Why do we humans go out of our way to terrorize ourselves? Why do we love watching our adrenaline levels shoot through the roof? Being the movie snob that I am, I tend to avoid most major blockbusters and head straight for the smaller independent or foreign films. But Kendall and I have been on a mainstream kick lately. In the past few weeks, we saw not one but two mega-popular post-apocalyptic films set in New York, “I Am Legend” and “Cloverfield.”
God, I’m exhausted.
“I Am Legend” is based on the 1954 novel by Richard Matheson, a book that had already been made into two films: “The Last Man on Earth” (1964) and “The Omega Man” (1971) starring Charlton Heston. Each version dutifully reflected the terror triggers of its day. In “The Omega Man,” humanity is nearly wiped out because of biological warfare between China and the Soviet Union. The current film presents a clever and horrifying twist on the coming apocalypse. Set in the year 2012, we see a news broadcast from three years earlier in which a doctor (played by a deliciously arrogant Emma Thompson) announces triumphantly that the cure to cancer has finally been found by making special adaptations to the measles virus and then using it to inoculate cancer patients. But this genetically re-engineered miracle, touted as the highest achievement in the history of science, unexpectedly mutates and becomes an airborne contagion, leading to the death of 90% of the planet in a matter of months. A tiny percentage of people are immune to the virus and the rest of the survivors degenerate into a less-than-human primal state, overtaken by aggression and unable to withstand light (a nod to the original book’s vampire plot). These monsters have a thirst for human blood, and they go after the survivors with a vengeance. By 2012, virologist Robert Neville (Will Smith) believes he is the last healthy human being left in New York, and perhaps the world.
I mostly wanted to see the film because I was fascinated by the idea of what New York would look like after people were gone, and indeed, the special effects do not disappoint. Waist-high grass growing out of the cracks in Times Square, the return of lush greenery throughout the city, herds of deer and other animals roaming the streets of Manhattan (including lions which must have escaped from the abandoned zoo). The three-year-old Christmas decorations were perfectly decayed, the 2009 gas prices were still in view (over $6.50 a gallon!), and it was interesting to get repeated glimpses of the signs describing the medical quarantine New York was under before everyone died or was killed. The only unrealistic thing in the background shots, as Kendall pointed out, was the Times Square billboard for the Broadway musical “Legally Blonde”—no way would that turkey would still be playing at the end of 2009!
I don’t want to give much more of the plot away except to say that Smith’s interactions with these zombie mutants scared the living crap out of us. Honestly, Kendall and I were digging our nails so hard into each other’s arms I thought we’d leave the theatre looking like deformed zombies. There were some scenes that were so grisly and terrifying that I had to avert my eyes, wuss that I am, and I kept asking myself why we willingly put ourselves through such torture. What is up with our desire to be gripped in fear at the movies? Is it because we then get to go out into the scary real world and realize that it isn’t as bad we thought? To make matters worse, the geniuses in the movie industry think that everyone who goes to a scary action film ONLY wants to see scary action films so we were treated to what seemed like dozens of bone-chilling trailers, each one more horrifying than the next. By the end of the night I was ready to check myself into a VA hospital for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. No, these movies are NOT for me.
Then what the hell were we doing back at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre less than two weeks later for yet another scarier than shit vision of New York City in peril? Truth be told, we couldn’t resist the ad campaign. The teaser for “Cloverfield” showed the Statue of Liberty with her head crudely ripped off and contained the tagline “Some Thing Has Found Us.” Ah, but what? When I drove by Grauman’s last weekend, I nearly crashed my car into the famous forecourt when I passed the gigantic scale model of the Statue of the Liberty (without the head, of course) serving as a promotional tool for the film. Cool.
“Cloverfield” is presented (a la “Blair Witch Project”) entirely as a series of home videos that were supposedly found “in the area formerly known as Central Park.” I thought watching two hours of shaky handheld “amateur” footage would drive me nuts, but I found it to be an interesting and terrifying technique. The only implausible part was imagining a video camera battery that would last that long and wondering how anyone would have the wherewithal to keep shooting during some of the more horrifying moments of the film. Again, I don’t want to spoil the story for any of you suckers who want to put yourselves through that agony, but I will say that I think it would have been even more powerful had they refrained from showing the actual “thing” that was terrorizing New York as much as they did. It’s always scarier not to know what you’re dealing with. But I simultaneously liked and was frustrated by the fact that they never explained how this “thing” got there in the first place or what happened afterwards. (I’m already hearing talk of a sequel, God help us.)
The filmmakers are being criticized in some circles for exploiting September 11th imagery, but how can you show buildings collapsing in New York City without being reminded of that event? Still, some of the scenes were lifted straight out of the videos taken on that day such as the paper from office buildings raining down on the population and people rushing into convenience stores to escape the swiftly moving debris cloud caused by the falling buildings. Would we even be able to conceive of such images if we hadn’t seen them for ourselves on 9/11? Is it wrong to play on those fears in a piece of fiction like this? But in other ways the screenwriters seemed to be going out of their way to avoid certain allusions. Before the source of the catastrophic destruction of New York City is known, not a single character is heard even speculating that it may be the result of another act of terrorism. Wouldn’t that be the first thing to cross the mind of any New Yorker?
And about that iconic image of the headless Statue of Liberty, a symbol so potent that it definitely evokes the prospect of a deliberate act against this country, my biggest complaint is a visual one. The missing head eventually crashes into the neighborhood where our protagonists reside and it’s immediately clear to anyone who has ever stood in that crown (as I did several times before September 11th) that the scale is way off, the head is much too small. Why would the special effects designers be that careless? (I just saw some articles claiming that it’s the correct size but I find that hard to believe.)
Again, I felt great relief walking back out onto Hollywood Boulevard and realizing that there was no imminent threat to life as we know it. But I was so shaken by the film that any sudden sound or shift of light in my peripheral vision during the car ride home made me jump out of my skin. We can repeat “it’s only a movie, it’s only a movie” but do our bodies know the difference? Do we experience the same effects on our cells that such terror might have caused if it had all been real?
I’m still left wondering what the psychological draw is. I can’t say I really enjoyed either of these films although I admired both of them technically. And it’s not like I only prefer happy-go-lucky musicals either, some of my all-time favorite films are impossibly grim depictions of the ugliest parts of human nature. I guess I just need more payoff than these two films provided. For my money, a much more fulfilling terror-fest on the screen right now is the Spanish film “The Orphanage,” an exquisite look at childhood fears, the extremes of parental love, and creepy supernatural phenomena (that also scared the bejeesus out of us). And if you’re looking for real-life terror, I highly recommend the documentary “Nanking” that tells the horrific story of what happened to the population of the Chinese capital in 1937 when the city was occupied by Japanese forces. That is a story that really must be told and it is one that, unlike many of the fictional depictions of terror, contains moments that are truly life-inspiring and heroic.