Tuesday, October 11, 2016

I Am Legend (I Am Lonely)

I've talked a lot about Will Smith lately, and also about zombies, so I might as well lay out my thoughts about "the Will Smith zombie movie" which is also an excellent exploration of the nature of isolation that anyone reading this blog can relate to.

We are talking about the Alternate Version that did not see theatrical release (though the meaning of different cuts of movies is worth a post all on its own.) Spoilers for why immediately under the cut.

So yes, the twist ending is that the zombies (or Dark Seekers) are still something-like-human, and the lead zombie just wants his love back, who Will Smith kidnapped to experiment with a cure on. Ha ha, in a twist, the "hero" is the villain who captures the princess to perform experiments, and the zombies storm his castle to get her back.

This is a bit of a dial back compared to the original book, where the main character interacts with the vampires and their society frequently, in the end heroically helping them. The title refers to the fact that as the last human, he will be a legend in the new vampire society. If you want a more faithful version, then good news, the Last Man on Earth is in public domain and it stars Vincent motherfucking Price!

Except in making this change, director Frank Lawrence made a movie with a different themes and imagery. One that's much more interesting really.

First off, these zombies are much more subhuman than the half-vampires of the earlier productions. They do not speak, when we see them they are shivering husks, and their only success at communication with a human is painting a butterfly picture out of blood to signify the butterfly tattoo on someone's shoulder. They are ugly and viscous and look wretched. These are not creatures who inspire humanistic empathy except in the most pathetic sense. And yet, as Will Smith learns, they still are deserving of consideration and even respect.

Teaching respect for people who have suffered degradation is much harder than teaching respect for people who are basically just like you but prejudice has created a barrier to understanding them. I really like this repeated theme in Will Smith's work.

(Pause to remember that Smith got his start in an extended sitcom about a brutish inner city kid living in the rich suburbs of Los Angeles.)

But still, why watch 2 hours of movie for 30 seconds of twist where we learn "oops we were the bad guys all along." Does this twist inform the rest of the work that led up to this revelation? Sure, there's a couple plot points that in hindsight are the zombies laying traps for him, but do these add anything to the text? Why bother making this as a movie instead of a short story youtube video or something?

So let's go into what is really going on for the length of the film. Is it a non-linear progression where the end reinterprets the earlier parts of the work? Well, let's start with the trailer.

Oh right, the entire aesthetic appeal of this movie is "loneliness". Really, it's amazing how many reviews could be assisted by watching the trailer and asking "what is the appeal they are advertising here." In this case the trailer emphasizes the fantasy of being absolutely the last human on earth. It takes place in Manhattan, our cultural symbol for teeming overpopulation, with all this grass and wildlife invading and empty spaces where the people should be.

And, it's about how this man is breaking down from the isolation. He structures his life around sending a signal for people to meet him, when he knows no one will hear. He becomes extremely attached to his dog as his best friend, talking to him at length. Best of all are the scenes where he has set up mannequins to imitate some semblance of human interaction (including his hilarious nervousness about asking one mannequin out.) This is a man dying from loneliness.

Then his dog dies, his one last companion, and we see real grief in his reaction. He goes out to the pier planning to commit suicide by zombie after that loss.

Then a woman and child miraculously turn up and save him. Uh. How about that.

Smith's reaction here is key. It's... resentment. The rescue itself is traumatic, and when he wakes up the next day, he seems confused, and annoyed. Fortunately some of its available on youtube.

The use of Shrek here is perfect. The cartoon donkey and ogre are speaking the subtext of "why are you in my space" that Smith can't express.

My favorite line is when he sees Anna is cooking and he stammers "I was saving that bacon," as if for a special occasion. As if finding other people is not the most special occasion in the world, deserving of getting out the frickin bacon for. This is laugh out loud comedy here, combined with very powerful pathos as we see how broken inside Smith's character has become.

We realize that while in some ways Smith was aching with loneliness... in other ways he had come to value the stability and control over his world that being the last man afforded. No one turned on his TV or ate his bacon. He could drive down the streets as fast as he wanted, and spend as much time in his lab working on a cure as he liked. Note how tightly controlled his daily plan was. His life had a harmonious tranquility that the arrival of outsiders has disturbed.

He's anti-social. I Am Legend is about a man who desperately needs connection, but is afraid of what loss of control other people will bring. We can all sympathize with that contradiction.

Here is where the twist matters. Will Smith was never alone in the city. He was surrounded by thousands upon thousands of zombies. And at the end, we realize that the zombies are sort of people.

And all the hints? The various plot points like the mannequin trap the zombies set up to try to get their damsel back? The leader who keeps appearing to egg the other zombies on? They aren't just fodder for "a mystery to solve" but they show Smith's willful denial: there was plenty of evidence that the zombies were sentient, he just would never acknowledge it.

This does not mean that establishing social relations with the zombies would be easy. Obviously the little bit of communication they did was very difficult. But it was possible, and for a man who's talking with his dog and setting up mannequin socials, that possibility must be a key outlet for him. Instead, it was more important for him to control that the "right" people were interacting with him, taking his stuff, than to reach out for any connection.


All of us are lonely. None of us have no one though.

If we want to meet people, we can go outside and wave at people in the grocery store, or read comments on reddit (including hilariously bad comments, about this movie!), or call family, or play an online game, or volunteer at an old folks home. There are so many people who would enjoy our presence, in some way. Hell if you are convinced you have no one at all who wants to hear from you, leave a comment on this blog. And volunteer to pet kittens.

But many of the groups I just listed are the social equivalent of those zombies. Sure, they are technically people, but engaging with them is hard and unpleasant and they might steal your bacon.

Our loneliness does not just want anyone to talk to, but it wants calm, polite people who also share various high status social traits, and won't make us feel uncomfortable. So we build this fantasy in our head of what "Good" social interaction we want, and then lament that we will never achieve it.

This is class conflict. This is why zombies are the poor - not just the economically homeless, but every rambling reddit commenter or lonely aging person in a nursing home who we automatically exclude from our considerations of "what is a person." This is what makes us Will Smith's character.

1 comment:

  1. Really enjoyed this write up and your thoughts; going to have a ponder. Great stuff.