When CGI Monsters Attack
I Am Legend (2007)
As has been noted on this site multiple times, in multiple ways, practical effects are generally better than CGI, especially when it comes to people and characters. You can see that difference in the two The Thing films, where the practical effects of the 1982 John Carpenter film have a real, solid, tactile quality that sells the horror far better than the CGI-filled 2011 prequel. Something was missing: a soul, and the prequel just couldn't overcome that deficiency (among other issues). Using real characters over CGI just looks better.
This is one of the many issues with the 2007 I Am Legend, the third film based on on Richard Matheson's film of the same name (after 1964's The Last Man on Earth and 1971's The Omega Man). The film, like the previous movies, is about a plague that spreads around, turning a select group of people into night-creatures while one man is forced to battle against them. For some reason, this time around, the production team decided to go with CGI creatures over human stunt performers. Whatever the reason for this decision, it didn't really cut down on the budget as the film still cost $150 Mil for all those fancy effects, and A-list star Will Smith in the lead. It just sucks the soul out of the film.
Smith plays Robert Neville, an epidemiologist working to fight a plague after a radical, virus-based cancer treatment has unintended consequences and becomes a pandemic. Trapped on the island of Manhattan for two years, Neville has had only his dog, Sam, and the hope of ending the plague to guide him (this after, we learn, his wife and daughter died in the early days of the plague). Needless to say, spending all his time on his own, with only a dog for company, has made him just a little crazy in the process.
During the day, Neville wanders Manhattan, talking to mannequins he's setup, and treats like people, while also hunting around for the infected that he can capture to use in his medical studies. Over time he's killed hundreds off them, either in self-defense or during his medical trials working on a cure. He's close to a cure, he thinks, if he can just perfect the particular serum strain he's been developing. But when his dog becomes infected, Neville really starts to lose connection to reality. It'll take a couple of other survivors, and a real breakthrough, to bring hope to the world, and peace to Neville's own mind.
There are problems with this film, but I think a major one is that the CGI creations playing the infected really undercuts the whole concept of the story. As we covered with The Omega Man, the real moral of the story is that Neville (or Morgan, in his first appearance in The Last Man on Earth) has been driven crazy over time, killing creatures that are, in fact, sentient, and they view him as the monster. He's become the very thing he's fighting. That twist of the knife doesn't land when the creatures aren't, well, human in any way.
When we see the creatures, they don't seem sentient. It's easier to think of them as animals; bipedal, yes, but barely human in any way we can imagine. They can set traps, and work as teams, but animals can do that as well. The fact is that the movie makes them so far from human that, when the film tries to moralize about Neville and what he's been doing (such as when it shows all the pictures of the creatures he's killed in his study) the vast horror of what he's done doesn't stick. He's trying to restore their humanity to something so not human anymore. How is that not noble, even if there's been a lot of death in the process.
Put another way, the creatures are so far on the monster scale, and they do terrible things too, so it's not like we can view them as anything other than monsters. The brain does a natural "whataboutism" that says, "even if Neville did bad things, that's only in a war against monsters. Does it even count? No." Had the creatures been actual human extras and stunt performers, we'd view them as people, making the horror stick. The film cuts its own legs out from under itself with the use of CGI.
With that said, there are other issues with the film that go beyond the special effects. The last act has this whole, weird, religious tone that comes out of nowhere. A nurse, Anna (Alice Braga), is introduced and she goes on and on about "God's plan". She thinks she was sent to Neville for a reason, by God, so that the cure could be spread. And then Neville eventually agrees and starts seeing signs of this so-called plan. Thing is, this really does come out of nowhere, a last act twist that has no development for the first hour-plus before Anna arrives. It's like the writers picked up a Chick Tract or something while writing and decided to just put preaching into the last act. It causes some serious tonal whiplash to the film.
The movie has struggled with its endings, filming two (during re-shoots). The theatrical release has Neville see the signs of god (from a butterfly-shaped crack in a window), and then he sacrifices himself to protect the cure and destroy all the monsters. This is a messy ending because, what, God wanted the scientist to kill himself? That's a weird message to send. Still, that's no better than the other ending when Smith's character lets the monsters come into his lab, retrieve one of their own and then... they just leave. Everyone lives. Super happy ending that is also totally at odds with the rest of the film. Neither option really works.
Because the film absolutely drops the ball in the last act, in ruins what was building into a pretty solid character study of a man slowly going insane after the apocalypse. Smith is actually legitimately great here, carrying the whole of the film on his shoulders as the only real character (aside from a dog) in most of the movie. The film made $585.4 Mil and that is entirely on the back of Smith and his fantastic performance. I would have loved to see what he could have done with a version of this movie that didn't shit the bed in the last act.
This is the Will Smith show, absolutely. If you're going to enjoy this film it's because you like Smith (and, right now, most of the commentariat are against him after he publicly slapped Chris Rock). His performance is great, and the study of the apocalypse does feel thought out and well developed. Some basic changes to this film -- live performers instead of CGI creatures, and a last act rewrite -- really could have saved this film. It's still worth watching for the first two acts, for sure, just don't be surprised if the ending of the film leaves you wanting.