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The title for today’s column is mean to work two-fold. The Will Smith vehicle I Am Legend opened to huge business this weekend (the biggest December opening ever, topping the final Lord of the Rings film, and the biggest of Smith’s financially prodigious career), bringing in $77 million from 3,606 theaters for an equally impressive $21k average. Believe me, there were plenty of sold out multiplexes this weekend.
I actually saw I Am Legend as well, and there are a great many things to recommend it, including what might be the best performance of Will Smith’s career, and I’m a fan of his. As it happens, though, I’m also a big fan of the novel on which the film is based, by Twilight Zone scribe Richard Matheson, and for everything Smith and director Fancis Lawrence get right, that they could not reproduce the book’s final act and instead went out on a more uplifting note is selling out of the worst kind.I’ll try to keep my comments relatively spoiler-free, but we’ll certainly get into the ending of the book and the film’s deviation from it, so if that’s something you anticipate reading, skip down to my derisive comments on Alvin and the Chipmunks or risk ruining of the great pleasures genre fiction has to offer. And make no mistake, the unfolding of I Am Legend as written by Matheson belongs in this category.
In case anyone is unfamiliar with the general outlines of both the book and film, Robert Neville is the last survivor on Earth after a plague destroys most of humanity, but leaves a few million flesh eating monsters (more akin to vampires in the novel) roaming the desolate streets at night and sleeping in civilization’s dark corners during the day. Near the end of the book, Neville encounters a woman out during the day. He believes that she is a survivor and takes her home. In fact, the virus has mutated, and she is also a vampire, albeit one that is not sensitive to sunlight and can pass for a normal person.
He’s captured by this new breed of vampire, and held for execution. As he’s waiting, he can see the vampires through the window, and realizes that they are afraid of him. He’s been the one stealing into their rooms at night and slaughtering them. To them, he is the monster. The vampire. And long after he’s gone, they’ll still tell stories about this thing they’re so afraid of. He is legend.
It’s a brilliant reversal, certainly the equal of Matheson’s best Twilight Zone creations (my personal favorite being Nightmare at 20,000 Feet with a young William Shatner). The movie chooses not to adopt this ending, opting instead for something a little more optimistic.
I had read two different drafts of the script years ago, both of which opted for even sunnier endings than the one presented in the film, and understood why the project had floundered in development for so long (at one point, Arnold Schwarzenegger was attached, as were Ridley Scott and Russell Crowe). The story is a huge undertaking if done correctly, and the budget for this incarnation, following The Last Man on Earth with Vincent Price, and The Omega Man with Charlton Heston, is rumored to cost around $150 million. And if you’re the exec writing that check, such an ambiguous ending would, at the very least, give me pause. And five years ago, when I first read the book, I would have called any change to the story to give it a more upbeat ending nothing less than cowardly. In fact, I am calling it cowardly.
But after paying attention to the industry for so long, and the box office in particular, I would at least say that I understand why they did what they did. The fact is, for better or worse, audiences are more likely to turn out for a film that lets them walk out certain of where they stand, and if not happy (for most of humanity is still dead at the end of the film), at least at ease. And Matheson’s ending is brilliant, but unnerving. I understand that Smith and screenwriter/producer Akiva Goldsman fought with the studio to make the script more like Matheson’s story, and what finally found it’s way onto the screen is clearly a compromise.
So if you’re a fan of the book, either stay away or go in knowing that you’re getting something else, and what you’re getting just isn’t is as good or thematically resonant. But I am recommending the film, if for no other reason than Will Smith. He is nothing short of riveting, clearly having dug deep to find even a taste of the loneliness and hopeless Neville is struggling with. He is at times touching, amusing, vacant, frightening, and ultimately heartbreaking. Smith is so good that the CGI monsters look terrible and I didn’t care. That is the degree to which the first two acts of the film transcend a standard Dawn of the Dead-type genre film.
And director Lawrence, who I thought did an acceptable, if not spectacular, job on Constantine, deserves some credit, too. When the film opens, Smith is racing through deserted New York streets so quickly and confidently that I was uneasy, until I realized that he was driving with the confidence of a man who knows no one is coming the other way. And every aspect of the opening scenes feels this complete and lived-in. It is the best representation of the ‘last man on earth’ scenario I’ve ever seen, and certainly most of that has to do with Smith, and while Lawrence losses points for not using actors as the monsters, he gets a lot of credit for otherwise realizing a fantastically detailed vision.
So that’s my rant about that. Those of you who skipped down in search of derisive comments about Alvin and the Chipmunks, you have arrived. Now I did not, technically, see it, but the previews told me everything I needed to know. The reviews (26% on rottentomatoes.com) merely confirmed it. But it’s Christmas time, and that’s almost always good news for family fare. Still, I’m shocked that Alvin brought in $44 million over the weekend from 3,475 theatres for a very good $12.7k average. That pretty much guarantees a sequel, and, if nothing else, at least it’s more work for Jason Lee, who I enjoy in his work with Kevin Smith and on My Name is Earl. The downside, however, is that there it will almost certainly lead to more bad CGI treatments of my favorite Saturday morning cartoons. Just stay away from Voltron, that’s all I ask.
The Golden Compass continues to disappoint, dropping 65% in it’s second week to $8.8 million and a $40 million total. Budgeted at $180 million, this is a colossal failure for New Line, who were foolishly trying to jump on their own Lord of the Rings bandwagon. Looking at these numbers, though, especially in light of the far superior take for the first Chronicles of Narnia film, I wonder if the anti-religion message in the book, although mostly excised from the film, kept family audiences away? And if that’s the case, was it Narnia‘s pro-religion themes that helped make them so popular? Compass is also the latest in a string of lackluster openings for both Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig (who both toplined the summer flop Invasion). Kidman’s next outing is a period drama called Australia, opposite Hugh Jackman and directed by Baz Luhrman, that needs to do well if she’s going to stay on the A list. Craig, of course, has the James Bond well to go back to, but he would do well to pick smarter projects in between as well.
Enchanted continues to do well, dropping 48% in its fourth week to $5.5 million and a $91 million total. No Country for Old Men may be benefiting from the numerous critics awards and Golden Globe nominations it packed up, because it slipped just 31% in it’s sixth week to $2.8 million and a $33 million total. I finally caught this one last week, and the critics are correct that it is an extraordinarily good film, but like Sweeney Todd, I’m concerned that the violence will hurt it’s Oscar chances. And no Golden Globe nomination for Tommy Lee Jones? This is easily his best performance since The Fugitive, and stuck with me even more than Javier Bardem’s haunting turn as Anton Chigurgh. Hopefully, the Academy will remedy that.
I must confess to having heard absolutely nothing about The Perfect Holiday, which is probably why it opened poorly in seventh place with just $2.3 million from 1.307 theatres for a poor $1.7k average. This is really bad news for Queen Latifah and Terence Howard, who are squandering the Oscar nominations about as fast as they can. In fact, Holiday barely beat the similarly themed This Christmas, which is in it’s fourth week, has no Oscar nominees in the cast, and still brought in $2.2 million after a 54% drop for a $46 million total. Speaking of holiday themes, Fred Claus continues to hang around in the top ten, taking in another $2,2 million, down 51%, for a $68 million total. Atonement, which the led the pack with seven Golden Globe nominations, capitalized on all that critical goodwill by adding 85 theatres and jumping into the top ten with $1.8 million over the weekend and a $2.9 million total. The period drama from Pride and Prejudice director Joe Wright is a sure thing for a Best Pic nod from the Academy, and should fare well in the coming weeks. August Rush rounded out the top ten with $1.7 million, down 48%, for a decent $28 million total.
In limited release, Oscar hopeful The Kite Runner had a decent opening, bringing in $471k from 35 theatres for a $13.4k average. It has name recognition thanks to the best selling book upon which it is based, but the absence of any stars will hurt as it expands into more theatres, and will need serious critical support to earn any coin for Paramount Vantage. And opening poorly in six theatres was Francis Ford Coppola’s return to directing for the first time in ages with Youth Without Youth, a personal and surreal drama staring Tim Roth. This one was rumored to be in trouble, and the $28.5K take and $4.7k average would seem to confirm that.
And that about wraps it up for this week, folks. Check back next week when the box office gets flooded with last-second Oscar hopefuls like Charlie Wilson’s War and Sweeney Todd, while more conventional fare like National Treasure 2 and Walk Hard try to compete with them. See you then.
Oh, wait. I promised reactions to the Hollywood Life Breakthrough of the Year Ã…wards, didn’t I? Well, let’s get into that a little bit. This was a very small award show held at the Henry Fonda Theatre here in Los Angeles, hosted by Scrubs‘ Donald Faison, who I absolutely love. The awards are meant to highlight relative unknowns who made a splash in the past year, and I thought they did a pretty good job of singling out the right folks. They also got a surprisingly good turnout of stars. Presenters included director James Mangold, Superbad‘s Michael Sera, Paul Rudd, Josh Brolin, and the great Hal Holbrook. Awards went to Ben Foster, who I’ve heard mixed reactions to for his performance in 3:10 to Yuma, Leslie Mann for Knocked Up, and Sam Riley for Control. I was especially pleased to see Kristin Stewart get an award for her work in Into the Wild, which also got recognition for Emile Hirsche, although I would point to Almost Famous as his breakthrough. James MacAvoy got a nod for his work in Atonement, and from the clip they showed he does look terrific, but wasn’t his breakthrough in The Last King of Scotland, even if he was outshined by Forest Whitaker? The fantastically beautiful Megan Fox got an award for Transformers, which definitely constitutes a breakthrough, although I was heartened to hear her say in her acceptance speech that she hopes the next time she holds an award, it’s more for her acting ability. Transformers is no indication that she’s got more trophies in her future, but I’ll give her credit for trying. And finally, Edgar Ramirez received the award for his work in The Bourne Ultimatum, and if you’re anything like me, you’re asking, “who?”. Ramirez played the assassin chasing Bourne, and he made absolutely no impression on me. I can only assume he got the award because Clive Owen played a similar role in the first Bourne film, and look where he wound up. All in all, it was an interesting night, and I thought they did a nice job of recognizing people that I would like to see more work from.
And that about wraps it up. See you next week.