Sunday, December 16, 2007

Movie Review: I am Legend

I'm no film connoisseur, but I am a scientist and physician. Well, almost a physician. So it is from a biomedical perspective that I present my review of I am Legend, starring Will Smith. This is the first film I have seen on opening weekend in as long as I can remember, and the first I've seen in a theater since Arctic Tale. This article won't be a true spoiler, but I will address several critical plot elements. Stop reading if you don't want to ruin the surprises. First, it was nice to see the movie without knowing any of the story. (Will Smith got me in the theater.) Other reviews point out Smith's excellent acting, the weak CGI monsters and how much the story strays from the original novel by Richard Matheson. And Popular Mechanics assesses the verity of the 'junk science' built into the plot. I take a broader view. In sum, I was pleasantly surprised that not only was science important to this film, but it was the co-star. Enough with the preamble! Here's the review:

How many times have you seen a cocky scientist on TV extolling the unlimited cures science has to offer society? If you lived in California a few years ago, you probably met professor Irv Weissman and others promising that stem cells will cure diseases. (They were actually just hinting at it, but does that really matter now that CA is well on its way to funding $3 billion of stem cell science?) I am Legend opens with a smug blond scientist admitting on local TV that yes, she has cured cancer. Note #1: Scientists, if you want to get visibility for science, you need to get on the local news! Evidently, this scientist has built a virus that prevents either tumorgenesis or malignancy. Fortunately, the film did not get into that detail, because I would have something significant to critique! What is notable is that the plot plays on the public's lingering fear of gene therapy. And of course, the worst nightmare comes true. The virus mutates into a lethal strain that results in symptoms part rabies, part ebola, part bird flu. The virus first requires physical contact for transmission, but soon aerosolizes and crosses species boundaries. I am skeptical that viral evolution could actually occur as quickly as in the film, but perhaps such a trait is what enabled one virus to cure every type of cancer in the first place.

Speaking of curing cancer, our mad scientist (who had a vaguely European accent), indicated that of 10,009 clinical trials, 10,009 people were cancer free. This is likely a consistency flaw instigated by the script writers, since later, Will Smith's character tests his "compound 6" and calls one experiment a clinical trial. Note #2: A clinical trial includes hundreds, if not thousands of patients. This was a little mistake, but could misrepresent the process of evaluating safety and efficacy to the millions of people in the theater this weekend. By the way, this flaw was my infectious disease researcher wife's biggest beef with the film.

Speaking of infectious disease, we need to talk about immunity. If 1% or the world's population was immune to the film's virus, Manhattan should have been left with 15,000 people. It took 70 minutes or so for an explanation of why Will Smith's character was the only human remaining. It turns out that 30% of those who survived turned into zombies. These (poorly animated) zombies ended up killing the rest of the people. How likely is it that a virus could cause a devolution (or evolution) of humans into zombies? Greg Bear offers a pretty believable mechanism in Darwin's Radio. If this little viral beastie was a certain type of retrovirus, aggressive zombies could be the next step in evolution, and this could even occur in one generation. I am guessing that this is the part of the film that the audience is supposed to suspend its belief about...

What about the basement laboratory? Smith's character used a fancy eyeglass-mounted video camera to record his experiments on various compounds to reverse the virus's symptoms in sewer rats. The writers got some things right here. Only "compound #6" worked; this was one of twenty he tried in this series, in what we assume was a long string of trials. This brings us to Note #3: Only a small fraction of science experiments 'work.' Of note is that only one rat was tested with #6 before moving to human trials! I guess this paucity of pre-clinical data can be excused when civilization is at stake. While we are on the topic of animal experiments, the presentation of animal research in this film was well done. The rabid rats were clearly animated, so no beef could be made about living conditions for real rats (and the fact that they were injuring themselves on the cages). The cages, by the way, were appropriate for animal size and were not overcrowded. Smith's character didn't need to get IACUC approval for his work, but he was mostly in compliance for many rules about animal care. Some notable lapses: no dedicated facility, interventions that were terminal, minimal personal protective equipment.

The treatment of the bench science was appropriate. There were no unneeded CSI-styled eye-candy closeups of pipetting or tube shaking. (You know the shot: when one of the attractive lab techs flicks an Eppendorf tube up in front of his/her face instead of using the vortexer.) This workshop looked like a well stocked lab crossed with an intensive care unit. There were QPCR machines, vital signs monitors (just like those at the UW hospital!), and med supply carts along with an appropriate amount of clutter. Conveniently for the plot, there were also bullet-proof glass doors. Except for the dim lighting, this looked like a great place to do science.

In my opinion, the ethical land mine in this film was not the fact that some crazy scientist unleashed a deadly virus - that occurred off screen. I worried about the ethical use of human subjects. Smith's character has a wall packed with photos of zombies that he unsuccessfully cured of their zombieism. The viewer is asked to overlook the fact that these zombies have the potential to be fully human. At one point in the film, Smith's character reports that these creatures have lost all semblance of human nature. This is a fine trick to make it okay for experimenting on them. (That is how some scientists justify animal research.) However, the observant audience member will note that the zombies have clear emotional responses to stimuli, exhibit abstract planning and operate in a social manner. One (the chief zombie) even seems to show an attachment to the zombie subject Smith's character is trying to cure. Note #4: If a cure occurs only after sacrificing hundreds of zombie-humans, is the research ethical? Is exterminating the zombie way of life genocide?

Finally, over the course of the film, the protagonist shifts from a Christian to an atheist to an agnostic. First, he prays with his family before all Hell breaks loose. Later, he reasons that God would never permit such a catastrophe, therefore does not exist. The final resolution depends on a near-death and perhaps spiritual experience in which Smith's character adopts a perspective that things 'happen for a reason.' I did not appreciate (nor would my atheist readers) how his suicidal ideation occurred in the post-religion period, while the noble savior surfaced after reconsidering a religious perspective. Apart from that flaw, I was pleased that this portrayal of a scientist encompassed religious, agnostic and atheist perspectives, therefore illuminating Note #5: Science can be done by individuals from diverse belief spectra.

In the end, my wife and I agreed that this was an entertaining movie and worth the $8 after a day of studying. The plot was creative enough to get me thinking about some interesting research ethics and science in society issues. Hopefully it got some others thinking as well.


Drugmonkey said...

"Note #2: A clinical trial includes hundreds, if not thousands of patients."

I didn't see it and can't judge the context. But a "clinical trial" could be a Phase I, no? In which case it could be a mere handful of subjects. Technically even one like that HIV+ guy with the baboon marrow transplant.

Anonymous said...

Maybe I missed this in the film but did they ever actually state the "cure" had mutated or do we need to just accept that given the results are not what was expected? Did the mutation of the "cure" make this new disease take over the body faster? It seems that the initial change in human behavior, appearance, etc. would have been noticed sooner in at least one of the original 10,009 (at least according to the speed on the character's dog) and likely happen before the primary scientist would have given her interview.

I am not in the fields of science and medicine but I do follow new advances in the areas. I'm just curious about your opinion on my observations.

golob said...

I found myself both amused and irritated throughout.

1. I loved what the "bad" scientist did is something I've routinely done for over a decade now--reengineer viruses for gene transfer. Hell, I even worked on anti-tumor vaccines. Go me!

2. The zombies were portrayed quite unevenly. Complex coordinated planning in one scene, mindless demons in the next. How could the same creatures set up an elaborate trap, only to use their heads as a battering ram later?

3. Rats can get infected? And he's living in NYC, a city with rabid rats in any circumstance, let alone post apocalyptic virus. He, the zombies, the dogs, the plants, the concrete of the city would all have long been consumed in the most rat infested city on the planet. And I love New York.

I'm In the lab said...

I saw this film after working all day on my thesis yesterday... on.... Oncolytic Viruses!! (viruses that target cancer cells) HAhahahaaha.

As the movie started with the interview about viruses being used to cure cancer, my jaw dropped, I raised my arms in disbelief and whispered to my girlfriend, "This is my thesis!!!"

This isn't new science. What is new this year (and appeared in a Science Oct 2007 article) is that a virus used to vaccinate against smallpox worked really well at eliminating tumors and metastases in mice and rabbits in ALL implanted cancer cell lines tested. Pretty exciting stuff.

So basically you just delete a viral gene that is expressed at higher amounts in cancer cells than in normal cells. Then the virus functions and replicates in cancer and not anywhere else.

The viruses are preferentially targeted to cancer cells over normal tissue by genetic engineering them so that viral genes are under the control of proteins unregulated in cancer. (like Thymidine Kinase).

Zombies... yeah that might happen too. The risk of that happening is probably the same as everyone turning into zombies from regular vaccinations.

The most ridiculous part was where the dogs were held back by a little sliver of sunlight. hahaha

Good movie.

AZAM said...

Congratulations Hollywood on your effort give the much deserved dignity to the 'Man`s best friend'.

Such films are desperately needed.

I am sure this will send ideas to the film industries of Asia and more specically China, Korea and India (Bollywood) to highlight similar issues on Human- animal coexistence and specially the Man- Dog (best friend) relationship as we all know how the voiceless cousins of Sammy (Will Smith`s Dog in the movie) end up in the most outrageous manner in the dining tables of China, Korea and a few states in India

Anonymous said...

"I did not appreciate (nor would my atheist readers) how his suicidal ideation occurred in the post-religion period, while the noble savior surfaced after reconsidering a religious perspective. Apart from that flaw..."

I don't think that this is a flaw with the movie for the following reasons -- often those who ARE deeply religious and then lose their faith become despondent and with giving up their faith give up hope. So his behavior was consistent with someone who has lost everything, including his faith. The return of the noble savior is consistent with the return of not only his faith, but his hope. It would have been another matter if he started out atheist and could not be a hero until he found religion. In that case, I would agree that it was a flaw. But here, his faith is a part of himself that he lost and then found, as opposed to atheism being something he found and then rejected.

Anonymous said...

I'm Jonathan Means, a lover of films like this, and an adjunct instructor of philosophy at Pensacola Junior College. I saw the film last night, and Googled your blog today. I wanted to respond to golob's 2nd point, and not just quibble about a minor point of fact. Golob raises an important point, and my proposed clarification goes to the heart of the film's meaning: I don't think it was the zombies who rigged the trap... It was Dr. Neville himself. I think so for several reasons:
1. His delicate mental state is gradually revealed in the film. Apart from the effects of the pandemic, Neville is suffering from extreme isolation.
2.He treats Sam (the dog) as his own human child. He also watched his wife and child die in the helicopter crash, making Sam a living link to his family.
3.He sets up mannequins in the video store, and interacts with them, even to the point of being shy and nervous around the "girl."
4. He was "lured" into the trap by a mannequin placed in the street. We aren't shown how it got there, but Dr. Nevill clearly knew the figure. Granted, the Zombies were showing signs of adaptation--to the sunlight, for example--but nothing in their behavior shows they had the skills to replicate the same kind of trap he used to snare them. Also, the zombies did NOT "populate" the video store, and it's unlikely that they placed the mannequin outside.
5. The woman who later rescues him openly states he was attempting suicide. She seems to represent the voice of both reason and hope, which contrasts with Dr. N's despair AND with his weakening grip on reality. His elaborate suicide attempt was perhaps brought on by the final loss of hope after the "failure" of his last trial (#6). HE (not the zombies) set the trap, and HE role-played his way into it.

I mention all this, because I think that his personal crisis and ultimate redemption are AT LEAST as important as the ethical dimensions of the issue of genetic engineering.

Anonymous said...

I don't agree with the article where it says it is unethical to test on the zombies. It might be if the situation was status quo (meaning no zombies trying to eat the non-zombies), but the guy thinks he's the last one alive. He's desperate and after 3 years he's not afraid to cross the moral line on the ground to find a cure to end the nightmare. Desperate times call for desperate measures and I think the film represents this well, even if the story line is far fetched.

thomas said...

When do we draw the line to define desperate times? Today? Tomorrow? 1939?