Monday, July 28, 2008

I Am Legend vs. 28 Days Later - Fight!

Hey, everybody! It's "rent last year's movies and then talk about them now that nobody cares anymore!" month around here.

I finally got around to watching I Am Legend the other night. I love a good zombie movie. This is not a zombie movie, which I didn't know. It's a vampire movie. Well, whatever the monsters are in I Am Legend, they act basically the same as zombies, except they can't stand light. That's okay. Seems like kind of a convenient limitation, but then it always was, in every vampire story. It's a plot device to get the main character out of sticky situations - as it does several times in this movie.

What I really want to talk about is 28 Days Later, but that's even older and I have no logical reason for bringing it up other than I Am Legend reminding me of it. But that's the zombie movie to end all zombie movies. It does everything right with the genre. EVERYTHING.

I gotta say I like a good post-apocalyptic movie, especially one set in New York City, as I Am Legend is. I don't really know why it is that people like seeing New York destroyed on film (including those of us who live here!), but we obviously do. New York is almost always the target of any American post-apocalyptic (or just plain apocalyptic) film. I guess London is the British equivalent.

But post-apocalyptic movies in general are always about expressing our fears. Years ago, everything was post-nuclear war. That's what we were afraid of. These days, it's almost always a rogue virus of some kind that wipes out humanity, leaving eerie husks of cities completely intact but totally vacant and left to rot. That's the case with I Am Legend. It was also true of 28 Days Later. And Resident Evil too (though it took a while to get there in that series). All of these films have the same basic plot. Most of them end on some sort of hopeful note, implying that, yes, there are things to be afraid of, but we can overcome even the worst-case scenario.

Incidentally, probably my favorite of all post-apocalyptic virus stories is not a movie and it's not about escaping infected "zombies". It's a book called Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood. And it is about a near-future where bio-engineering has become so routine that even the most banal of domestic situations can end up bringing down the entire population of the planet without us even knowing what's happened. That's basically the same plot as all of these movies, except that in her book, you don't become "infected" - you just die. And her book is a lot more personal than any of these films.

28 Days Later was directed and produced by two of the same guys who did the equally amazing Trainspotting: Andrew McDonald and Danny Boyle. Honestly, those guys have put out some duds too (A Life Less Ordinary, anyone?), but they are extremely talented filmmakers. What they're great at is distilling what makes any situation scary or dramatic or funny, and then exploiting it. (That's filmmaking 101, but it's a point that's obviously lost on a lot of young directors, many of whom get stuck on adding rather than subtracting.) What's scary about zombies? Is it the unnatural movement, the "supernatural" aspect of George Romero-style undead zombies? No, Danny Boyle realized that it's the swarm, the collective single-minded violence. And he realized that would be even scarier if they moved as fast or faster than humans could. And he also realized it would be scarier still if they basically looked like regular people, and were in fact still alive.

I remember seeing some documentary about Martin Scorsese where he was looking at an old Italian film about Jesus Christ - and I don't remember which, maybe The Messiah by Roberto Rossellini - and there was a scene where Jesus was walking down a path to give his sermon on the mount. And he was just walking like a regular guy, and Scorsese says, "Look at that. See? He's not walking like he's in a movie. He's just walking!" He smiled and sort of threw up his hands as he said it, as if to say "it's obvious!" That's what filmmakers like Scorsese understand, and Danny Boyle understands it too. The best drama is realistic. This is not rocket science, but most modern filmmakers just don't get it. If we can't relate to the things that we see in a film, then we're not going to care.

I Am Legend takes a lot of inspiration from 28 Days Later, where a virus has wiped out the city (and country?), leaving behind a small number of infected "vampires". These vampires can haul ass, like the infected in 28 Days Later. They swarm. But they don't look all that human and they can do super-human things, and that's the problem. Whereas the infected in 28 Days Later were all played by real actors and were still basically confined to human limits of speed and strength, the vampires in I Am Legend are motion-captured CGI. They don't move or look like people. And that makes the whole thing a lot less convincing. Really, guys, we're not there yet in terms of computer graphics. It still looks like computer graphics. Look at Will Smith - even he seems unconvinced:

Incidentally, the Resident Evil series, which I do like, sort of splits the difference. The infected zombies in that series are a little slower and don't swarm in such huge numbers (usually), though they put up a real fight. Just enough to let Milla Jovovich kick some zombie butt, anyway. She's a badass! She's a supermodel and an actress and a singer and a badass. Is there anything more for her to aspire to be? (Ok, that came off as sexist. Not intended! Point is she's multi-talented and awesome.)

This series isn't really all that great, but I'll watch anything Milla stars in. Yes, I even watched Ultraviolet!

28 Days Later
also has a sort of "how'd they film that??" feeling to the entire movie, whereas I Am Legend, again through its copious use of CGI, just feels like they've cheated. I watched the Blu-Ray special features so I know that many scenes actually did feature blocked-off streets with lots of onlookers right near the set, but 28 Days Later was a low-budget film ($8 million) shot on digital video where entire London city neighborhoods are shown completely abandoned. And not just in parts of the movie, but through the whole thing.

I Am Legend did sort of try to set up a science vs. faith thing in its original form, but that was cut for the theatrical release. The Blu-Ray disc restores those scenes (the DVD probably does too), but honestly, I'm not sure they add much to the overall experience. They may even detract from it. It's not like this idea is all that original. I like the pointlessness of 28 Days Later or Oryx and Crake - it's somehow scarier to think that all this happened more or less at random.

(Resident Evil's explanation for its events, taken from the video game upon which it's based, is that it's all down to a plot by an evil corporation. That's arguably an even cheesier motivation than either of the other two films, but then fear of monolithic corporations is another of our modern memes.)

Incidentally, I've also seen 28 Weeks Later, which some have said surpasses the original. I thought it was okay, but it's got most of the same problems as I Am Legend - it just doesn't ring true. It feels very "put together" - you can see the seams of it. It also goes heavy on the CGI for its settings, although at least the infected are still human actors. It's got that big-budget glossy look, too - even though they were consciously trying to make it look like its prequel, you just can't hide all that money. Films are all about suspension of disbelief - sci-fi moreso than other genres - and 28 Days Later does that better than its sequel.

And better than I Am Legend too.

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About This Blog

This is increasingly not a blog about Alphabet City, New York. I used to live in the East Village and work on Avenue B, but I no longer do. Why don't I change the name if I'm writing about Japan and video games and guitars? Because New Yorkers are well-rounded people with varied interests, and mine have gone increasingly off the rails over the years. And I don't feel like changing the name. I do still write about New York City sometimes.


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