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Movie Review: I Am Legend
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Dave3   |  @   |  
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Week of Geek: I Am Legend

WEEK OF GEEK SERIES: I AM LEGEND: PART VII

I Am Legend movie posterI Am Legend
Directed by Francis Lawrence
Written by Mark Protosevich and Akiva Goldsman
Starring Will Smith, Alice Braga, Charlie Tahan, Salli Richardson, Willow Smith
Rated PG-13
Release date: Dec. 14, 2007

As scientists discover a cure for cancer they also unwittingly unleash a virus that wipes out nearly all of humanity. Most of the world’s inhabitants die immediately. Those who survive the infection are turned into blood-craving creature-like cannibals who cannot withstand exposure to direct sunlight. Those few who were immune to the virus ultimately fall prey to the infected beasts. Three years pass and no one is left alive… except for Robert Neville (Will Smith) — The Last Man on Earth.

I Am Legend follows the exploits of Neville, an army virologist, and his dog Sam as he ekes out his existence in New York City — ground zero for the infection known as KV — a city now overrun by plants and wildlife. His days consist of hunting for food, searching for survivors, and seeking a cure for the virus affecting the monstrous remains of society, while his nights consist of avoiding a gruesome death at the hands of said society by sealing himself tightly inside his home.

Well, Will Smith has done it again.

In this case it’s not necessarily a good thing, but that probably all depends on your particular approach. Approaching it as a fan of the book, what I mean is that Smith has again portrayed the central character in an adaptation of a bit of tried and true geek fiction; one that’s been bastardized to the point in which it has ultimately lost sight of the spirit of the original work. This is how I felt about his participation in I, Robot, and in the end it holds true with I Am Legend as well.

I’ll admit that the move had me for a bit. I was compelled by some by the quiet tedium of Neville’s days and the disparate nature of his nights. There was even a point about halfway through the film where I announced to myself that I think they might have gotten it right. I was already gathering my thoughts for this review, “They did it!” and “Finally!” came to mind. But as the story progressed beyond Neville’s obsessive daily routine ‘they’ lost it, and sadly the remainder of the film suffered.

I Am Legend feels like an adaptation in outline only. It does a good job of hitting the major themes of Richard Matheson‘s novel: Humanity had been wiped out by a virus, what remains is a race of nocturnal blood-fiending cannibals, Robert Neville is ostensibly the last human alive, at some point there’s a dog, and Neville’s fate remains the same, but gone are the subtleties that made this story so compelling. No nightly taunting by Neville’s now virulent best friend (Come out Neville, COME OUT!), no extremely delicate courting of the affections of an impossibly alive stray dog, no systematic extermination and burning of the infected residents of Neville’s immediate vicinity, none of the essential vampiric overtones (aversions to garlic, crosses, and mirrors …). I realize that this list can easily go on much longer, but in brief, it’s as if the movie was created by a team who only had a very peripheral knowledge of the story, let’s say, from reading the summary on the back of the book jacket and running with it.

But what’s most sorely absent from this film is the ultimate culmination of the novel. The WHY he AM Legend! The twist. Richard Matheson is famous for his genius use of the narrative twist. This movie has no twist… no shout either. It’s played straight from beginning to end. No surprises.

Apart from my dissatisfaction with I Am Legend as an adaptation, I’ll say that it’s NOT a bad movie but rather a decent special-effects blockbuster that sadly loses sight of itself, and ultimately its audience, in the third act. Will Smith’s performance is capable and solid. The three faces of his particular Robert Neville — proficient survivalist, desperately and psychotically alone, and scientist — are all portrayed equitably and believably. Unfortunately, the vampiric monsters he is forced to contend with (whose guttural noises are voiced by Mike Patton of Faith No More and Mr. Bungle fame) fail to produce much scare beyond the unexpected start. There was a moment where Neville is stalking a deer through Times Square when he comes upon a pride of lions… the reality of that situation was a scarier prospect for me than a pack of mindless shriekers who huddle in the dark.

As for the remaining aspects of the film, the CGI work is phenomenal and the score is unobtrusive, both serving the mood of each scene well. Neville’s post-apocalyptic streets of New York appear flawlessly realistic and the creatures he’s forced to contend with look sufficiently hideous. Fans of The Omega Man (the 1971 Charlton Heston-starring film version) will also love the first few shots of Legend which mirror the opening sequence of that film. Seeing those shots get redone with today’s CG effects was pretty cool.

My final thoughts: It saddens me that they’ve tampered with this great story. Richard Matheson himself has said in interviews that if they ever do another film based on Legend, all they’d need to do to make a good film is just follow his story. I couldn’t agree more. The raging CGI beasts populating this one would have been a better fit in 28 Months Later, and the screenwriters relegating of the last third of the film to a poorly conceived cop-out device is unforgivable. Both are unwelcome intrusions on what could have easily been a great adaptation. Thus I cannot not recommend this movie to fans of the book and I would steer those unfamiliar with it toward Vincent Price’s The Last Man On Earth, a much more capable adaptation.

13 Comments »

  1. Your review is very good.
    I miss a lot of the story in this version.
    I didn’t feel like the zombie effects were anything to write home about. 28 Weeks Later did this better.
    Excellent review.

    Comment by Jerry — December 15, 2007 @ 9:04 pm

  2. Sigh… what is *so* hard about just adapting the *actual* story. I guess in another twenty or so years someone will try again.

    I’m particularly bummed to hear of the ommision of the “Come Out, Neville” part.

    Comment by Movies At Midnight — December 15, 2007 @ 9:44 pm

  3. Yeah. Believe me, I only touched upon the major points I was troubled with by this movie. I honestly didn’t want to devote any more time to this review than I already had because I felt I said enough to get my point across, but if I were to expand upon all of the questions and issues I was left with after the credits rolled, this would have been a MUCH longer and more soured affair.

    Comment by Dave3 — December 15, 2007 @ 10:06 pm

  4. I am a fan of the original novel, and the ending was a pretty big part of why I liked it. To learn that they completely changed WHY the story was titled as it was… I just don’t get it. That was the entire point. That’s the meaning to the story. It’s the final piece of the puzzle. You could probably get away with changing quite a bit along the way and still have the film come out okay if you’d leave the ending in tact… but changing it?

    Thanks for the warning. I don’t need that kind of disappointment, and will steer clear!

    Comment by Dave2 — December 16, 2007 @ 12:14 am

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    Pingback by celebblogger.info — December 16, 2007 @ 12:29 am

  6. Yeah… I am with Dave2 and Movies at Midnight about this… what would be the harm is just do a straight adaptation? And to change the meaning behind the Legend in the title really undermines the whole psychological backbone of the story. Very disappointing if you love the story.

    All I wanted to hear… just once… was
    “Come out Neville!”

    Comment by WordSlinger — December 16, 2007 @ 6:46 pm

  7. Dave, I agree on many points, but I have to say I was left with a more positive overall view than you were.

    You are absolutely right. The third act kills this movie. And for more than just betraying the old-school fan’s desire for a recreation of the source material — it actually betrays it’s own set-up from the first three quarters of the movie.

    The flick was going somewhere. It was definitely different from the book, but just like the best comic adaptation, it was sticking to the spirit of the material. I thought the way Neville was written, and Will Smith’s performance, were absolutely, 100% pitch perfect. Every bit of lonely, survivalist psychology that made the book so great was right there on the screen(“Please say hello to me.”). His relationship with the dog, while different in nature from the book, still had the same effect by the end of the flick.

    The biggest change from the book… the thing that made me wariest going… was the change in the monsters. Turning them into rabid, animalistic ghouls was a HUGE departure and I didn’t see how they could possibly salvage the ending of the story… but it was working. It was *working*. Everything in the movie BEFORE the third act was working towards an ending that could have been, if not the same, then in the spirit of the book. The way that one Alpha Male was pursuing him so doggedly after what Neville had done. And that, close on the heels of Neville’s observation that there was no humanity left in them at all. The scene with “Fred” (brilliant).

    Dude, they were not only setting up the right ending, they were meeting a HUGE challenge. Making the creatures what they are and STILL being able to drive home the original ending would have made this one of the greatest sci-fi/horror movies ever made. But in the end, they got lazy and punked out, and basically decided to turn this into a remake of the Omega Man. Which was disappointing as hell. (Not to mention the ham-fisted “moral” at the end, which had nothing to do with anything the rest of the movie even might have been about. It was like they were making the right movie and then the studio butted in and made them change it… which, I would believe.)

    Still though, there were two acts of pure “I Am Legend” in that flick, and for that I’m thankful. I just wish they had the creativity to follow through and make it complete.

    Comment by NeverWanderer — December 17, 2007 @ 4:06 am

  8. @NeverWanderer

    Yes, I felt exactly the same way about the first two acts, which is exactly why I was so let down with the rest of the film. I had felt they had something that could have been great, but they completely dropped the ball in the latter part of the film. I was with Neville every step of the way, and loving it! But you have to agree with me that it seemed everything leading up to that point suggested to me that we *might* actually get, if not an exact, an at least a similar ending to the original.

    Think about it like this.

    **Spoilers**
    Each time he comes in contact with the beasts we’re shown a little more seeming intelligence on their part. This theme wasn’t accidental. We were being lead in that direction. First the Alpha beast testing his tolerance for light when Neville takes his (assumed) mate. Then the moving of the mannequin from the video store to the bridge at Park Avenue and setting the exact same trap there that Neville had previously used to catch the aforementioned Alpha male’s mate. Then Alpha male releases the dogs on Neville. C’mon! Seriously, not only are they keeping pets, but this monster set his trap, got the dogs, and waited GoD knows how long for Neville to stumble upon it. And then ultimately ‘they’ all show up on the pier to (possibly) take Neville away.
    **End Spoilers**

    It is at this exact point in the film that the movie shifts from potentially amazing to poorly conceived, and the cause for my dissatisfaction. They could have easily moved in a direction similar to the book at this point—different in its own right, sure—but it could have been a miraculous adaptation.

    Again think about this.

    Neville’s on the pier. They show up and literally take him away, bringing him to their *leaders* or what have you. Suddenly we find out there *are* actually some intelligent beasts after all and they are PISSED at Neville for all of his experimenting on, and killing of, their loved ones. Make your own way from there to whatever ending works, but seriously… PRESTO CHANGEO… Suddenly I AM LEGEND easily claims its *own* distinct interpretation, but heads in a similar and, to me, more satisfying direction…. ugh!

    How hard could that have been?

    Comment by Dave3 — December 17, 2007 @ 9:01 am

  9. You and I are in complete and utter agreement on that note. And I think the problem with doing the ending the right way was Hollywood, plain and simple. I just can’t believe that ANY writer, ANY creative person, would come up with the set-up they did and not care about followthrough. To me, that reeks of studio interference. I’ll be verrrrry interested to see what the commentary track and deleted scenes on the DVD reveal to us.

    In either case, yeah, you’re right. But I can’t call the entire movie horrible based on the failure of the finale. I would easily recommend this movie to lovers of horror/suspense movies. I’d just tell them to be prepared for a disappointing end.

    Because what sucks about it is that the ending wasn’t necessarily *bad*… It just belonged in a different movie.

    Comment by NeverWanderer — December 17, 2007 @ 12:08 pm

  10. @ NeverWanderer

    As soon as the movie was over, I KNEW that ending HAD to be because of studio interference. I can’t believe there was any other reason. On its own, the ending logically “fits,” even though I think it’s kind of dumbed-down and insulting, especially considering how amazing the first two-thirds of the movie was. The real ending of the story would never be accepted by today’s audiences — it’s not action hero enough.

    ***SPOILERS***

    No, instead they Armageddon it, which, as you stated, is an ending that belongs in another movie, namely ARMAGEDDON!!!

    But forget all that. What’s most insulting was the part where the girl and the kid hide in the wall in the lab and nothing is protecting them except a door, then the grenade goes off — ka – boom — and they live. Um… it’s a fucking grenade!!!!!!!

    And lastly, it’s hinted that ALL bridges and tunnels were collapsed during the quanintine of Manhattan, which is an ISLAND. How the fuck did that woman get there from Virginia? What’d she do, paddle up the Hudson? And someone who’s survived that long would know NOT to be outside that late at night — it’s was DARK when she rescued Neville. She was supposed to be a “plant,” not a divine gift from God. I guess that’s why this movie wasn’t boycotted like Golden Compass was.

    ***end Spoilers***

    All that aside, I LOVED what they did to New York City. A lot of it was filmed near my job, so I was totally diggin’ it.

    Comment by Empress Eve — December 17, 2007 @ 1:58 pm

  11. ***Spoilers – Kinda***
    Neville’s on the pier, not waiting in his SUV but waiting at the desk, waiting for the monsters to take him. They tussle, he puts up a fight he knows is pointless, they overpower him but don’t devour him. They start to capture him, maybe tie him up (showing more intelligence). Slam his head on the ground and *bam* we got the flash back with the helicopter taking off. Instead of an explosion — which, by the way, was the best cut ever — we get a flash of UV bulbs from Anna’s car. She saves him, finds out where he lives, takes care of him, then disappears.

    Neville wakes up with his wounds treated but no real idea how he got there.

    That night, he realizes he’s been followed home, that they know where he lives now…and that they can speak: “Come out Neville!”

    When he finds Anna (or when Anna finds him) again, at first he mistakes her for a mannequin — this will hint that she’s not what she seems. She’s elusive, but eventually comes home with him. He shows her his work, all the subjects he’s experimented on. This time the wall is more like a serial killer’s trophy room with hundreds of photographs and haphazard notes.

    Turn Anna into a higher thinking monster. Zip bang boom, we got the real ending.

    Comment by Josh — December 19, 2007 @ 11:24 pm

  12. @Josh

    Sure, that’s one possible scenario.

    We could come up with any number of ways to get to the ‘real’ ending, but the real crux of the matter is that ‘the’ ending is *not* one Hollywood would allow.

    **spoileration**

    No cure, no selfless sacrifice, no divinity. He is the last man on Earth, NOT the last man on the island of Manhattan. Neville is ‘their’ nightmare. It’s made clear even to him why this is true. Neville is imprisoned by the, arguably, legitimate authorities of the new ruling power, the ‘infected’ race, and executed for murder. The ‘infected’ inherit the earth. The end.

    **end spoileration**

    Do you see the problem Hollywood has here. No room for sequels. Screw the integrity of the work. Screw continuity. I am daft enough to have honestly expected LEGEND to be a new, yet faithful adaptation. I really should have learned my lesson from I, Robot. Not because of Smith, per se, but because of how incredibly huge a slight I, Robot was to Asimov’s entire body of work. And if they could do that to Asimov, who in my opinion has more substantial notoriety than Matheson, why should there be any hope for LEGEND?

    And even if sequels wasn’t the motivating factor (it is, but let’s say it isn’t), then we can chalk it up to Americanization. Us poor whittle amewicans couldn’t handle a dystwopian ending. It’s utter shit, but an absolute fact that endings get changed ALL THE TIME to accommodate weak american sensibilities.

    Comment by Dave3 — December 20, 2007 @ 12:08 am

  13. Dave3,

    I too blame the studio.

    I read on a few other websites (CHUD, /Film) that the ending was reshot due to studio pressure. If the rumor’s true, it was obviously the third act.

    **Spoileration**
    I’m thinking that Ethan wasn’t supposed to be in the film at all. Evidence: his stunning dialogue and Smith’s only verbal interaction with him is by repeating the lines from “Shrek.” If the scenes were reshot after the writers strike, it stand to reason that no new lines were written.
    **/Spoilers**

    I’m inclined to believe the “right” ending was shot originally–since all the elements were present earlier in the film–but it was studio-fied and injected with a good old fashion dose of deus ex. True, this still means that the ending sucks, but there’s always hope for a directors cut. Right? Right?

    Comment by Josh — December 20, 2007 @ 9:50 pm

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