Against the backdrop of a post-apocalyptic New York City a lone scientist-soldier searches for a cure to the virus that killed off humanity.
My heart sank almost at the very first frame of this film. The opening sequence appears to be little more than an extended advertisement for the Ford Shelby Mustang GT500, and features Will Smith racing around the deserted streets of New York hunting deer from the driver’s seat. There are perhaps more practical – and certainly less noisy – methods of stalking game, but one hardly has time to reflect on the alternatives before we are thrust into a stand off between the protagonist and a pair of wild lions hunting the same prey as Smith. This brings me to the second reason to be disheartened early on in the film: the CG. Both the deer and the lions are indistinct, colourless and unconvincing, which is both disappointing and unacceptable in a film with such a large budget. It might not have been quite as much of an issue if the graphics weren’t so central to the film, but sadly these vague and pallid forms go on to let down almost every action sequence and would-be suspenseful moment in the rest of the movie.
We soon move on to safe ground with a tour of Smith’s post-outbreak life, witnessing him gathering food, eating breakfast, securing his base of operations and driving golf balls from the wing of an SR-71 Blackbird. All fun stuff, no doubt, if for no other reason than it’s easy to project yourself into the same survivalist scenario. But there’s little that’s new here, and it’s all been done better – and for less money – in films like Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later.
Of course, the tranquility of Smith’s urban existence is soon shattered by the appearance of what remains of the human species; now unfortunately mutated into aggressive and under-fed zombie monsters by a virus that was designed to cure cancer. And this is where the visual effects department rears its ugly, insipid, malformed, and conspicuous head once again. It’s quite simple really; if I can’t believe that the villains I’m seeing are anything more than an assemblage of pixels then I’m going to have a hard time having any kind of strong emotional response to them. And it’s not just that the monsters look obviously fake; the way they move and interact with other objects is all wrong too. We are told that they are mal-nourished – and their lanky, sinewy, pale appearance certainly supports this – and yet they are still able to throw a heavily muscled Will Smith bodily across a room, and overturn gear-laden SUVs simply by running headfirst – velociraptor style – into them.
But that’s not the worst thing about the film. Not by a long shot. No, the worst thing about this film is the insidiously anti-scientific, messianic, and pseudo-religious undertone that permeates the entire movie. Very early on we are shown a television interview with the scientist – superbly played by Emma Thompson – who developed the cure for cancer. Already – before there is even a hint that things are going to go awry – her manner seems uncomfortable and almost guilty or regretful; as if she somehow knows that meddling with nature will inevitably bring disaster upon humanity. “Take something designed by nature and reprogram it,” she says, while looking like she has been caught experimenting on her own children. Later in the film Smith argues that “God didn’t do this … we did,” again reinforcing the message that we ought not to be interfering with the natural order. To finish it all off, Smith’s companion Anna starts getting instructions from God that ultimately lead her to the promised land (which turns out to be in Vermont) where she can begin to reverse the damage done by the plague.
Yes, Will Smith is excellent, and to carry an entire film almost single-handed is impressive. But that doesn’t make up for the movie’s very fundamental shortcomings.