I Am Legend kicks off Knoxvilleâ’s new IMAX era
by Dave Prince
YOU HEARD IT HERE LAST: North Americaâ’s largest theater chain finally puts an IMAX screen in its hometown, and, to inaugurate it, Regal Cinemas chose a movie about a boy and his dog.
OK, technically itâ’s about a boy, his dog, several billion virally infected vampires, a few conveniently placed explosions, and a panoramic study of a post-human Manhattan. And while itâ’s more fun for me to think that theyâ’d manage to do it wrong, I Am Legend really is the best way to christen the Pinnacleâ’s new IMAX-equipped auditorium.
At approximately 2,237 square feet, the Pinnacleâ’s screen is smaller than your average IMAX, but it still functionally dwarfs Knoxvilleâ’s other options, both in screen size and film resolution. The IMAX format lends itself well to Legend. Itâ’s all very scientificâ"when broken down, the process goes something like â“higher-resolution film + larger screen + (action-packed + eye-candy) = impressive level of detailâ”â"and when properly executed, the audio-visual effect is about as immersive as current consumer-level technology allows. With a $12.50 admission price, this obviously lends itself to a very specific kind of movie (thereâ’s a reason they didnâ’t put the screen at Downtown West, after all), and Legend, for all its aspirations of being a deep character study, is still very much that kind of movie.
I Am Legend is the third feature film adaptation of Richard Mathesonâ’s 1954 novel of the same name, the best-known of which is 1971â’s Charlton Heston film The Omega Man (though its predecessor, 1964â’s The Last Man on Earth, was written in part by Matheson himself and stayed truer to the original). I can only imagine the field day the Warner Bros. casting department had with this oneâ"a pie chart representing Legendâ’s casting budget would just be a giant circle with the words â“WILL SMITHâ” in the middle, with tiny slivers off to one side labeled â“A DOGâ” and â“EVERYONE ELSE.â”
Speaking of which, the choice of Smith to carry Legend as lone survivor Robert Neville was, despite Smithâ’s near-guaranteed box-office draw, a risky proposition. I, Robot, Smithâ’s last comparable vehicle, was a box-office success despite a few hundred liberties taken with the source material and more blatant product placement than the front four at Talladega, but how many of those can one actor have before the stigma sticks? Whatever Smithâ’s current tally is, plus a few more, apparently. While Legend takes the source material for a ride, it doesnâ’t go so far as to completely divorce itself from it, and in the process it uses some of the best attributes of star and setting to deliver a legitimately enjoyable experience.
Unlike Omega Manâ’s Hestonian overtures, which require no mortal interference as long as they have their guns, their God, and their gravitas, Will Smithery is based on an infectious, family-friendly charisma that requires a certain minimum population in his filmsâ’ settings to work correctly. Note that I said â“correctlyâ” as opposed to â“effectivelyâ” there. Legendâ’s characterization diverges from the original in jocular ways that seem tailor-made for classic Smithery, but Smith has enough of a handle on the character to not let that override the storyâ’s fundamental bleakness. Yes, heâ’s wacky, and yes, some of that wackiness seems out of place in context, but itâ’s not so pervasive that it hamstrings the story. When the film switches gears from sci-fi buddy comedy to sci-fi bump-in-the-night horror flick and back, Smithâ’s Neville switches gears with it in ways which actually use Smithery against itself, revealing the stoic-yet-jovial Neville as a mask beneath which lies a despondent man who sees the entire world as evidence of his failure. Legend could have easily done worse. (Much worse, apparently, as early rumors had Schwarzenegger playing Neville.)
Of course, the plot has been jazzed up for mass consumption, and unfortunately the ending falls apart, betraying the previous hour-and-a-halfâ’s worth of quiet desperation while veering wildly away from Mathesonâ’s original. Pointing out the irony in Hollywoodâ’s insistence upon taking a desolate original source and somehow making it even more bitter by replacing a grim-yet-profound ending with a slapped-together sunshine-and-lollipops deus ex machina is like staking undead fish in a barrel, though. This one flaw in an otherwise strong picture would almost be forgivable if I wasnâ’t convinced that doing it all the time and hoping that the moviegoing public will just get used to it isnâ’t part of Hollywoodâ’s plan to make mainstream cinema even more formulaic.
Stop for a second and look around wherever youâ’re sitting for any words other than the ones youâ’re readingâ"headlines, ads, logos, packaging, street signs, the numbers on buses, whatever. Chances are one or several or maybe even all of them are set in a typeface called Helvetica, the most overwhelmingly popular and prevalent font in the world, though its sleek, modern plainness makes it all but invisible. After watching a new documentary about Helvetica, youâ’ll never not see it the same way again.
How interesting could a feature film about lettering be? Pretty interesting, it turns out. Director Gary Hustwit is blessed by the fact that his subject is literally everywhere, so he can cut from his talking heads to montages of Helvetica that encompass everything from signs on dilapidated buildings to the logos for Jeep and American Apparel, to, well, you name it. It doesnâ’t hurt that the design-hall-of-fame talking heads he lines upâ"from legendary modernist gurus Massimo Vignelli and Wim Crouwel to aging enfants terribles Neville Brody and David Carsonâ"are all sharp and articulate and enthusiastic about the topic. (Designer Michael Bierut gets a few laughs.) Hustwit is even able to craft something of a narrative out of his material, following the face from its creation by Swiss designer Max Miedinger in 1957 to its rapid rise as the look of post-WWII modernism to utter ubiquity to falling out of fashion (cue former Raygun designer Carsonâ’s war stories) to coming around as a beloved, useful staple and a virtual design fact of life.
Helvetica is most likely to excite design nerds, of course, but if youâ’re interested in the way things look and how that has changed, along with our culture, over the past 50 years, you may find yourself rapt as well. And youâ’ll turn it off wanting to throw away all your ugly stuff, too. â" Lee Gardner
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