WEEK OF GEEK SERIES: I AM LEGEND: PART VII
I Am Legend
Directed by Francis Lawrence
Written by Mark Protosevich and Akiva Goldsman
Starring Will Smith, Alice Braga, Charlie Tahan, Salli Richardson, Willow Smith
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.