Finally got around to catching a couple of movies I have wanted to see, I Am Legend and Cloverfield. Cloverfield is the better of the two, but neither is a dud.I Am Legend is based on the classic novel of the same name by legendary writer Richard Matheson. It’s the story of scientist Robert Neville, the apparent sole survivor of a plague that has turned the rest of humanity into mutants with characteristics akin to vampires; increased violence and aggression and intolerance to sunlight. The main story of the book and the movie begin about 3 years after the outbreak, and detail Neville’s attempts to survive, find a cure for the virus, and not lose his fragile grip on sanity due to loneliness. There are substantial differences in the plot and themes between the book and the movie. Even now, some 53 years after its original publication, the novel is still deemed to edgy for film audiences. Regardless, the movie works, for what it is. Neville is portrayed by Will Smith, and to his credit Smith delivers on a demanding role. I have always been skeptical about Smith; in most of his roles he seems to be playing variations on his public persona; more charm and charisma than talent. However, in this one he is wholly convincing both as a man of science and as an isolated human being slowly losing his mind. Unfortunately, the biggest weakness of the film is one of its most critical elements: the mutants themselves. Rather than using actors with make-up, the creatures are portrayed with very obvious CGI. The herky-jerkiness of their movements pulled me completely out of the story and made them far from frightening.
Cloverfield is the latest entry in one of the more tired subgenres of science fiction, the giant monster movie. However, this one offers a twist that brings fresh air to the concept: rather than focusing on the scientists, military personnel, and government officials trying to wipe the beast out, this story is told from the point of view of a small group of civilians who happen to be on the spot and have a camcorder handy to record the events. The entire story is told through the camcorder. This gives the action an immediacy that removes the emotional it’s-just-a-movie barrier and makes it very, very frightening. Throughout most of the film we only catch quick views of the monster. Thanks to the clever special effects work, it looks completely convincing. The biggest drawback of most giant monster movies is that the viewer is often left thinking: this giant, lumbering thing is heading in one direction; why don’t people just run in the opposite direction? Cloverfield corrects this by having pit-bull-sized parasites drop off of the monster and pursue and attack people individually. The parasites look like some hybrid of lobsters, spiders, and crabs; they are nasty and scary, and what happens to their victims is truly frightening. The viewer does get several shots of the whole monster; it’s bigger than life, uglier than death backing out of the outhouse, and completely believable. In addition, none of the characters suddenly becomes an action hero. While they demonstrate considerable courage, loyalty, and resourcefulness, they still come off like average folks in an unthinkable situation. The one exception to this is the character of Hud, the cameraman. Considering some of the shots he manages to obtain, one might think that the great tragedy of Hud’s life is that he missed his calling as a photojournalist. Fast-paced, cleverly written and directed, this is the first great horror movie of the 21st century. I recommend staying through the end credits to hear the great score (the movie has no music). One caveat: I don’t know how this movie got a PG-13. It’s quite intense and the gore, while not gratuitous, seemed to me to drift into R-rated territory.