I Am Legend (2007) ***
At this point, I think we can safely admit Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend to the club alongside Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Much like those defining documents of 19th-century horror fiction, I Am Legend has been cinematically adapted three times now without it ever seeming to occur to anyone to take an honest stab at filming the story that Matheson wrote. The Last Man on Earth came closest in terms of premise and plot, in that it wasn’t ashamed to call its monsters vampires, and that it preserved the punchline that accounts for the novel’s title. It lost the psychological focus that made the book so compelling, however, and put no more effort into scaring the audience than the average 1950’s atomic bug movie. The Omega Man wasn’t really interested in being an I Am Legend adaptation in the first place. It kept the setup, the protagonist’s name, and almost literally nothing else. And now, at long last, we have an I Am Legend that goes by Matheson’s title, but it still isn’t the faithful rendition that fans have been fantasizing about ever since Hammer Film Productions’ premature announcement that they had a version in the works for release in 1957. This time the tone is more or less right, but in approaching the project as a composite of all three prior interpretations (to say nothing of a few glaringly obvious outside influences), the makers of this I Am Legend have actually subverted the most basal layer of their source material.
The intent to bundle all previous iterations of the story together is nowhere clearer than in the fact that this Robert Neville (Will Smith, from I, Robot and Independence Day) is both Dr. Robert Neville and Colonel Robert Neville. Before the world ended— which we’ll be getting to in a moment— he was a virologist attached to an army laboratory in Manhattan. Then, in 2009, another New York-based medical researcher named Dr. Alice Krippin (Emma Thompson) announced that she and her colleagues had cured cancer. All cancers, as a matter of fact. Using a gene therapy treatment delivered via a custom-made strain of the measles virus, Krippin’s team had ministered to 10,009 patients suffering from various sorts of malignancies, and all 10,009 of those patients made full recoveries. However, as invariably happens in sci-fi horror movies, there were unforeseen side effects. Krippen’s test subjects remained cancer-free, but about half of them came down with rabies-like symptoms, going berserk and biting anyone who came within arm’s reach. It was bad enough that the victims of these attacks became infected themselves, but it wasn’t until a new, airborne strain of the Krippin Virus emerged that things took a turn for the apocalyptic. The airborne KV strain had an incredible 90% lethality rate. About 1% of humans were naturally immune. The remaining 9% of humanity became nearly mindless, unbelievably fast and strong killing machines with a shark-like ability to home in on the smell of blood, whose sole real weakness was a severe susceptibility to ultraviolet radiation that rendered them effectively incapable of going out in daylight. The 9% started eating the 1%, and by 2012, Homo sapiens was pretty much fucked. As for Neville, he became the top man in the military’s endeavor to find a cure for (or at least a vaccine against) the KV plague, perhaps not least because he was among the naturally immune. He stayed in Manhattan when the government imposed a martial-law quarantine on the island, while his wife, Zoe (Salli Richardson, of Anacondas: The Hunt for the Blood Orchid), and daughter, Marley (Smith’s real-life daughter, Willow), were evacuated.
So, then— 2012. So far as he can tell, Robert Neville is now the only person alive in New York City who isn’t a poorly rendered CGI vampire-zombie-cannibal, and his German shepherd, Samantha, is apparently the only dog in town who isn’t one of those, either. (The KV plague affects both dogs and rats, but apparently does not affect deer or lions. There’s an intriguing hint here that the virus has a special affinity for creatures adapted to life in a human-transformed world, but I Am Legend sadly doesn’t carry it far enough to give us flocks of poorly rendered CGI vampire-zombie-cannibal pigeons.) For that matter, the continued failure of his efforts to contact the outside world electronically tends to suggest that the whole damn planet is in much the same situation as New York. Neville still hasn’t abandoned his mission despite all that, which means that his daily routine is an interesting variation on those of his predecessors in earlier versions of the story. He does spend a fair portion of his time hunting for the daytime lairs of the infected, but instead of driving stakes through their hearts while they sleep (indeed, it really doesn’t appear that the infected do sleep in any way that a healthy human would recognize), he captures them and brings them home with him whenever he stumbles upon a drug that produces promising results in his menagerie of KV-infected lab rats. None of the aforementioned drugs has ever fulfilled such promise, however; some of them kill the subject and some of them do nothing at all, but Neville seems to be as far as he ever was from developing a treatment for the disease that works when given to humans. Meanwhile, Neville also takes after a different tradition of post-apocalyptic heroes, broadcasting a recorded message on AM radio directing anyone who picks up the signal to meet him at the dock in New York Harbor where he spends his middays. Nothing has come of that yet, either. The one department in which Neville’s efforts have been a resounding success is that of basic survival— which, under the circumstances, is no mean accomplishment. Most of that success he owes to one simple expedient: although his remarkably huge rowhouse (is there such a thing as a row-mansion?) is even more heavily fortified than the corresponding abodes of Vincent Price and Charlton Heston, the Will Smith Robert Neville makes a point of hiding all outward trace of his presence there as his first line of defense. No mobs of the undead pounding on the doors and shouting, “Come out, Neville!” for this Last Man on Earth, no sir!
Neville’s bleak but manageable existence is disrupted one day, when he falls into an impressive mechanical trap laid by a zombie who apparently retains a bit more of his original human mentality than most of his fellows. Robert manages— albeit just barely— to escape from the snare before sunset, but Sam is severely injured while saving her master from the trio of vampire dogs turned loose by the trap’s creator when the latter realizes that his quarry is getting away. It turns out Compound #6 (Neville’s latest best shot at a KV cure, which is slowly working wonders in some of the rats) is no more effective on dogs than it is on humans, and Neville is unable to save Sam from infection. To say that he does not deal constructively with the death of his sole companion would be a considerable understatement. The evening after he buries Sam, Neville goes out to the harbor to lay a trap of his own, setting up a group of mannequins on one of the docks to act as decoys for the infected. Once a suitably large group of them has taken the bait, Neville (who has been lying in wait at an inconspicuous nearby vantage point the whole time) fires up the engine in his Road Warriored-out SUV, and starts running the monsters down. What makes this a non-constructive approach to his grief is that there are more than enough infected on the dock to seize and overturn Neville’s vehicle. He comes very close to following Sam into the grave (which, truth be told, might have been part of the plan in the first place) before he is unexpectedly rescued by the first normal human he’s seen in years. This is Anna (Alice Braga, from Predators and Repo Men), a refugee from South America who had fled north with her apparently half-gringo son, Ethan (Charlie Tahan), and who happened to have picked up Neville’s radio broadcast. Anna rushes Neville back to his house (following directions from her semi-delirious passenger), and patches up his wounds once she gets the place safely locked up. Now at first glance, this looks like a tremendous upturn in Neville’s life— all he has to do now is re-learn how to deal with other people, right? Unfortunately, though, Anna’s understandable hurry to get Robert to safety left no opportunity to cover her tracks, and the infected now know exactly where to find them.
Frankenstein, Dracula, and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde actually belong to two exclusive clubs, and this movie suggests that it might be time to hand I Am Legend its membership card for the second one as well. Not only have those books never had a really faithful screen adaptation despite all the times that they’ve been filmed, but they’ve reached the point at which the accumulated unfaithful versions— together with scores of rip-offs and technically unrelated works that nevertheless borrow some important elements of their plots or premises— collectively render any further attempts to get them “right” in a movie mostly redundant. Whatever its virtues, the present I Am Legend movie plainly reveals how completely the zombie genre descended from Night of the Living Dead has stolen the novel’s thunder. Will Smith is a great Robert Neville, betraying not the slightest trace of the smirking celebrity persona he so often projected during the first decade of his acting career. I Am Legend’s first and second acts delve much more seriously into the psychology of Neville’s condition than either The Last Man on Earth or The Omega Man, and the character’s efforts to study and understand the nature of the creatures that menace him by night (which were a hugely important aspect of the novel) are portrayed here for the very first time. Also making its first appearance in any film adaptation is the disproportionately frightening prospect of infected animals, although I Am Legend still doesn’t do quite as much with the idea as I’d have liked. (Seriously— vampire-zombie-cannibal rats. In New York City. Imagine the possibilities.) But despite all that, I Am Legend very quickly starts to look like a mash-up of 28 Days Later… and The World, the Flesh, and the Devil— that is, the film version starts to look like a copy of properties that would likely never have existed were it not for the novel. Since Matheson’s book first appeared in 1954, almost everything that made it special has found its way into some horror or science-fiction movie, so that half a century later, there’s really nothing left for a direct adaptation to do.
Nor, unfortunately, is redundancy I Am Legend’s only serious problem. From the very beginning, it is compromised by its creators’ inexplicable decision to use computer animation for all of the infected, regardless of their species. I can see why you’d naturally resort to CGI for vampire dogs and vampire rats, but how fucking hard is it to hire a hundred athletic-looking extras, shave their heads, paint them gray, outfit them with ugly dentures, and tell them to breathe unnaturally hard whenever the camera is pointed at them? I suppose the answer there is that extras in zombie makeup can’t crawl up walls and across ceilings, but frankly that’s bullshit. Go watch Van Helsing (or at any rate, go fast-forward through it until you get to a scene with Count Dracula— I wouldn’t wish watching that turdburger on anybody). They made Richard Roxburgh walk on the goddamn ceiling in that one, so there’s no reason why a floor-crawling zombie extra couldn’t be digitally inserted elsewhere in the image the very same way. At any given price point, a monster that has mass and takes up space is going to be scarier than one that doesn’t (unless not having mass or taking up space is supposed to be part of the monster’s shtick, obviously), and it bewilders me that the movie industry still hasn’t figured that out. I came to I Am Legend looking to see Will Smith fight vampire-zombie-cannibals, not to see him play Resident Evil: Virtual Reality Edition! Then there’s the ending. Oh my God, is there ever the fucking ending… I’m not going to spoil it for you, but I will say that in this version, nothing like Matheson’s half-vampires exist. Either you’re infected, or you’re not. Those of you who’ve read the book will immediately notice that removing the half-vampires also removes the mechanism whereby Neville becomes “legend,” so taking them out is a rather mystifying choice to make in an adaptation that retains the original title. What happens instead is very feel-good, very “hope triumphs over all,” with an overlay of distinctly American mawkishness. In fact, it’s almost disappointing that the terms of the story preclude soaring bald eagles, saluting West Point cadets, and bad country music with naïve patriotic lyrics to accompany the final scene. It’s not a bit like Matheson’s Neville going to his death exulting over the place he’ll hold forever in the nightmares of the society that has replaced humanity. What interests me most about this saccharine ending is the curious way in which it is telegraphed by an earlier scene. Shortly after Anna rescues Neville, there’s a moment when her discovery of his family photos segues into a conversation about Bob Marley (for whom Neville’s daughter was named). It’s actually a pretty brilliant sequence, capturing perfectly not just the natural rhythms of casual conversation, but also the tendency people have to invest their favorite bits of pop culture with layer upon layer of meaning derived more from their own emotional needs than from the aims or abilities of the artists— and it does the latter without coming across as twee or hipsterish. But if you know even as much about Bob Marley as I do (and I don’t know very much about him at all), then this scene is also like a time bomb full of anvils. The thuddingly obvious foreshadowing won’t hit you for a few minutes, but it’s a real “Oh, fuck you, movie!” moment when it does. You see, Marley’s record label put out this greatest-hits album three years after he died…