Monday, December 17, 2007

Cranky at the Movies

I Am Legend, the third remake of Richard Matheson's 1954 novel, is in wide release and I saw it last weekend. For me, it embodied everything that is both good and bad about SF movies. (Warning: the following discussion is a spoiler if you don't know the story and plan on reading and/or seeing it).

The good is 1) the riveting special effects and 2) the chance to correct whatever was shaky in the original. Two examples: Robert Neville is now a genetic scientist instead of a random Joe, which makes his medical research into the cause of the plague (and in the movie, a cure) much more plausible. Also, in the movie the dog that contracts the plague and dies is not just a stray he domesticated for a few weeks but his own dog, which makes the animal's death much more affecting.

As for the bad -- Because movie makers want both those sensational special effects and a happy ending, they are willing to do intense damage to all logic. In the novel, Neville locks down his house at night and listens to the once-human-now-vampirish, infected creatures howl outside. In the movie, they don't know where he lives, and once they find out, they tear the place apart because these starving, emaciated, human bodies can scale sheer walls, exhibit superhuman strength, and other absurdities. Worse: In the movie, eventually Neville discovers a cure and dies passing it on to another survivor with natural immunity. She takes it to a secret colony of survivors in Vermont, and this gift makes Robert a "legend." What are they going to do with this cure? The survivors don't need it, and to use it on the "zombies" you have to strap them down for 24 hours and drastically lower their body temperatures, a daunting procedure. Also, there are no infected zombies in Vermont or they would have scaled the pathetic wall that encircles the colony, an idealized New England town complete with fall foliage and a white steeple, and eaten everybody. In the novel, by contrast, the zombies capture Robert and kill him, and he realizes just before he dies that, to them, he is the nightmarish killer, the outsider -- the "legend." The worldview turns inside out, like a sock. It's a satisfying and unexpected conclusion which the movie junks completely.

There have only been a handful of SF movies (as opposed to fantasy) that I like, for just these reasons. Is it so impossible to ask for both a dramatic story and some basic logic? After all, print SF does it all the time.


bluesman miike Lindner said...

Well, Nancy, ah would spec'late sf folks and popcorn-chompers (I'm one too) look for different thangs. Sf readers--I'm generalizing here--are educated souls who look for logic in a yarn, and at least the =pretense= of science, i.e., what we think is true so far. (Emphesis on "so far".)

Movies are different. We all want characters we can identify with, and want them to triumph. ("But, Michael..." Yeah, I know. I've been on dates like that too...)

So the movie biz =must= cater to the broadest possible audience. The necessity of investment, the logic of coin. And once in a happy while, art and mass appeal smooch. I think SPACE ODYSSEY shows it can be done.

What would you say the =worst= sf flick of all time is, Nancy? I'd say ENEMY MINE would take some beating.

karen wester newton said...

Bluesman Mike! Did you never see INDEPENDENCE DAY? Talk about totally not plausible!

I really am only willing to suspend logic when I get something worth giving that up for. I loved THE FIFTH ELEMENT, for example, because if nothing else, it was funny. But the plot holes were so large, Brue Willis could have flown his cab through them. Maybe we should just call that one fantasy?

bluesman miike Lindner said...

Well, Karen, I'd say INDEPENDENCE DAY was a high-tech cartoon. And it was fun, as cartoons are.

ENEMY MINE was different. Based on Barry Longyear's award-winning yarn, it tried to be a =serious= chunk of art. And it failed completely. It stank on ice.

You wanna create mind-candy, that's fine. But if you wanna be serious, make sure quality control is in action. It wasn't with ENEMY MINE.

Luke said...

Different standards of thoughtfulness apply to Hollywood blockbusters as opposed to novels. I'm sure that films with a quixotic/negative ending gross much lower than happy ones. You could only do a TWELVE MONKEYS-style ending in a more independent film with a limited release if you want to be successful.

The ending had to be the way it was, but up to the ending I was amazed at how intense the film was and how willing to take a truthful look at the disturbed mental state of the last man on earth.

Paul said...

I realize I'm late to this game, but it appears that you only saw the American ending. The foreign release ending included that moment of realization of the main character that to them, he was a monster, and while he drove off, if there was anyplace to go was left unanswered. But the monsters were still hyperactive.