trailer tease for months. Plus, I love survivalist, end-of-the-world movies (Land of the Dead, 28 Weeks Later, Planet Terror, etc).
Scientist Robert Neville (Will Smith), along with his ubiquitous dog companion—a German Shepard named Sam–have bonded well. And that’s a good thing because there aren’t many people left; in fact, Will is the only human in Manhattan (sort of). There are traffic jams but they’re frozen in place, the occupants long since gone. At first, during say the first half hour or so of the movie, it looks like a lot of Omega Man (like in the Charlton Heston version by that name) fun, hunting deer that run in huge herds in between the abandoned cars and buildings, golfing off the horizontal tail wing of the SR-71 Blackbird parked on the deck of the USS Enterprise, looting stores for supplies and even hot-rodding through downtown in a cool red muscle car (gas is free for the pumping).
Of course omega type fun doesn’t exist in a vacuum. That’s why Will carries some formidable weaponry (no, as you’ve probably guessed it’s not just for hunting deer). You can see why he carries it when he enters a dark foreboding building looking for his dog which has barked up a deer inside, which brings you to the creepiest part of the movie (and unfortunately creepiness slowly descends down hill after this). It’s almost as creepy as the scene involving a manikin that Will has named Fred (remember he’s lonely) that suddenly turns up in a different spot from where it had always been before. “How did you get there, Fred?” a very agitated Will suddenly shouts before machine gunning it in half. This doesn’t appease Will’s anxiety all that much and he starts blasting the windows out of a lot of tall buildings. It’s completely understandable, being an omega man can play havoc on one’s nervous system. It would mine. It’s in the dark places of buildings, after all, where the CGI characters live. And they’re not stupid. They are quite capable of playing with Will’s mind by moving a store manikin.
I doubt you could do most movies today without at least some CGI (computer generated imagery). Whether it’s relegated to background as buildings, ships, huge crowds, etc or even in many cases the characters themselves (as in Beowulf). Without it you certainly couldn’t film Manhattan full of grass sticking up from the city’s asphalt, or herds of deer (and a lion or two) scouring for food.Yeah, there’s a lot of CGI background in I Am Legend but it’s most telling in the “zombies” that Will is forced to battle. It’s done well. In fact it’s done too well. The “zombies” aren’t really zombies but infected humans that have become quickly genetically altered, looking a lot like the aliens in Signs, and to think this all started from the side effects of an anti cancer drug. Why make just an eerie genetically altered figure whose suffering from a virus when you can make him not only look slimy and veiny and nearly translucent but also make him jump and bound like Spiderman and have his mouth open triple its normal size and give him some near X-men capabilities. Suddenly as the CGIers come in close proximity to Will and his dog their CGIness takes on a GQS (Gaming Quality Syndrome): Now Will and his dog are suddenly locked in a violent Xbox 360 game.
The story line is fairly simple: Will Smith is a scientist who is working on a vaccine, at least when he’s not hotrodding after herds of deer. He tests his concoctions on rats and cleverly captured CGI characters. At night he draws the extremely heavy duty shutters and sometimes sleeps with his dog and machine gun in the bathtub. Night is when the CGIs, Dracula like, walk about. After Will’s dog becomes infected by a CGI dog he seeks revenge which unfortunately places him in a very precarious position in the dead of night: CGIers now have him trapped in his overturned vehicle. Fortunately for Will he is saved by a beautiful woman named Anna (Alice Braga) who has been driving with her son through Manhattan towards a human survivor colony in Vermont. She must be especially beautiful to Will who after all hasn’t seen a real woman in a long time. The only people he’s seen are on TIVO shows now run on generators. There’s nothing romantic here; no mush, just some survival bonding. Fortunately, in a fast ascencding climax scientist Neville discovers that one of his experimental vaccines is working on a sedated CGI female. Unfortunately this discovery comes at a time when the zombies are breaking into his lab. Neville gives up his life along with the infected ones so that Anna can escape and deliver the vaccine to those survivors up north. Neville’s sacrifice and discovery, however, do not quite emotionally succeed in giving him the legend movie title. There’s probably no one left that knows of him in the first place.
It used to be that pre-CGI directors, in order to give their scenes a little twist would slosh and roll the camera. The result was that you became very aware of the camera—and hence all the things behind it, including the cameramen and director. You became too conscious that this was just a movie after all by the techniques used to shoot it. To an extent these tricks are still done today. There is the very effective and deliberate jittery camera work so apparent in 28 Weeks later—and there it worked superbly. Too much elaborate CGI work can produce the same effect. There’s a scene where Will is wounded in the leg from an accident as he makes his way back to his vehicle. As he does so he and Sam are attacked by CGI dogs, also suffering from the virus, so they look less like dogs than giant hairless rats with the teeth of a Tyrannosaurus Rex. They have that cartoonish, though ferocious, superimposition look about them, sort as if they had stumbled out of a Jeckel and Hyde version of Scooby Doo. I realize computer rendered scenes are integral in movies today, and many digital images are very effective by blending in seamlessly (the new King Kong was a masterpiece digital imagery for the most part) but I look forward to when prominent displays of digitalization will rival those images of Ray Harryhausen’s famous stop-motion effects. My favorite? The skeleton battle in the Seventh Voyage of Sindbad.