Sunday, August 24, 2008

Legend and DaVinci's Code

There are certain kinds of movies my wife won’t watch. Horror flicks, films that revel in violence, movies whose stories focus primarily on adultery, films that appear to have a generally dark feel to them- these are almost always fastidiously avoided by my wife. Occasionally though, there are films that find their way into this category that I do want to see. This is unfortunate because I almost never watch movies without my wife sitting next to me. (I still haven’t seen Shyamalan’s Sixth Sense for this very reason.) But this weekend, with my wife gone to her parent’s house, I did manage to watch two such films- I Am Legend and The DaVinci Code.

Too bad for The DaVinci Code that I watched it right after I Am Legend. Comparing the two leaves the Code severely lacking for want of anything meaningful related to the human condition.

I Am Legend offers a tale that shows us, with stark beauty, just how capable we humans are of selflessness, and of doing what is right now matter how inconvenient, even dangerous, it may be. The Code, on the other hand, seemed more interested in wrapping itself in a bland veneer of cynicism, self preservation, and the “inherent” evils of organized religion.

Where Will Smith’s performance was spellbinding because of his ability to portray the many facets of emotion that his character experienced during the trial of his self-imposed exile in an abandoned Manhattan, that of Tom Hanks seemed merely adequate.

Indeed, what Smith brought to Legend took the story from being good, to becoming a masterful portrait of human virtue. (Spoiler) The vision in my mind’s eye, for example, of the deluge of raw, conflicting emotions that he poured onto the screen when his character was forced to kill the only companion and friend left in his life still manages to stir up a cacophony of emotion inside me as I write this. (End of spoiler.)

In Hanks defense though, it’s only fair to point out that he really wasn’t given much to work with in the emotion department. As far as I could tell, the only real interest his character had was staying alive long enough to prove himself innocent of committing murder.

The story told in Legend is simple enough. In the near future someone has genetically engineered a virus that will cure cancer. Initially the cure works and its developer is hailed as a hero. Then things go terribly wrong.

Those who have been subjected to the viral treatment begin exhibiting symptoms similar to rabies and eventually degenerate to a point where they no longer are capable of anything except to carry out the most basic of survival instincts. They become lethally violent in their cannibalistic search for food, killing and eating anything and anyone that isn’t able to defend itself. To top it off, all their hair falls out and their skin turns pale, giving them a rather grotesque appearance. Oh yeah, and they’re no longer able to expose themselves to UV rays without dire consequences- sort of like genetically engineered modern vampires, sans widow’s peaks and fake eastern-european accents.

In an attempt to stop the airborne spread of the virus, the federal government puts Manhattan island under quarantine. Those who don’t display any symptoms are allowed to leave. Anyone with symptoms is forced to stay on the island. Dr. Robert Neville, a virologist and Lieutenant Colonel in the US Army, voluntarily stays on the island, even as his wife and daughter are evacuated. He feels that he has a duty to find a cure for those who have been afflicted with the virus. This act gives us our first glimpse of Dr. Neville’s selflessness.

Within three years the quarantined island of Manhattan has become an urban wasteland. The only people left on the island that we are aware of are the bloodthirsty virus victims and the immune Dr. Neville. He spends his days quixotically searching for anyone who, like himself, may have avoided infection, and harvesting food from his urban garden and the now abundant herds of deer that inhabit the island. His evenings are spent in his underground, bombproof laboratory, searching for a cure for the virus.

There are scenes and images in this film that some people will find disturbing. I, for one, found myself experiencing a mixture of revulsion and dread when, early in the film Dr. Neville chases his dog into a dark building and discovers a nest of virus victims shown sleeping while standing up and breathing heavily and rapidly. The combination of their grotesque appearance with this entirely inhuman behavior is exactly the sort of thing that would make my wife turn off the movie in disgust.

But, it also worked perfectly to demonstrate just what Dr. Neville’s decision to remain on the island really meant. My emotion at seeing these un-humans was mirrored and magnified in the primal fear portrayed by Will Smith on the screen. His character lives with this fear as a constant backdrop in his life. And yet, he persists in his efforts to save the very creatures who fill him with dread. He recognizes their humanity and wants to help them.

Need I mention that Dr. Neville’s visit to the victim’s lair awakens several of them, followed by much gunfire and bloodshed? But he kills out of self-defense, not rage or fear of that which is different. Later in the film, when his own safety is no longer threatened, he displays compassion toward a female victim who he has managed to sedate and bring to his lab in order to test possible vaccines.

(Spoilers) Until the film’s climax, however, we can’t be entirely sure of Dr. Neville’s altruism. Are his efforts really driven by a sense of charity toward fellow men, or is he, like so many people in the real world, driven by the more selfish prospect of overcoming a difficult challenge and achieving the resulting success? When the film reaches its climax, however, we’re left with no doubt as to how great a sacrifice Dr. Neville is willing to make in order to save humanity from the terror wrought by the virus. He gives his own life to ensure that the cure he has discovered will reach those who can put it in into effect. (End of Spoilers.)

And therein lies the beauty of this film. There’s no denying the fact that this movie absolutely does make use of the scary-monster hook and the action/shoot-‘em-up hook to attract the big bucks from the testosterone crowd. But those elements are not what makes it great. The reason this story is so good is because of the way it portrays the triumph of the human spirit, through one man’s ultimate sacrifice, over the adversity that can be found assailing against it in a bleak and horrifying world.

I Am Legend kept me pinned to the edge of my seat and left me sobbing like a child when it was over. I barely managed to stay awake all the way through The DaVinci Code.