In the past 24 hours, I have seen two slightly above average films..."Alvin and the Chipmunks" and the latest Will Smith vehicle, "I am Legend."
In most ways, at least from a filmmaking perspective, "I am Legend" is a stronger film than "Alvin and the Chipmunks."
Yet, when all is said and done, I find myself elevating "Alvin and the Chipmunks" to a higher grade of B- and relegating "I am Legend" to an ever so slight recommendation of C+.
Despite the rather obvious differences in subject matter, "I am Legend" and "Alvin and the Chipmunks" are frighteningly similar.
First, both films reach a point where they try to emphasize special effects over the actual story.
Secondly, both films don't reach their potential in terms of production design and special effects.
And, finally, both films start off surprisingly well only to fall apart after about an hour.
The difference, I suppose, can be summed up by acknowledging the lower budgeted "Alvin and the Chipmunks" for realizing its limitations and, with only a few exceptions, largely achieving is rather modestly set cinematic goals.
On the other hand, by its mere title alone, "I Am Legend" lays the groundwork for cinematic greatness and yet falls woefully short of its objectives in almost every way.
"I am Legend," based upon the book by Richard Matheson that also spawned previous films "The Omega Man" and "The Last Man on Earth," stars Will Smith as scientist Robert Neville, the last man standing in New York after an incurable man-made virus wipes out humanity with the notable exception of zombie-like creatures who lurk around every corner.
The images of a desolate, deserted New York City are haunting, as are the images of Neville and his lone companion, a german shepherd.
It is during the film's first half that "I Am Legend" is most captivating, when it focuses mostly upon the devastation and the utter desperation of it all. At the halfway mark, however, director Francis Lawrence ("Constantine") turns "I Am Legend" into not much more than a zombie-flick with stereotypical zombies that are never particularly frightening or suspenseful.
The film's dissipation into zombie-schlock is particularly disconcerting given that "I Am Legend" may very well contain the previously Oscar-nominated Smith's finest performance. Smith has always had a gift for the showy and self-confident character with a strong streak of bravado, but he finely balances such traits with a surprisingly deep, heartfelt performance that exhibits a depth of vulnerability Smith's not previously brought to the screen.
"I Am Legend" is the second film in two weeks in which its massive budget, here reported as $150 million, appears to be a huge part of the problem (the other being last weekend's "The Golden Compass"). "I Am Legend" works when it focuses on Neville, his deteriorating psyche', his search for a cure and as a study of one man's devastating journey to survive both physically and psychologically. When "I Am Legend" becomes consumed by its special effects, however, Smith and story take back seats to gratuitous cinematography and special effects remarkably devoid of authenticity and effectiveness and, at times, almost resemble the sort of mutants that Uwe Boll might create.
Eventually, of course, Neville will discover that he is not alone when the persons of Anna (Alice Braga, "Babel") and Ethan (Charlie Tahan) show up to provide "I Am Legend" with the perfect set-up for a remarkably dissatisfying ending that falls far short of that even in Vincent Price's almost laughably bad 1964 flick "The Last Man on Earth."
As disappointing a film as "I Am Legend" is, there's no denying the strength of Smith's performance and, while he undoubtedly loses control of the film, Lawrence's early visions of New York City and the desperation of Neville's life are powerful to watch unfold. However, the screenplay from previous Oscar-winner Akiva Goldsman and Mark Protosevich is a disappointingly convoluted script that lacks clarity and purpose and dissolves into an ending that comes out of nowhere and adds up to nothing.
So, on a weekend when all the special effects and money and special effects are thrown behind Will Smith's "I am Legend," I find myself chuckling and thinking to myself "No, Will, actually the real legends are three chipmunks who managed to still make me smile 50 years after their very first song."
That, my friends, reduces "I Am Legend" to "What Becomes a Semi-Legend Most."