Retrospecticus: I Am Legend and the Paradox of Moviegoing

With the release of Bright on Netflix, it’s hard not to think back to the 2007 megahit I Am Legend, another Will Smith genre work. I Am Legend was the big film of the winter season and the kind of film we rarely get anymore. It’s a star driven film that entirely rests on the strength of Will Smith to carry it. I genuinely admire the hell out of the film and think it’s quite effective, even if it loses a bit when other people show up.

But this isn’t a column about the film. Not really. It’s a column about moviegoing and what it does to us. I told this story in my book but I’m retelling it here because it deserves to be told here. Movies have a power and this one did in this moment.

In the Winter of 2007, I was in a dark place. 6 months earlier I’d graduated from college and took a job I washed out of immediately. I’d spent the time since desperately seeking a new job to no avail aside from a part time job with family friends. I felt like I’d finally crashed against the rocks like I was meant to. My depression was as bad then as it has ever been.

I was in a low place but even in a low place I could save a bit of money to go away. So I did. After my job was finished, I drove a few hours to a family owned house, listening to an audio drama version of Batman: Knightfall, the first time I actually took a radio drama with me on a drive. I reached the house, dropped my stuff off, and went out for the night.

The evening ranks among the single bleakest of my life. My dinner, which I’d thought would be superb, was truck stop level bad. The comic selection at the stores I went to was so bad I picked up Amazons Attack out of desperation. I certainly couldn’t find any alcohol to numb me. I was miserable.

So it was I limped into the theater to see I Am Legend. Let’s pause to note the appropriateness of this choice. There were other films on I could’ve seen. I opted for the film about an isolated man in a hopeless future. It was almost as if I chose a film that would resonate with me no matter what.

I took my seat among the audience, an anonymous wraith. The trailers began and immediately the crowd exploded to life. They openly discussed how excited they were to see the future classic Cloverfield. They seemed to dig the trailer for The Poughkeepsie Tapes, which actually wasn’t released until October 2017. The summer movies charged them up. A great crowd.

Then the film began and they were even better. The film is wall to wall well executed scares and they reacted to them. The few laughs got a reaction. The action was responded to with hoots. When the movie ended on a downbeat note, they were angry. This was an audience to be in.

When the movie ended, I felt better. Eventually things did get better for me. I rebounded. I got my current job. I moved on.

But I keep going back to that experience and that’s what I feel the need to write about. Because while I Am Legend is good, it’s not great. Next to the artistry of a film like Cloverfield, it’s weak. It’s very compromised, especially when other people enter the picture. The use of CGI is everything we rage against. It also pales next to Richard Matheson’s novel. It’s not a landmark film.

And usually when we talk about film, we do treat our most important experiences as such. It’s important that I’m able to point to the Star Wars SEs as vital films to my youth and not say Jungle 2 Jungle, which I saw at the same time. We need there to be a direct correlation between the art we see and the moments we have.

The truth is there’s often not a correlation. And sometimes a good enough movie can be enough. It’s often why we’re nicer to movies that don’t earn it and, I concede harder than we need to be on movies that don’t earn it. Moviegoing is its own thing apart from watching the movie.

So when I look at this film, I struggle to put it in the proper context. Seeing it on this night gave me peace. It kept me going at a moment when that was hard. What does that mean for my thoughts on it? I can’t review the film without reviewing the experience.

This is where one learns to train themselves as a critic. I have to filter these things out. That’s why I’m able to step back and look at the film. I play the images I saw back and judge them as fairly as I can. I put weight on these issues. It’s not easy to be fair but a good critic critic does the best they can. This is our challenge and it’s what we always fight.

In the end a good time is a good time. It’s just not always a great film.

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