January 2, 2008

Legends, Zombies and No One Around

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In the first episode of the Twilight Zone, “Where Is Everybody?” (1959), a lost man finds himself in a town completely without humans. The mundane objects and places that compose the town — an ice cream parlor, a police station, a phone booth and a mannequin — become weird, creepy and even frightening in this environment without people. The man eventually loses his mind from the solitude.
“I’m sorry old buddy, I don’t remember the name, the face is vaguely familiar but the name escapes me,” this man says while staring into a mirror. “I’ll tell you what my problem is: I’m in the middle of a nightmare I can’t wake up from, and you’re part of it. You and the ice cream and the police station and the phone booth, that little mannequin, this whole bloody town wherever it is — whatever it is.”
The first half of director Francis Lawrence’s new movie, I Am Legend, evokes a similar pathos and freakiness, and also asks some of the same questions as the man does in the Twilight Zone episode. The second half falls flat.
In the first and better portion of I Am Legend, Will Smith, errr, I mean, Robert Neville, roams a human-less Manhattan. All the landmarks are there — Times Square, the Flatiron building — but the people are not. Neville lives in a “nightmare that he can’t seem to wake up from.” To Neville and more importantly to the audience, all the elements of New York are so familiar and that’s probably why the movie is scary. In one exemplary scene, Smith walks into a video store in which he has arranged mannequins to simulate a normative human setting. But, of course, Neville is the last man alive. Well, that is besides the zombies that look just like those in 28 Days Later: they die from exposure to sunlight and nest inside cavernous, dark buildings and rule the streets at night. But, anyway, you get the idea.
Now I’m going to spoil the ending, so stop reading right now if you honestly care, which you probably shouldn’t. But, then again, even if you do know the twist — Hurray! There’s a village of survivors somewhere in Vermont — it really doesn’t matter. That part of the movie just doesn’t matter that much. Near the end of the film, Neville starts preaching anecdotes about the life and music of Bob Marley, which sound more like screenwriters Mark Protosvich and Akiva Goldsman selling pseudo-intelligent, not-so-controversial philosophical statements — you know, all that stuff about human goodness in a godless world, “light up the darkness,” yadda yadda, all that poppycock. Honestly, I tuned out.
A man alone in Manhattan provokes some probing questions. Just as the man in the Twilight Zone forgets his name and face, Neville perhaps loses an aspect of his identity in a complete social vacuum. What does it mean to be the last man on earth? Who is Neville? How does one become a legend unless there are future generations to carry on his or her legacy? But that’s just it: Neville isn’t the last man alive. There’s a village of survivors in Vermont. Although Neville dies in the end of the film, his legacy lives on, as does a village of healthy, normal human survivors. And what’s so freaky about that? Isn’t that what we all try to do in a way — pass on a piece of our own legacy.
While the first half of the movie raises some disquieting and down right scary questions about human nature and the human condition, the second half of the movie tastes more like already-been-chewed, rock-’em-sock-’em, bang-’em-up entertainment regurgitated by that pack of real life zombies better known as Hollywood suits. Unfortunately, this is the same old story. The same old legend.

Sammy Perlmutter is the Arts & Entertainment Editor. He can be reached at sperlmutter@cornellsun.com.