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:: Tuesday, December 18, 2007 ::

Review: "I am Plotless" 

:: Posted by Edward Cline at 12:54 PM

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.

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