Friday, October 03, 2008

Tension in I Am Legend

Mystery Man has asked us all to talk about tension on film. I want to fit in with the cool kids so I'm going to comply.

I thought about a lot of different elements of tension - the effect of dramatic irony and music and angles and light and all this technical stuff - but in the end I couldn't stop thinking about the one movie I've seen in the last year that had more tension-filled moments than any other - I Am Legend.

Now whether you like the movie or not - I mostly liked it although the ending was much more satisfying before they fiddled with it - it was chock full of tension.


It begins with the idea of isolation. It's just Robert and his dog, so no matter what happens, nobody is going to come save him. He's utterly alone. So when his dog wanders into enemy territory you know that one wrong move could be his last.

And even though it's too early in the film for Robert to die, that doesn't mean he can't get hurt. That doesn't mean the dog isn't in some serious peril. We haven't seen the full force of what these creatures can do yet but we know it's bad, and Robert is about to step right into their lair.

Most importantly, we totally get why. It's sort of the Tom Hanks / Wilson thing. Nobody wants to be alone and that dog is Robert's only companion, so any one of us might risk our lives to go after him too.

So Robert walks into the dark where his enemy is strongest. He has to be quiet so they don't hear him. So when he's quiet, we're quiet too because we know any sound could bring death. And at every noise he makes we cringe.

Then he comes around a corner and shines a light on the creatures, all crowded, breathing heavily, sleeping. Oh shit. The light might wake them. A noise might wake them. They're right fucking there. One wrong move and they might turn on him. And where the hell is the dog?

They don't turn on him. But we see blood. Oh my god, is that the dog? We follow the blood trail, still in silence, still in the dark, hoping it's not the blood of his only companion in the world.

Relief. It's not.

But can Robert get out of here without being attacked? And will he find his dog alive?

Seriously this entire sequence had me holding my breath and afraid to move in my seat. I was so worried about him and I was so worried about that dog. If he had walked into a room and immediately got attacked there would have been no tension in that scene. But it was the knowledge that the creatures could kill him at any moment if he made too much noise or shined too much light, and all the time he needs to call the dog to make it come to him - well that is one hell of a situation and we can all relate to every second of that.

There are a lot of moments like that in the film. Can he crawl away from the zombie dogs before the sun goes down? Is the dog going to make it when he injects him with the vaccine? How the hell is he going to get out of the car?

It's that isolation, the quiet, the dark, the loneliness, all that works in conjunction. And these scenarios are well set up. Francis Lawrence, the director, clearly took his time with these shots. It's not all about getting the loudest, fastest bang. It's about showing us the danger so we have time to think about it before he steps in it. We feel what Robert feels and we are really worried because if he's the last man on Earth then his death is the death of us all.

Now I know a lot of people didn't like this movie and they especially didn't like the multitude of changes made with the adaptation, but tension is one thing I Am Legend did very, very well.

I'm nervous for the prequel. I don't see how it can have so much tension since you'll be removing the isolation and the quiet and the dog, but we'll see.


  1. They did a good job creating the tension. I'll give them that. The scene where the dog vanished into the dark was amazing.

    I just wish that instead of adapting a classic novel, they would change just a few more things (including the title) so you can call it an original. The book is one of my favorites, without a doubt. And the movie, while decent and certainly a good popcorn film, didn't come anywhere near capturing the essence of the novel.

  2. That scene was the best in the film and I thought the director did an excellent job throughout actually.
    One of the problems was the ending, the original was obviously superior, but the main problem was the casting - Will Smith just can't play venerable, his personality and physicality just don't allow for it. The scenes with him lying in the bathtub became comic because of this.

    Miscasting is an interesting problem, as it can obviously ruin any script if it's not then rewritten. They rewrote the end for Smith but not the rest of the film.

    My favorite example is Panic Room which wasn't altered when Anglena Jolie dropped out. Seeing Angelina Jolie running around in her underwear is clearly very different.
    It was obviously intended to be more of an exploitation movie and again Foster brings too much baggage to the role, although I thought she did an excellent job as always.


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