How effectively does the Director of “I Am Legend” build suspense and tension?
‘I Am Legend’ is a post-apocalyptic science fiction film directed by Francis Lawrence, starring Will Smith. It was originally a novel by Richard Matheson written in 1954 which was then created as a film in 2006. ‘I Am Legend’ is about Robert Neville (played by Will Smith) who is a virologist living in Manhattan, New York and is supposedly the last man alive. This came about by doctors thinking they had found a cure for cancer but instead it turned the rest of the population into ‘Hemocytes’. The ‘Hemocytes’ are continually watching Roberts moves, waiting for him to make a deadly mistake, as Robert is trying to capture them to use them to find a cure. This is an example of the common film theme ‘hunter or hunted?’ as Robert is trying to hunt them as he wants to cure them, but they’re also hunting him because they don’t want to be cured. The techniques used in ‘I Am Legend’ show how effectively Francis Lawrence creates tension and suspense. He uses techniques like different camera angles, sound, lighting and cinematography to affect the overall mood of the film and to manipulate the audience’s feelings. In this film, Francis Lawrence has done an excellent job in using these techniques to their full effect.
1) USE OF CAMERA ANGLES IN THE PRE-TITLE SCENE TO CREATE TENSION AND SUSPENSE.
Camera angles are used throughout the pre-title scene to create tension and suspense.The director in the pre-title scene uses camera angles to show the set. Francis Lawrence uses a wide range of camera angles throughout the film, but in the first minute of the pre-title scene he uses lots of different angles that show the whole set, Manhattan. The pre-title scene starts with an establishing shot of New York City. It shows a lifeless, rundown New York, which creates questions in the audience’s mind. It then shows a low angle shot of Times Square, showing similar things to the first shot of a city which has been neglected and completely deserted of all human life. This is strange for the audience as Times Square is a famous land mark and would normally be crowded and busy with people and cars. He then goes on to show a bird’s eye view of an avenue with sky scrapers, but it is silent again, except from the sound of birds in the distance. After a few seconds, a sports car appears and speeds down a main street. This angle gives a deserted feeling to the audience again as there is only one car, instead of a crowded avenue .The camera angle is then changed to a close- up, focusing on a gun, then Robert Neville picking it up inside the car. This is done to show the character Robert Neville’s watching facial expression. The camera also shows a close up angle of Sam, Robert’s dog. These two short camera shots introduce the main characters. It also shows their relationship, as Robert opens the window for Sam, showing Robert cares for Sam’s needs. Even though later on in the film there are signs of the theme of savage human behavior, there is a still shot in the pre-title scene where Robert does not shoot the female lion as she and her family deserve the deer’s meat more. Even though he is still not sure about his decision, he still lowers his gun and gives way.
USE OF PROPS AND MISE- EN- SCENE IN THE PRE-TITLE SCENE TO BUILD UP TENSION AND SUSPENSE
Francis Lawrence uses props and mise- en- scene skillfully to create atmosphere and tension.Throughout the pre-title scene there are posters saying “God still loves us” This is a long shot foreshadowing that at the end there are still some people who survive and make it to the fenced off settlement to try and bring back life all over earth. There are also military tanks, meaning something serious and dangerous must have happened giving the audience a clue, but also making them question again and again. There are abandoned police cars representing the lack of law in the city and when Robert drives through red lights and onto pavements this informs this even more. The appearance of the deer jumping in front of the car is another question the audience would be asking themselves. Why Robert is hunting deer? It also causes suspense as the audience is uncertain about the actions coming after.
USE OF SOUND IN PRE-TITLE SCENE TO BUILD UP SUSPENSE AND TENSION
Looking back at the pre-title scene again and concentrating now the use of sound, you can see the effectiveness of the sound effects. The use of silence, or at points, the sound of birds whistling in the background created an absence of sound. The result of this is causing the audience to question more. The silence is then broken by the roar of a car engine, then the appearance of the car. This would seem to the audience as weird to be able just hear the sound of one single car in New York City. The first words spoken are, “What do you see, what do you see?” He speaks with anxiety and eagerness. This brings up the theme “hunter or hunted?” as the audience is not sure at this point if he is going to use the gun to protect him or to hunt with. This creates anxiety and uncertainty in the audience building up suspense and tension. When the deer squeals, it shows the contrast of technology and nature, technology being the sound of the car engine and nature being the deer’s squeal. The sounds at the end of the pre-title scene have been diegetic but when the title appears on the screen there is a non-diegetic sound which is dark and builds tension as it uses low notes.
2) USE OF CAMERA ANGLES IN THE FLASH-BACK SCENE TO CREATE TENSION AND SUSPENSE
The narrative structure of “I Am Legend” is presented in a non-chronological order, switching from the past to the present and vice- versa. This is because there are several flash backs that the character Robert faces during the film. The first flash back is one of the most important; as it gives the audience a lot of clues but still leaves them uncertain.
It also tells us about his family and how his wife isn’t happy about him staying on the island. The argument in the car is stopped by a body hitting the car then the passengers screaming then the next scene going back to the present day. The cars that pull up outside the Roberts’ house in the flash back, and the military members who are also standing outside the house holding walkie-talkies which shows that the situation happening is very important and possibly dangerous. The talk from the president also shows the importance and urgency of the situation. As this scene is shown in a rushed fashion, it again builds up tension and suspense. This is because the audience is feeling anticipation and uncertainty. The camera angles used in the flashback are almost all close-ups or over the shoulder shots. These are used to show the facial expressions up close, as they are truly important in this scene to portray the characters’ emotion. They also draw the audience in to identify with the hero.
USE OF SOUND IN THE FIRST FLASH BACK SCENE TO BUILD UP SUSPENSE AND TENSION
Sound is used throughout this scene to build atmosphere and tension. The sounds used in the first flash back are basic and only includes diegetic sounds like the sound of sirens outside of the car and when they approach the house. The only other sounds you hear are dialogue. The director, Francis Lawrence has done this as the conversation between Robert and his wife is important for the audience to figure out what is happening. So we need to focus on the conversation and not be distracted by mood music as it is a important part of the film. Francis Lawrence only uses quiet sounds in the back ground and outside the car to add atmosphere. During the car journey in the flash back, Robert and his wife show irritation towards Carly (Robert Neville’s daughter) and tell her to be quiet while they listen to the radio. They are acting in this manner because they are frightened and scared, so are intent on hearing what the president has to say. This factor, that the characters are frightened, causes the audience to be uncertain, building tension and suspense. The innocence of Carly is very obvious as she is questioning everything but stops when told too. She also talks about it being Christmas and her presents having been left in the closet, showing she has very little on her mind that she worries about. Her parents are also too busy arguing and explaining things to one another to answer her questions. Even though she is asking innocent questions, you can tell through her voice and facial expressions that the experience is still worrying her. This again creates tension and suspense because of what the characters are feeling.
3) IN ROBERT NEVILLE’S LABATORY- USE OF CAMERA ANGLES TO BUILD SUSPENSE AND TENSION
Camera angles are used skillfully throughout the laboratory scene to draw in the audience to empathize with Robert. After Robert and Sam have been attacked by the Hemocytes’ dogs, the scene changes to Robert’s lab. Sam is seriously injured and Robert is rushing to look after her but doesn’t manage to save her as she turns into a Hemocyte As a result, Robert has to kill her. The camera angles used in this scene change rapidly so the audience can follow all the action and also includes close-ups of facial expressions as it is important to the narrative that we see that the decision to kill is a hard one for him. When it first changes to this scene, the camera is tracking Robert in a medium close-up shot. The tracking effect is used to show how fast he is moving but also shows how he is feeling agitated and distressed. Francis Lawrence uses the same way of building up tension suspense throughout the film. This is an example of how he continuously uses characters, emotions to create tension and suspense for the audience, as this makes the audience feel a mixture between anxiety and anticipation. The shot then changes to a medium shot but starts off tracking to continually show the rush Robert is in. Shown in this shot is Robert holding a needle in front of the injured Sam on the surgery table. The shot shows Robert hesitate and shake his head before he continues with injecting Sam with what might be the cure as he knows he must do this if he has a chance of saving Sam. After this, it turns to a low angle shot of Robert sitting on the laboratory floor while holding Sam tight in his arms. This angle is usually used to make characters look dominant, but it this case it shows Robert as caring and vulnerable. This whole scene makes the audience feel uncertainty about what will happen next, as he is losing his best friend and only companion. The camera then zooms all the way in until it is a close up of Robert’s face. The zooming in was done very slowly so that the audience can see the nature of Roberts’s relationship with Sam. Their relationship is extremely important to Robert as Sam is his only companion. This goes on the theme, “Dogs are a man’s best friend”, as the character, Robert has only got Sam left and he relies on him to be there for companionship. Also we recall that Sam belonged to Carly, Robert’s daughter, but she entrusted Sam to Robert before she was rescued by a helicopter and told him to look after Sam. After this, there are several short close-ups which build the tension as they show Robert finding the symptoms of the dog changing into a Hemocytes(losing fur, eyes red and teeth gripped together) In-between these are close- ups of Roberts face which show him questioning what to do and his unhappiness. The camera focuses on his face, showing his distress and sadness and building the dramatic tension as he is forced to make the decision to kill his only companion. The camera remains in close-up as Robert is killing Sam, showing him clenching his teeth and frowning, trying to keep back the tears. After this shot ,the camera then zooms out again slowly making Robert looking lonely and deserted, with dead Sam lying on the floor next to him.
USE OF SOUND IN THE LABORTORY SCENE TO BUILD UP TENSION AND SUSPENSE
Francis Lawrence skilfully uses sound in this scene to build mood and tension. The sounds in this scene are mainly diegetic, most of it speech. However, when the character, Robert Neville is sitting on the floor holding Sam in his arms he sings “Three Little Birds” by Bob Marley, which Robert has sung on numerous occasions throughout the film. Robert is trying to reassure himself that everything will turn out alright, through the meaning of the song. While Robert is killing Sam, you do not see Sam as the sound is enough for the audience to use the rest of their imagination to figure out what is happening. After Sam’s death, the camera zooms out, finding the character, Robert lying on the floor crying. There is a non-diegetic sound which is sad and slow music, making the audience feel empathy for the character, Robert. This brings in the theme of “The Human Instinct for Survival” as he has been forced by necessity to kill his best friend and only companion.
Throughout the film Francis Lawrence uses tension and suspense to a great level. He uses the narrative and the characters emotions as well as music and camera angles to help to build this up. The camera angles are skilfully use to show the characters looking worried and scared causing there to be a rise in suspense and tension as the audience also feels a combination of anticipation and uncertainty. Overall I believe Francis Lawrence has done an effective job of building up tension and suspense.