Last night I jumped out to catch a film with a friend after we put our kids to bed. Many times an experience at the movies can be shallow, trivial and a disappointment. You leave feeling - why on earth did I spend time and money on this? Last night was not one of those occasions. For those who have not seen the new Will Smith film, I am Legend should cease reading now if you have intentions to do so. There will be spoilers so hope off now. To be honest, it was one of the better films I have seen in some time.
The film is based on Richard Matheson's 1954 science fiction novel of the same name. This film adaptation takes place in a post apocalyptic Manhattan where a viral 'cure for cancer' has gone horribly wrong. Most of the human population of the world has died, a small amount were immune, another portion turned into vampire like creatures known as dark-seekers. In this world military virologist Robert Neville (Smith's character) is alone in Manhattan seeking to find a cure for what humanity has wrought upon itself. What follows is a thick, tense ride of man's fight and hope for survival and redemption for what is a catastrophic situation. The ending is somewhat optimistic and seems the only portion of the movie which has received some criticism. The film was almost unbearably tense and dealt with themes much too disturbing for any kid to take in. In fact, it will be too much for those who are sensitive at the movies. The use of sound (use of silence without much score) and visuals was fantastic and the movie is one tense moment after another for almost the entire 1:40 run time. Surprisingly the writers and director deal with some themes which only find their sense in a biblical worldview and the religious themes are a bit penetrating. What follows are some of the themes which I particularly found interesting and insightful.
The film begins with an optimistic interview of a medical researcher who has harnessed the ferocity of the virus to do man's bidding and eradicate cancer. The clinical trials were 100% effective and the interviewer asks the scientist a point blank question: So you cured cancer? The answer is hollow and clear: Yes. There is no time for optimism as the director makes a harsh cut directly to 3 years later into an empty Manhattan island where Neville is hunting in the midst of the overgrown and desolate city. The pride of humanity's attempt to cure one of our most horrendous diseases by using a virus, a self-replicating system prone to unpredictability and mutation comes through loud and clear. It gives much pause to the possibility of overconfident biotechnological reaches which have unseen outcomes. Now I don't think we are going to turn people into rabid, zombie like vampires, but there are great risks to human life and the environment in the brave new worlds of bio and nano technology. Pride comes before a fall...true.
Despair, Guilt and Quixotic Dedication
Smith's character carries a certain guilt and responsibility to remedy the situation as we see from well timed flash backs that he was the military scientist attempting to find a cure for this pandemic. He was unable to find it in time and the director uses the pre-apocalypse story to build his character's fixation with finishing his work. After everyone is gone, Neville, who has an immunity to the virus, has only his dog and his work left to keep him sane. He is frantically trying to both stay alive and find the cure he sought before everything unraveled. He unrelentingly says "I have to fix it" - his sense is that he simply has to redeem humanity's mistake. He echoes that "God didn't do this, we did" and you sense that he feels the burden of a savior though his work looks hopeless. He has almost a quixotic quest to get the job done. So much that he sends his family away so that he can stay at ground zero and work. Additionally, towards the end, he again wants to stay and cure the disease rather than go northward in search of a "survivor colony" he hears about. The director relieves this tension at the end as his work is allowed to succeed - though without him making it through to that future. Our own kicking against our mortality is felt strongly and Smith's performance only added to this hope/despair paradox of being human.
Being one of the last people alive is a lonely affair so how Neville copes with his isolation is an interesting facet of the film. In this movie, man's best friend is better than a volleyball. Neville's dog actually has survived with him and they do everything together. Eat together, work out together, hunt together, etc. I never bought into Tom Hank's friendship with a volleyball to keep his sanity in Castaway. Here we have the family dog as the constant companion. This is quite believable and will certainly grab the hearts of those who love their doggies. The tragedy of the circumstances is brought home through the dog's character as well. It was touching and real - dog owners will cry in this movie. Do not mock them. There is also so goofy stuff with mannequins which seems to work pretty well especially when the zombies start messing with him.
The film also wrestles a bit with the themes of God's providence and destiny. Did God have anything to do with this disaster or is man alone and the victim of his sins alone. Does the hope for the future lie in some form of providence, or is it human ingenuity which must right its own wrongs alone? The end of the movie almost becomes cheesy when another immune human (a young woman named Anna played by Alice Braga) shows up on the scene and says "God told me to come to you." At first it was like they were going to make this character out to be a religious wacko of sorts but it quickly moves through that feeling into an intense exchange about God's existence and involvement in their nightmare. The scene survives the early cheesy moment to the point where it can be seen as genuine. The movie resolves a little too nicely but at least it is nicely hopeful. The cynical would probably prefer a different ending, but the current fare--though not great, was not that bad in my opinion.
There is also much angst surrounding God in Smith's character. The director does several things throughout the film to bring his humanity and its struggle with God to the foreground. In an early flashback his family prays together as wife and daughter board a helicopter to leave the island. Later Neville's lines about his disbelief in God, or the fact that God had allowed this to happen come strongly to the center of his personal redemption. There is a moment where he seems to realize that the hand of providence was indeed involved in the redemption of a broken world and this gives him courage to face the end of of his own life...which though a tad full of bravado, does have a sacrificial element to it. The man who felt so compelled to "fix it" - eventually does...and gives his life in protecting the new found cure. Fans of Bob Marley will certainly enjoy the placement of his music and his story in the film. In fact, towards the end Neville seems to urge action in the world in order to "light up the darkness" - something he grabs from Marley. There are crosses which hang from a rear view mirror, signs in the city saying "God still loves us" and even a church at the center of the new human colony featured at the end of the film. The spiritual imagery and wrestle with God is evident throughout but not obnoxious or invasive.
I personally enjoyed the film and it shook me as intensely as any--especially in the first parts of the movie. I could not help but think of the realities of the film and how it aligns so much with my own theological vision.
- Man sins greatly - and feels his immense responsibility
- Yet providence deems redemption to be a worthy path which ultimately is controlled from a power greater than ourselves.
- There is hope of new life and healing in a future yet to appear
In thinking of our quests in hope amidst a world of despair, the old poem The Gate of the Year by Minnie Haskins comes to mind. The poem was made famous by King George VI's quotation in his 1939 Christmas address.
I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year 'Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.'
And he replied, 'Go into the darkness and put your hand into the hand of God...That shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way!'
I am Legend reminded me of our constant struggle with sin, survival, hope and despair. In the hand of God lies redemption - even amidst our greatest sins. It is one of the most thematically spiritual movies I have seen and sets these motifs firmly in the 21st century. Highly recommended.
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