Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Review: "I am Plotless"

For a change of pace, offered here is a movie review. Warning: there are no plot-spoilers in this review; there is no plot to spoil.

I am Legend debuted here in Newport New, Virginia, on Friday, December 14. I decided to see it and not The Golden Compass, which some people liked because it hovers around an endorsement of atheism and other virtues associated with reality and integrity. But, as a novelist who has set all his stories in the real world, stories set in fantasy or otherworldly realms, or that feature magic, witches, vampires, mutants, horror and the like, have had no appeal for me.

This is not to say that some of these latter stories have no literary or esthetic value. It is just that I see no point in settling for a fantasy world whose story depends on the suspension of the rule of causal-connection and the law of identity, when it could just as well be set in the real, recognizable world to accomplish the same end. I have written fifteen novels, including the six-title Sparrowhawk series; they are all plotted and set in the real world. Perhaps this has made me more fastidious and discriminating, or simply impatient. The Harry Potter movies and novels may be a few cuts above standard contemporary fare - But, no, thank you.

I chose to see I am Legend because I had some free time and only because there was nothing else in the newspaper theater listings that piqued my interest. Also, the previews of it on TV intrigued me; I had seen its predecessor, The Omega Man, in 1971, and wondered how the director and screenwriters would "update" the story now. Finally, I suspected this movie would be talked about and more or less given the critical imprimatur. However, it is a B movie inflated by modern film technology (chiefly CGI, or computer generated imagery) with the intention of making it a blockbuster. But, fundamentally, it isn't any better than Ed Wood's Plan 9 from Outer Space.

The details or concretes one chooses to show or include in a story must have a purpose, that is, they must be integrated into the plot, they must have a demonstrable place or a role in the logical sequence of events. If they are included, but not explained, or are there just for "special effects" to impress or mislead a reader or viewer, or are included simply at the whim of a writer or director, then they violate Louis Sullivan's rule that form must follow function, or Ayn Rand's rule of essentialization. A plot itself, by Rand's definition, is "a purposeful progression of logically connected events leading to the resolution of a climax."

I am Legend is a cinematic jigsaw puzzle most of whose pieces do not connect. There is a "climax," but no logic to it. Among its many other faults, it is an epistemological abomination, and the horrible thing about it is that I don't believe the film's makers consciously intended that. Its illogic reflects the state of their epistemology. And since their epistemology (and metaphysics) is a subjectivist shambles, to them logic and causal-connections are elective elements not absolutely requisite to solving the problem of the moment.

Let us examine the film story of I am Legend, based on Richard Matheson's 1954 science fiction novel of the same title.

The plague that wipes out most of the human race is man-caused, the result of a genetically engineered cancer cure that somehow mutates into an incurable killer virus. (In The Omega Man, at least it was the result of bacterial warfare.) Perhaps it was meant to be a metaphor for anthropogenic global-warming, perhaps not. Its discoverer explains the cancer cure, and her explanation is pure folderol. This anti-technology premise should be enough to condemn the story at the outset.

Actor Will Smith plays Robert Neville, a military scientist who remains in a desolate, unpopulated, decaying Manhattan to work on an antidote to the virus. He is inexplicably immune to the plague. (In the 1971 version, Charlton Heston, who played the character, injected himself with the antidote just in the nick of time.) He is apparently the last man living there, and presumably on earth.

The movie opens (after establishing the premise of the plague) three years after New York City was quarantined and all the bridges and tunnels leading into it were destroyed by the military. By day Neville ventures out to hunt deer, harvest corn, and collect supplies for his Washington Square townhouse/fortress. At night he barricades himself in the townhouse against survivors of the plague who have turned into predatory cannibals (or vampires, I couldn't tell which they were supposed to be, because the story isn't clear on that point).

His townhouse is powered by generators. In the basement is a fully equipped lab for virological research. Some scenes give evidence that he has been diligently at work over the years, ever since Manhattan was evacuated, to discover or develop an antidote or a cure. On one wall are rows of photos of cannibals he has somehow captured and experimented on with potential cures, using his own immune blood. There is also a row of cages with rats or guinea pigs that have also been subjects. Nothing he has tried has worked. In the course of the movie, Neville uses a sample of his own blood to lure and capture a female cannibal to experiment on.

Somehow, Neville has had time to fortify his townhouse windows and doors with steel shutters, which he closes at dusk, and to rig the approach to it with incendiary mines and blinding klieg lights. The cannibals, you see, are like vampires: they can only roam at night. Sunlight - or perhaps even artificial light, it isn't made clear - is their nemesis. They haven't found Neville yet, and show no evidence they know he exists.

Neville regularly broadcasts a radio message that he is alive, and that possible survivors who can hear him can meet him at the South Street Seaport.

Manhattan is also populated by lions and herds of deer. Possibly these came from the Central Park Zoo. There is no explanation for their presence. The cannibals have devolved into mindless, roaring carnivores with less innocence than wolves. At one point Neville remarks that their "Social de-evolution appears to be complete." One would have expected him to remark, instead, that their rational and cognitive faculties had undergone irreversible devolution or degeneration, but perhaps the screenwriters thought those terms would be over the heads of audiences.

Into the story, unexpectedly, come two other immune survivors, who rescue Neville from the near fatal folly of trying to run down the mutants at night in an SUV in revenge for the cannibals' plague-altered dogs infecting his healthy German shepherd, which he was forced to kill himself. This is Anna, a Red Cross worker, and Ethan, a young boy in her care. This whole scene is shot out of focus, so what happens isn't clear. They all wind up in his townhouse. Anna tells Neville there is a colony of survivors in Vermont, which is where she is going. She heard his broadcast and came into Manhattan to find him. She wants him to go with her.

Neville says there is no such colony. After ranting the numbers of people killed by the virus and the number of survivors who might exist, divided between the immune and the raging cannibals, he says there is no God, and how could she know about a colony of survivors? Anna more or less implies that God told her.

Anna is saved the trouble of explaining herself when the cannibals attack the townhouse. How they finally discovered it is glossed over by Anna. Neville turns on the klieg lights and detonates the mines, decimating the first wave. But the cannibals appear to be numberless and attack again. They invade the townhouse. Neville, Anna, and Ethan retreat to the basement lab. Seeing that their predicament is hopeless, and suddenly realizing that he has found a cure (the female cannibal, strapped to an operating table, is now lying in a bed of ice, and shows signs of recovering from the virus), Neville draws blood from his arm and hands the vial containing it to Anna, then locks her and Ethan in a vault, instructing her not to come out until daybreak. Then he uses an incendiary grenade to destroy the cannibals and himself.

The story ends with Anna and Ethan driving through Vermont in the fall. They discover the fortified colony of survivors. The gates open, and Anna holds up the vial of Neville's blood to the guards, accompanied by the sound of the bell of an old New England style church in the distance.

The questions that occur to me, and which ought to occur to anyone in focus, are not answered by the story.

1. If Neville had the foresight to broadcast his existence to the outside world, why wasn't he listening for an answer? No answer. If the Vermont colony of survivors had the means to exist, why didn't it acknowledge his messages? If he is not shown listening for a reply, why would he (and we) assume that he is the last living human being? No explanations are given.

2. If the mutant cannibals are so demonstrably feral and non-rational, and reduced to the perceptual level of rabid dogs, how could they emulate Neville and set the same kind of trap for him? Further, Neville and his dog are attacked by a pack of plague-infected dogs, which are introduced by a cannibal who has them leashed. These actions, which necessitate a working intelligence at least as determined as a sly racoon's, contradict the initial premise that the cannibals are incapable of rational thought. No explanations are given.

3. How did Anna and Ethan get into Manhattan, if all the bridges and tunnels were destroyed? In the fuzzy rescue scene, she is shown driving a vehicle. In the dead of night, when it was dangerous to be out, she rescues Neville without being attacked herself, and somehow gets Neville back to his townhouse without incident. Neville is depicted as being in a traumatic fog; how was he able to give her directions? And how was she able to leave Manhattan, an island, to drive to Vermont? No explanations are given. (The only critic to ask the last question was Roger Ebert in his Chicago Sun Times review of December 14.)

4. Why are the cannibals depicted as so strong, fast, and agile, when logically they ought to have been debilitated by the virus and doomed to extinction? How did they survive three winters in New York in such endless numbers wearing only rags, and living in the dank, dark recesses of abandoned buildings? Unless they consumed each other, what else did they eat? They apparently had no taste for the equally numberless deer that roam the empty streets. No explanations are given.

5. When they finally corner Smith in his lab, it is under its glaring bright lights, which contradicts the premise they are fatally light-sensitive. Did any critic notice this? Not that I am aware of. No explanation is given.

Finally, the plot-line of I am Legend is established in a confusing kaleidoscope of flashbacks. Also, the TV previews showed missiles taking out Manhattan's bridges, but no such scenes occurred in the film. So, in the story itself, no explanation is given for why the bridges are reduced to rubble.

You might ask: Why belabor the holes and contradictions in a patently bad movie? First, because, as a writer, they bother me. Second, because I suspected the film would receive critical acclaim, which it did not deserve, but which it has received. Otherwise, I would not have bothered to critique it.

Roger Ebert in his review asks several questions about the logic of the events, but adopts an attitude that echoes that of the film's producers: "Never mind! Details are irrelevant! It is important to like this movie, because it has a 'message,' even though it stoops to schlock at the end!" The Hollywood Reporter on December 10 also gives high marks to the movie, and, like other reviews, such as Variety's (December 14), reserves its criticism for minor points, such as the CGI-produced cannibals, which the Variety reviewer found "irksome." Entertainment Weekly's review of December 12 also expressed the same reservation but lauded the movie, as did A.O. Scott in The New York Times (December 14).

Details are integral to any story, regardless of the genre, if they work to earn a place in it. But even extraneous details - and there are many in I am Legend - can be excused if they do not mislead or if they do not contradict a logical sequence of events, which the film cannot claim to have. Unexplained or inexplicably stressed details - and there are many of these, as well, in the film - are the mark of incompetence, carelessness, or just plain indifference to the workings of human cognition. Or, they might be symptomatic of something worse: a mind unable to distinguish between the essential and the extraneous.

That is why I find such films (and novels) so personally offensive: Their makers presume that my epistemology is as chaotically subjective as their own, that my willingness to temporarily suspend my disbelief is an invitation and sanction to abuse my mind as a matter of policy.

12 comments:

madmax said...

"Their makers presume that my epistemology is as chaotically subjective as their own, that my willingness to temporarily suspend my disbelief is an invitation and sanction to abuse my mind as a matter of policy."

Ed, I completely agree with you. Its a rare film maker today that shows a healthy epistemology. But here's the even more depressing part, the movie opened up to 75 million dollars which is the biggest December open ever. The lesson that Hollywood will take is that this type of storytelling works. So they will make more of this kind of trash.

I also find it interesting how much better the 1971 version was, how much more logical its plot development was. Both movies have similar themes in that Neville is essentially a Christ figure sacrificing himself for the good of humanity. But the original movie dramatized that theme so much better. It even had Heston's final death pose in the image of the Crucifix with his blood mingling with water; a visual image of how Christ's blood is the salvation of man. The modern version has none of that thematic imagery. Its really just gore and violence. And sadly, this isn't the first Charleton Heston movie that's been butchered by Hollywood in a remake. Director Tim Burton utterly destroyed 'Planet of the Apes' with his remake. It was really criminal.

Which leads me to my final point. If you compare the movies made in the 70s with those made today, there really is a drop off in terms of plot structure and overall intelligence in film making. It seems that the epistemological disintegration is happening before our very eyes and it is quickening. What will the next remake of 'I am Legend' be like in 30 to 40 years?

Bill Bucko said...

Ed, I think you would've been happier going to see "The Golden Compass." I make much the same points about fantasy as you do, at http://forums.4aynrandfans.com/index.php?showtopic=7387
The movie was decent, and the fantasy novel it's based on has some strong points (though the remaining books in the series quickly degenerate into a bizarre mishmash of angels, spirits, magic, shamanism, and conscious elementary particles. The author admits that the Church of England he grew up in still dominates his thoughts -- and that's painfully apparent.)

Anonymous said...

MadMax: Thanks for your comments. I would've dwelt on the epistemological subject, but I judged the piece long and pungent enough. (Observing Rand's essentializing rule.) Yes, many movies from the 1970's are better than their contemporary remakes; they had a vestigal respect for human cognition. But keep in mind also that the 1970's witnessed the first harvest of philosophical disintegration, as well, symbolized by the hippies, the beginnings of environmentalism, and so on. In the Heston version of the story, for example, he was "cynical" about civilization, and I found that "irksome."

I date the real plunge in Hollywood's epistemological disintegration to about 1965. I think that was the year the last great epic, "Khartoum," was released (also starring Heston, pitted against the incomparable Olivier as the bin Laden of his time). Aside from serials such as the Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, and Harry Potter movies, and a very few others, no great epics have come out of Hollywood. Among other reasons, the epistemological demands of an epic, even a badly made one, are beyond the abilities of today's directors, screenwriters, and producers. They literally imagine the broad picture an epic requires.

Still, people are hungry for epics. I'm always asked at my booksignings when the movie or TV mini-series of Sparrowhawk is coming out. All I can answer is that my publisher is shopping the rights around Hollywood, but with no success, as the publisher reports that producing such a series is for Hollywood "too daunting."

Anonymous said...

Correction to sentence: "They literally imagine the broad picture an epic requires."

I meant that they cannot imagine the broad picture that an epic requires.

Galileo Blogs said...

I enjoyed The Omega Man, which I liked even better than the book it was based on. Heston and the zombies were each motivated by ideas. These zombies could be motivated by ideas because they weren't really zombies. They were thinking humans who wrongly concluded that civilization itself was to blame for their disease. Therefore, they sought to destroy all evidence of that civilization. Appropriately, they lived in the dark; their eyes could not tolerate the light.

Heston represented the opposite of all that. He lived in the light in a modern apartment with all of the best that modern civilization could provide, including modern art (presumed to be "modern," i.e. a representation of the best of civilization), sculpture, scotch, fast cars and, above all, precious light that comes from electricity. Heston was also a scientist surrounded by his lab instruments. He was a man of reason who continually fought for a way to rescue man and never gave up even when he wasn't sure if no one else was alive.

Thank you for your review of I Am Legend. It confirms what I had already suspected, that this movie has absolutely nothing to do whatsoever with the story line dramatized by The Omega Man and the original Matheson novel. It is just another "action flick" devoid of ideas and devoid of human motivation, other than physical battles for survival with non-thinking brutes.

As for The Omega Man, I recommend it. It is not a great movie, but it does stand out from the pack. The movie made a big impression on me when I saw it for the first time as a kid. I took away from it emulation of reason and science, and the need to preserve and protect the products of man's mind, his technology, from the irrational masses who want to destroy it.

Later on, of course, I found much greater inspiration in other works by a great Russian-American author who so completely dramatized the role of the mind in human life.

Charles said...

I'll ask, just for the fun of it: if he was able to secure the woman and her son in some kind of vault -- from which they could release themselves safely the next day or whenever -- why did he not simply join them in there?

Anonymous said...

Charles: That question -- why didn't he just lock himself in the vault with them -- occurred to me as I watched the picute. But, he had to "sacrifice" himself to conform to the altruist premise of the story. This was one of the odd story events that I left out because I didn't want to exaggrate the ludicrousnes of the movie. Also, while the cannibals are roaring at him and one of them repeatedly launches himself against the glass barrier separating Smith, Anna and Ethan from the invading creatures, Smith tries to plead with them -- "I have a cure, if you'll only listen!" or words to that effect. Stupid. And, the last scene, with the church bell pealing, was a sop to the religious conservatives. Well, as Rand so aptly observed; "Don't bother to examine a folly. Ask only what it accomplishes."

By the way, I sent the full text and the link to it to Roger Ebert, just to see what if anything he'd have to say about it. No response. Which figures.

Ed Cline

Anonymous said...

Ed,

I feel like you and I watched two different movies, or that you fell asleep while watching.

Nearly every point you raise is answered in the movie. The only question I find valid is how Anna got on and off the island, but frankly, that isn't fatal to the plot (is it that hard to get on and off an island? ever heard of a boat?). The reason Neville didn't leave is not because he couldn't get off the island, but rather because he was obsessed with staying: "this is ground zero, this is my site, I can fix this."

Other than that, nearly every point you raise is answered, quite plainly I might add, in the movie.

Also, were you not paying attention when Neville flashed back to when fighter jets bombed the bridges (and his wife's chopper crashed)? Again, were we watching two different movies or were you just not paying attention?

As for the "pure folderol" of the cancer cure explanation, I suggest you research viral vectors for cancer gene therapy. Yes, her explanation was diluted for laymen. But the technology she described is at the fore of cancer research (the movie even used a clinically accurate virus - measles. see http://discoverysedge.mayo.edu/measles/index.cfm).

That's not to say that the movie maximized its allegorical potential, or even fleshed itself out properly. But watching the movie left me with almost none of the nagging questions you had. All in all, this review, to use your own words, was pure folderol.

Anonymous said...

As the previous comment mentioned, nearly all of the "holes" you mentioned were answered fairly plainly in the movie. The cannibals were sensitive to any form of UV light. He didn't claim the cannibals were completely irrational, simply that he'd never seen them intentionally expose themselves to light and that behavior seemed irrational. He did listen for an answer to his broadcasts, as he waited on the dock at high sun every day. He didn't give her directions, but rather an address in Washington Square, a famous landmark in Manhattan (a very small island). The cannibals were a very small percentage of those who survived they virus, and they ate the other hundreds of millions of people.

Sounds like you weren't paying attention because you were too busy being "personally offended". I didn't think it was a great movie, but I certainly didn't walk away puzzled.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous:
Re your recent comments: Perhaps we did see two different movies. No, my questions were not answered by the story. No, there was no “flashback” showing jets bombing the bridges. In the version I saw, it was implied that Neville’s wife’s helicopter collided with one that was out of control; nothing else was shown. No, I'm not going to make a career of researching viral vectors for cancer gene therapy; you have to understand the purpose of that whole folderol-ish scene, which was to indict science as such and genetic engineering in particular. No, I don’t know that the cannibals were senstivie to UV light; nothing in what I heard or saw mentioned anything about any particular light. No, I don’t know that he was listening for answers to his broadcasts; the voice over of the broadcast, coupled with his opening a laptop computer on the dock doesn’t logically mean that he’s listening for anything; he could have been about to play free cell or solitaire. No, I didn’t hear him give directions to the Anna character, because that whole foggy, confusing scene turned me off. Such a key scene ought to be clear, and it wasn’t. And, please, don’t tell me about how Washington Square is a famous landmark; I lived there for 12 years. As for the cannibals, the numbers are irrelevant.

So, as far as I'm concerned, my charges concerning all the holes in the picture still stand. Excuse me for blinking, but the information imparted in the story was a jumbled cascade that I really don’t think anyone should have to stop and try and connect all the dots. Also, I don’t think it’s necessary for you to take a personal cheap shot at me for being offended by such rubbish. And this is as far as I'm going to pursue this matter.

Have a nice Christmas.

richyl m said...

Re: fantasy world-setting of The Golden Compass -
I used to believe, too, that I could not truly enjoy a movie set in a fantasy world where the laws of reality are suspended. Yes, I haven't enjoyed Harry Potter very much too.
But I really enjoyed The Golden Compass.

John Cowan said...

Your claim to be a novelist who has set all his stories in the real world is self-contradictory. The real world consists solely of persons, places, things, and events that actually exist (or formerly existed). If your works are set in the real world, then by definition they are not novels but histories or biographies. Can't be otherwise. A is A, you know.