Thursday, December 13, 2007
All Through The Night
Maybe THE OMEGA MAN is a tough movie to defend, but sometimes I still imagine driving around town while an 8 track of the Theme from A SUMMER PLACE plays. And maybe some of THE OMEGA MAN is pretty goofy, but…all right, a lot of it is goofy. Too much of it is goofy, too much of it doesn’t make enough sense, but it manages enough creepiness to go along with the silliness and I know I’m not the only one who feels that way.
The surprise for me is that I AM LEGEND, which can be classified as an OMEGA MAN remake based on the credits as well as based on the original novel by Richard Matheson, isn’t as bad as I imagined was a possibility. It’s not as good as it obviously wants to be either. Yes, every now and then a plot point would unfold and I would think “Well, that deals with that implausibility from the other movie” but the one of the big problems with the film is that it thinks it’s aspiring to more than you would expect but it really isn’t. The majority of the most interesting stuff feels like it’s been done before in other end-of-the-world and man-alone type films and in each case it was done better. CAST AWAY is the obvious inspiration in the one-man-show aspect along with how the lead has a companion to talk to, in this case being a dog. Even the lightly spotted score by James Newton Howard recalls the sparseness of the music in the earlier film. For the end-of the-world aspect, by this point it’s hard not to think of CHILDREN OF MEN(the best version of this sort of thing in recent years), Spielberg’s WAR OF THE WORLDS, maybe TWELVE MONKEYS and the novel of THE STAND. A few tiny elements from THE OMEGA MAN actually slip in as well.
Sure, the whole albino “Family” element of OMEGA is silly, but the idea of a TV anchorman-turned-prophet-turned-cult leader is a genuinely interesting one well played by Anthony Zerbe and, for all I know, had some genuine punch in the post-Manson era the film was made in. I AM LEGEND jettisons this entire element and replaces it with not very much of anything. For better or for worse it really is a man-alone-in-New-York movie and the interesting issues brought up with “The Family” in OMEGA, such as discussions of how Neville--and, in effect, the entire human race--is now “obsolete” are avoided in favor of vague themes like “Hope” and “Peace”. I’m for those ideas too, but it doesn’t leave much meat for the film to chew on.
The vampire-like creatures of the original novel, the 1964 Vincent Price vehicle THE LAST MAN ON EARTH and the albino family of OMEGA are replaced with, well, zombies. Zombies of supernatural speed, agility and movement, the sort that you’ve seen in 28 DAYS LATER. Many of which in this film are achieved via CGI. So let me just make this clear: CGI zombies aren’t interesting. Heck, even CGI zombie dogs, several of which make appearances here, aren’t interesting. They’re not frightening, they’re not threatening. I don’t like them, don’t think they’re effective, and there’s not much you can say to convince me otherwise. Sure, there may be a jump when a zombie unexpectedly appears with a LOUD NOISE but that doesn’t mean that the scene has done anything other than create a loud noise. Like vampires, they cannot handle bright light of any kind and when the zombies are first glimpsed in a darkened setting from behind, it’s intriguing…then when they turn around and start to run, jump and flail around all the tension dissolves. There are also plenty of interesting digital shots used to create the abandoned Manhattan, but even that becomes a bit of overkill. By the time we were swooping down yet another deserted street that obviously isn’t real I was thinking not, “Wow, New York is really deserted,” but instead, “Hey, this reminds me of that old HBO Feature Presentation intro.” There are moments of intensity and emotion in I AM LEGEND, many of which have nothing to do with digital enhancement and are supplied by Will Smith. His performance is better than the movie and it refreshingly explores the grimness of the basic concept and how he genuinely is slightly cracked from spending so much time alone, more than any other version of this material has ever done. The pain you can see in his eyes sells that and he doesn’t back away from that feeling.
Unfortunately, elements like that coexist uncomfortably with the zombie stuff which ultimately feels hackneyed and lacking in ambition. It kills the tone and it kills any chance of the movie being better than it is, something that it clearly aspires to. THE OMEGA MAN has its problems, but even in its obvious backlot setting, there’s a nightmarish vibe to the whole thing which I still get off it. I don't feel particularly hostile towards I AM LEGEND, I just feel like it's a missed opportunity to make a film that was truly exceptional. Ultimately, the best things about it aren't unique enough to allow that to happen.