Friday, January 11, 2008

Zombies in the Street of America

The zombie film as a metaphor for political and social unconsciousness has a long and illustrious history. If they don’t begin with George A. Romero’s series of films, then certainly they have found their clearest political expression in them. Which is not to say that all, or even a majority of, zombie films are politically interesting.
Compared to, for instance, the mall setting of Romero’s Dawn of the Dead as a critique of consumerism and conformity, films like the stylish and beautiful 28 Weeks Later are intellectual ca-ca - at least after the first act's interesting commentary on the American Army in Iraq viz. the zombie-free "Green Zone".
But even the anti-conformist message of the Canadian film Fido is depressingly distanced from contemporary experience, so that all it manages is a pretty banal and hackneyed critique of the Leave It To Beaver 1950s. Hardly a revelation.
I bring this up because when I sat down to watch I Am Legend I figured that I’d have the usual experience – only more Hollywood: stunning effects that only a $150 million could buy, snappy one-line acting by a big star, and a hackneyed story line bled dry of any broader relevance, all wrapped-up in a structure so formula that Robert McKee would give it a hearty thumbs up.
Boy was I wrong.
It is 2012 and a re-engineered virus, designed to wipe out cancer, has killed off ninety-percent of humanity with most of the remaining turning into vampire-like monsters. I know this means I've been misleading by talking about zombie films but the role that the creatures play is more typical of zombies than vampires, which is why the other adaptation 28 Days Later treated them this way.
Army virologist Robert Neville (Will Smith) is seemingly the only uninfected survivor to be left in New York City, if not the world. He spends his days hunting and gathering with his dog, Samantha, working on a cure and watching news re-runs and Shrek.
He’s also coming undone from lack of human contact. He talks to his dog like a person and carries on conversations with mannequins he’s set up in the video store he frequents.
Certainly this was a big budget film with spectacular monster effects and remarkable production design. You can’t watch this “last man on earth” film and not wonder how they achieved the look of an utterly abandoned New York returning to a state of nature. Grass grows on the streets and deer lope away from hunting lions, as not a human is to be seen.
But director Francis Lawrence (Constantine) has understood that having boatloads of cash doesn’t mean you have to jam-pack every scene with toys and gadgets. For instance, there is no soundtrack, other than the occasional Bob Marley song played on the stereo of Neville. This gives the empty city a serenity it wouldn’t otherwise have. And it forces Lawrence to rely on visuals and acting to generate the plentiful tension.
And tension he has lots of. During a hunt for deer, Neville’s dog runs into a darkened building and he has to go after her. But the dark is where the mutated human creatures hide from the sunlight. And these creatures eat flesh. As Neville goes deeper and deeper into the darkness to find his dog, Smith’s acting and the shots will have you on the edge of your seat. The lack of music gives us a cleaner, more visceral experience of this abandoned city filled with danger.
And when there is music, as when Neville plays Bob Marley’s song Stir It Up to Anna (Alice Braga), it retains it’s poignance and emotional impact.
One of the most interesting aspects of this film is the politics behind it. Neville on several occasions describes New York City as “ground zero” – in reference to the man-made virus that was let loose there.
Ground zero, of course, is how New York was described after 9/11. And the virus that has been unleashed has turned the survivors of the city into hate-filled monsters. This hatred has spread outwards to engulf the entire planet. I Am Legend is thus an allegory for the post-911 world in general and of America in particular. Even the portion of Shrek that we see, and which Neville knows by heart, is a scene in which Shrek takes on a mindless lynch mob trying to drive him from his home in the swamps. Everything points us in the direction of seeing this film as a critique of the madness of bloodthirsty jingoism and prejudice.
What’s more, the survivors that we see are an African-American, a Brazilian woman and a little boy. This is refreshing from the point of view of a still mostly lily-white Hollywood but is also an interesting statement on who will be the agents of a global redemption. Of equal interest is the destination of Anna and her young companion, which is to the hills of Vermont. That probably doesn’t mean much to us Canadians but in the lore of the American Revolution and some of the more radical conceptions of early American democracy, Vermont is an important touchstone. For redemption they must literally return to the revolutionary vision of America – or at least it’s myth (and the myth or reality of the Vermont “colony” is a point of dispute in the film as well).
This film is on many levels a questioning of the current direction of the USA and the world and it is also successful as a story. Sure, there are flaws with the third act and if you look up the wikipedia page on the film there is an alternative ending that would have helped save the third act from eating itself (which it does). But as far as Hollywood blockbusters go, this is the thinking person’s cotton candy.
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