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I Am Legend

February 7, 2008

Richard Matheson’s reputation in creating stories for, and adapted into, film, is undeniably respectable, especially at the top end of the intelligent fantastical thriller market: Stir of Echoes, The Incredible Shrinking Man, Duel, Somewhere in Time, The Legend of Hell House, the classic Twilight Zone episode (Nightmare at 20,000 Feet), are all his. It seems odd then, that his most famous and respected piece of fiction, the 1954 novella I Am Legend, about Robert Neville, the last man alive in a future Los Angeles overrun with vampires, has such a chequered cinematic track record.

The book’s story has been filmed most explicitly as The Last Man on Earth (1964), with Vincent Price, and The Omega Man (1971) starring Charlton Heston in full-on, gurning, bare-chested, gun-toting, defiant mode. The older film is better, encapsulating much of the gritty, relentlessly depressing black & white terror that everyone seems to think Romero invented in 1968 with Night of the Living Dead, but it’s ultimately a rather desultory ride and tends to crawl and frown its way to a conclusion. Heston’s effort has some nice bleak imagery, but there’s too much of that toothy white smile, roaring splurting machine-gun fire, and a blaxploitation edge that makes you wonder where it wants to go.

There are, of course, innumerable influences stemming from the novel, and you can detect it in a line running straight through Romero’s flicks, to Cronenberg’s Rabid, via 28 Days Later…, the Resident Evils, Blade, and so on…what we have here is a bona fide classic piece of horror prose that has thus far under-performed cinematically, something knocking on the door of Dracula or Frankenstein or anything Poe or James might have drummed up, but which simply hasn’t made the leap in its own name onto the silver screen.

Step forward, then, Francis Lawrence’s new version, starring Big Weekend Opener Will Smith as the story’s hero, Robert Neville. There’s always a potential for fanboy arsiness when a supposed classic gets the modern filmic treatment, and I Am Legend is no different, with endless websites and endless threads within those websites dedicating themselves to plot holes and the many differences between the film plot and the novel. You know the kind of thing: book, LA, film, NY; book, vampires, film, infected monsters; book, they speak, film, they howl; book, the dog is nameless, film, it’s called Samantha. Come on. Even, on IMDb, the fact that a black man shouldn’t play the main character.

Frankly, the only thing that one really ought to get in a lather about is the wildly variant attitude to the story’s ending, but we’ll come to that later. No, in the long run, Lawrence’s film takes the general premise of the book and simply runs with that, and for the most part it does it very well. Humanity is wiped out in the first three minutes by Emma Thompson (I knew she’d have something to do with it ever since I saw her one woman show in 1985) and after that we descend into the depths of Manhattan island where Will Smith is hunting the escaped deer from New York zoo amid the ruins of the deserted city. Like 28 Days Later…, but for much longer, we’re witness to some truly memorable deserted metropolis images that simply crackle with a desperate empty beauty. Smith is great in these early scenes, before we’re even aware that he shares the place with a vast night-time population. His desolation and loneliness is captured effortlessly, and you have to take your hat off to the man for not doing some hideous Fresh Prince mugging routine with a shop full of mannequins that he sets up in the video store to give him the semblance of company.

Actually, I have to say, I think he’s great all the way through, and I didn’t think I’d ever hear myself saying that.

But anyway. Eventually we learn, via a series of neat little flashbacks, what’s happened to Neville’s family, and by association, the rest of the planet. Smith is left alone, ensconced in his hidey-hole in Washington Square, grabbing unsuspecting creatures when he can, performing endless experiments to attempt to find a cure for the terrible blight that has ravaged the world.

For two thirds of the film this all works very well, and even though Smith shares the screen with just a dog and the CGI’d infected, you don’t miss anyone else interacting with him. It’s fun to see the cracks appearing, the fact that the Earth’s last hope might be hopelessly deluded and doomed. It’s also good to see him genuinely scared of his enemies, rather than filled to the brim with one-liners and cigar-chomping bravura.

But it doesn’t last, and when he finally goes totally tonto, just prior to an inexplicable appearance by fellow survivors, the film begins to signal its own demise. In the novel – and I can hear myself say that phrase in a whining, nerdy, self-pitying squeal – in the novel, the girl, Ruth, undoes Neville through a planned betrayal with the half-undead; here, the love interest does something even worse, she offers him wholesome salvation. Uggh. Just as Neville is starting to rage against a lack of God, we get hope. This goes against the grain and I hate to say this, but for once the fanboys have got it right.

The book sees Neville executed by the ‘living’ vampire society; before he can be executed, Ruth provides him with pills to commit suicide, and as he dies he reflects on how the infected regard him as a monster; just as vampires were regarded as legendary monsters that preyed on the humans in their beds. Unfortunately, there is no irony in the film at its end, rather, a fatuous and unnecessary coda that allows a warm feeling of ultimate redemption.

And how very sad that is, in something that actually promised so much so early on.

NB. a note of film-buffery appreciation to whoever was sorting out the muzaky tunes during those interminable slides for local restaurants and Adult Education classes before the lights go down. At my showing in Cambridge’s Cineworld he or she included John Barry’s music for Somewhere in Time, which was based on Matheson’s novel Bid Time Return. Whoever you were, good job, I got it!

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