Monday, December 15, 2008

When does a hero stop being one?

I'm going to start this off by saying that I swear that I have nothing against Will Smith. He has a great range that can handle action, comedy and drama. I've been vastly entertained by a number of his films and I've really liked a number of his performances. But this is going to be the second time I've written about one of his films and I have some pretty bad things to say about it.

The Book I am Legend is one of both the most frequently adapted and influential books in the sci-fi and horror genres. Notable adaptations have been "The Last Man on Earth" and "Omega Man." Some people even say it's the grandfather of the "zombie/living dead" sub-genre of horror. The basic premise of the story is that a disease that turns people into monsters (usually either vampires or zombies) goes airborne and most of the human race is infected with one character the last normal human in New york. That part never changes from adaptation to adaptation.

The Smith version of 2007 is no exception to this. To be honest the set up of the film and actually most of it are quite good, it just falls apart in the third act. It features and update on the science of the story. The idea is that Smith's character is Robert Neville, a genetic researcher who works on a team that alters a common virus into a cure for cancer. The problem is that it has the eventual side effect of turning people into monsters and it is highly contagious.

This adds to the drama since Neville's immunity is a genuine curse. He knows he is responsible for the wreckage around him, but he is also the only person capable of stopping it.

He is left alone in the city with only the dog he wanted to leave with his family until he could rejoin them. Since the family died in the evacuation procedure and the dog is not only the last thing to remind him of them but his last living companion he values the dog more than anything.

He builds a life around routine. Seeking out food, training to seek it out. Going to a video store where he's placed mannequins whom he pretends are real people to keep up the practice of social interaction. He watches a different movie every night and constantly replays old news broadcasts in the morning. And he dedicates a portion of every day to trying to find a cure for the disease he created. Any time a cure seems promising in animal tests he seeks out an infected human to experiment on.

This last fact creates the most promising continuing storyline in the movie which is destroyed in act three. He captures a female and prepares to take her back to his lab, but a male monster takes exception to this and chases him out into the sunlight (which is deadly to his kind). And over to course of the next several scenes sets a number of rather intelligent traps that should be impossible to a mindless brute. In one such trap he manages to infect Neville's dog which leads to a heartbreaking scene where Neville lovingly holds his dog up until the second that the infection takes effect at which point he ruthlessly kills the dog.

This is where the film breaks down. He decides to take on the monsters as a way of "going down fighting" but really it's intended to be suicide. At which point he's saved by a very religious woman and her son (who have lost none of the social skills that are dead in Neville) who hold out hope of one last camp of survivors.

This stupid woman doesn't use any of the safety precautions developed by Neville allows his home to be seiged by monsters, lead by the one holding a personal grudge. Then (miraculously) at the last minute it turns out Neville actually cured the disease and the mother and son get to go to this nice camp of survivors with a cure. Meanwhile Neville is dead and "he's a legend" for curing the disease he created.

When I did further research I found that this was the biggest diversion from the plot of the original novel. This comforted me greatly. In the novel what happens is that the lead character learns that the monsters are redeveloping their humanity even though they still fear light and have a number of monstrous characteristics. They are rebuilding society. He is the last of his kind and at one point zombies and vampires were a legend, and now the lone man who kills without mercy who doesn't fear the sun is a legend.

This particular theme was picked up in some of the later George Romero "of the Dead" movies in the character of Bub from Day of the Dead. Bub was a zombie who was relearning the fundamentals of communication and to think past his next (unnecessary) meal of a living human. He even goes as far in the end of the film as using a gun to avenge the man he thought of as a father. This is taken even further with the character "Big Daddy" in Land of the Dead who breaks up the monotony of reliving a false version of his living routine to finally acknowledge the fact that he and all of his people are in fact not what they once were and need to find a new way of "living" their new lives.

As I said this idea is started and later abandoned in the 2007 film. The lead monster seems to take the kidnapping of one of his people personally. It almost even seems like he's reacting the way a person would if their spouse was arbitrarily kidnapped.

The film dropped the ball by refusing to discuss the idea of what happens when the actions that one takes which would once have been heroic become something evil. Like how you'd be tempted to stop a teenager from taking their life because they cannot handle the first break up of their young life but would you feel the same towards someone who is old, whose best days are behind them and is suffering constantly from a terminal illness. Or think of the possibility of supporting a political party that once supported freedom but now supports statism and coercion.

I'm not saying that the entire world is in such a degree of flux that changes in context are so frequent and drastic that they can never be discovered. What I am saying is that it is important to constantly study one's context so that you don't just settle into a habit and maintain the belief that "if it was good before it always will be."