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I Am Legend (2008) Print E-mail
Tuesday, 18 March 2008
Richard Matheson’s 1954 novel “I Am Legend” is one of those books that teenage boys happen across and flip over; the book becomes a part of their experience of the world. It’s a wowser of a read even now. It was Matheson’s first novel, and sometimes gets bogged down in technicalities—he was pleased to have worked out a scientific rationale for vampires, and describes it all in detail. It’s about the last man—or rather last human being—on Earth, holding himself off against hordes of very unDracula-like vampires, some of whom had been his friends and neighbors.

It was filmed in 1964 as “The Last Man on Earth,” with Vincent Price miscast as survivor Robert Morgan. (He’s “Neville” in “The Omega Man” and the new movie.) Matheson wrote the script himself for Hammer Films, which passed the project on to Lippert, which made it on the cheap in Italy. It was rewritten by someone else to Matheson’s dissatisfaction, so he used his “Logan Swanson” pseudonym in the final credits. In 1971, Warner Bros. filmed the novel again very loosely as “The Omega Man,” though star Charlton Heston claimed he was unaware of the earlier version until just before production began. George Romero admitted that “Night of the Living Dead” (1968) was largely inspired by Matheson’s novel.

For years a remake has been wandering around Warner Bros.; at several points, it was to star Arnold Schwarzenegger, with Ridley Scott set to direct. It passed through many hands and many drafts of the screenplay, with one by Mark Protosevich finally getting the greenlight. What got the film off the ground was Will Smith, one of the most bankable of current stars, agreeing to play Robert Neville. Akiva Goldsman rewrote it one more time. (On screen, John and Joyce Corrington, who wrote “The Omega Man,” are given equal credit with Matheson for the movie’s source.) Rock video director Francis Lawrence, whose only previous feature was “Constantine,” directs quite well. He doesn’t call attention to himself; he tells the story and gets on with it. At 100 minutes, this is surprisingly short for a movie clearly intended to be an event.

It’s an action film with some interludes of character; it’s laden with effects, some excellent, some obvious. Will Smith is the only person on screen, except for confusing flashbacks, for the first half of the film, and he’s a very comfortable person to be alone with. He’s clinging to sanity very tightly, partly through a rigorous daily regimen, partly by sheer will. A brief prologue (with an unbilled Emma Thompson) sketches the background: a cure for cancer mutated into a fast-spreading virus that killed many people, turning others into speedy ghouls allergic to bright light. Just what these creatures, called “The Infected,” do to live people is not entirely clear, but killing their victims is certainly part of it. Neville was a colonel in the army, part of the team working on an antiviral serum. He’s immune to it himself, but doesn’t know why.
He’s alone in Manhattan, accompanied only by a handsome German shepherd called Sam (a female). The scenes of a vast, ruined metropolis, quietly crumbling back into the landscape, are impressive and convincing. Neville rockets around the city in a speedy Mustang Selby, hunting the largest herd of deer ever seen in a motion picture. There are also other animals, including African lions, but we see them only once. As has been the case in the past, recently with “28 Days Later,” scenes of a familiar giant city deserted but for the central character have a disturbing impact.

Neville has built himself a well-designed hiding place in a brownstone near Washington Square; he watches videos of old newscasts, exercises diligently, and holes up at night when the Infected are on the prowl. He stalks the Infected, setting traps. He marks off on a city map each building he “clears.” He regularly takes one Infected at a time back to the laboratory he maintains in the basement of his brownstone. He knows the answer to the dreaded plague (sometimes referred to as “KV”) lies in his own blood, since he’s immune, and he tries one formula after another, first on fierce hairless rats he keeps in cages, then on the Infected he’s captured. They always die. Then it’s back to the streets for another experimental subject. He’s driven, he’s disciplined, and he’s very lonely, despite loyal Sam. He presses on.

“I Am Legend” seems composed of bits and pieces—Matheson’s book, “The Omega Man,” Spielberg’s version of “War of the Worlds,” “28 Days Later,” and also a movie little known to the general public, but which made an impact when it was released. “The World, the Flesh and the Devil” starred Harry Belafonte as the last man on Earth, living a lonely but well-planned existence in a deserted Manhattan. (Turns out, as it does here, he’s not quite the last person alive.) That 1959 movie was made on a relatively low budget, unlike “I Am Legend,” but somehow managed to conjure an impressively deserted Manhattan without any special effects. I assume this film had an influence on the new one: Belafonte kept department store manikins for company—and Smith does much the same in “I Am Legend.”

As with the other versions of Matheson’s novel, the best scenes are when Smith is alone in a deserted metropolis; there’s something engrossing about watching this lone man against the backdrop of one of the largest cities in the world, with its echoing concrete canyons which vegetation is gradually taking over. The city is beautiful in its decay, but it’s also a place of hidden menace. There’s a very suspenseful scene when Sam dashes into a basement after prey, and Neville has to pursue the courageous but foolhardy dog—this is a highlight of the film, tensely effective. The larger-scale battles with the Infected are less impressive.

In the novel, the plague victims were normal people who are now vampires; in this movie, they’re anything but normal. They’re gray, hairless and powerful, consumed by rage. (So why do they team up with Infected dogs? Wouldn’t they just attack one another?) They’re fierce and scary, but they’ve also been run through a CGI mill, giving them an aura of unreality. The lead Infected roars and screams, opening his mouth cavernously, wider than a normal person could. Why? In the novel and the Vincent Price movie, the plague victims form a semblance of human society (without the obsessed Neville aware of it, until it’s too late); these Infected look deranged, savage and primitive—incapable of using even a pencil sharpener. The overlay of CGI gives the Infected, human and canine, a visual quality that separates them from the rest of the film. There’s no apparent reason from their behavior that they couldn’t have been played by lively stunt personnel.

But most people will be going to this movie for (a) Will Smith and (b) the situation, and won’t much care about fidelity to Matheson’s book or internal logic. Others might wonder how Anna (Alice Braga), a woman who eventually turns up, learned of a colony of survivors in Vermont while she was still in Brazil. Neville makes regular radio broadcasts in which he promises to meet any who hear it at a location near the Brooklyn Bridge. She heard one of those—but what about Vermont? She says something about God. Did it take divine intervention to point her north? Briefly, the movie ventures out onto shaky ice, but the moment passes.

The movie is occasionally spectacular. When the plague got out of hand in Manhattan, the entire island was quarantined, and the quarantine was enforced by demolishing all the bridges. We see this big-screen sight, and it’s a satisfyingly epic scene—but the hordes of people hoping to cross the bridge will remind many of a similar scene in Spielberg’s version of “War of the Worlds.”

Matheson’s title was puzzling until the last page of the book; though this film ends differently than the book, the meaning is still withheld in just the same manner. And the film manages to be actually more poignant than the book, though it lacks Matheson’s bitter irony. This is a big-scale Hollywood film, with a big-scale Hollywood star; Smith is a strong, convincing and likeable presence—I think the movie could have handled the original ending. Still, the one it has is satisfactory—and so is the movie.

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