Still more lazy thoughts from this one…

I Am Legend Film Review

i am legendAs I’ve reached a milestone this week, February has finally begun to act like…well, February. The normally cold and wet time for us in the southland befits this month’s duo post of something a little bleak. Yet, it’s a work dear to my heart. The blogger otherwise known as the Scientist Gone Wordy and I, rejoin for another famed title by a renowned writer. Richard Matheson, the recently deceased American author and screenwriter, primarily of the fantasy, horror, and science fiction genres. Rachel and I did a parallel post for one his fantasy novels more than three years ago.

She suggested a science-fiction classic for 2014, while I offered one of his horror novels for October to complete the triumvirate of story.

As usual, the wordy one will examine the text of the novel later adapted to film, which I will review. The book many consider almost as influential as Bram Stoker’s Dracula is under the microscope, I Am Legend. Published by Matheson and Gold Medal books in 1954 (hmm…the year of my birth), which took the themes of ‘vampirism’ and ‘the last man left’ in breakthrough directions. Four film adaptations from the book have occurred through the decades. For our purposes, we’ll use the most recent film from 2007. Rachel’s book review can be found here:

I Am Legend by Richard Matheson

A brief synopsis of the film: In October 2009, a medical researcher used one evil against another. She created a genetically engineered variant of measles to cure an uglier ill, a virus targeted at cancer. An effective treatment that remedied the malignant grown, but killed the larger host as a consequence. Us. The virus mutated into a lethal strain that took 5.4 billion lives world-wide. By 2012, military virologist Lieutenant Colonel Robert Neville is the last human in New York City. Maybe even the last on Earth. Immune, and struggling to find another cure. For the plague has left something else. Infected survivors that want nothing more than to kill him. The last remnant of civilization that caused this catastrophe.

[spoiler warning: some key elements of the film could be revealed in this review]

“The last man on Earth is not alone.” ~ movie poster byline

When Rachel offered this on her list for the year, I had hesitation. My disappointment with the film back in ’07 the chief reason. No matter. I needed to give it another chance. There’s the letter vs. spirit of the law when it comes of book-to-film adaptations. Just because it differs from the source is not inherently a bad thing. Rosemary’s Baby in contrast with something like Angel Heart, and we’ve done both of those in the course of this series. Might as well give this film a fair shot and not let my feeling towards the novel bias the review at hand.

title i am legend

Richard Matheson’s contemporary, sci-fi rather than horror-based, look at being alone in a world of vampires remains a compelling one. Filmmakers had already granted the tale two screen adaptations during the 20th Century alone. Why not another? And when you have an over-the-title-actor onboard, Will Smith, the production’s financing would not be an issue. Just line up a half-way decent screenwriter (Mark Protosevich and Akiva Goldsman performing the honors), and a promising young director like Francis Lawrence (the underrated Constantine under his belt and the rest of the Hunger Games franchise in his future), this potential moneymaker just sold itself.

Watch out for this bleak future’s Superman/Batman movie on a Times Square marquee, which heralded the plague — count me now as officially worried for 2016.

As an apocalyptic thriller, utilizing a desolate New York City standing in for a world laid waste, it works surprisingly well…mostly. The filmmakers actually performed a surprisingly effective modernization of a work reaching its Diamond Anniversary this very year. Sure, dropping the ancient mythology of vampirism (now that they’re the good guys…and glow in the sunlight…our indebtedness to Stephenie Meyer notwithstanding) had been done successfully before, in the second adaptation. 1971’s The Omega Man. It’d work here, yes?

Will+Smith+Francis+Lawrence+Legend+Photocall+oTBQdoUxbCul

So, too, offering a protagonist more in keeping with the stature of the hero-actor casted. The track record of Will Smith would be hard to get around, yet he brought a performance as distraught as Vincent Price’s Dr. Robert Morgan (1964’s The Last Man on Earth). Offering an absorbing take of the character not done before. An African-American portraying Robert Neville brought another perspective that refashioned Matheson’s seminal work and gave it something to say beyond being the first of the ‘modern’ vampire novels that century.

Social and cultural commentary.

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Two scenes stood out for me. The first, watching Neville close up his home in preparation for the night. One filled with dread of the mayhem beginning to stir, heard through his walls after sundown. Sleeping, safeguarding, with what’s left of his family (his dog). Recalls the real-life American South for many of the disenfranchised facing the bigotry under Jim Crow. Couched in the only place that feels safe, a cast-iron bathtub. Protection still in use at a bullet-strewn neighborhood near you. An image that hits home for some of us.

So, too, the chaotic flashback that haunts the lead character throughout the story — a setup device mirrored from the novel. The determined virologist’s failed attempt to get his wife and child safely off Manhattan island, before the bridges are blown (to strand the infected). The tormented survivor, designated savior, faced with what he can’t accomplish. Effectively staged, visceral, and ultimately poignant. Chiefly since the scene again mimics more of our sad societal history. The breakdown of black families, by others.

The sole individual trying to “…fix this.”, a man of color striving to turn the tide of amp’d rage by those very pale, terrifying dead-enders he is trying to save from themselves.

Watching this once more reminded this longtime Richard Matheson fan what enthralled, for most of the film, when I saw its theatrical run. This century’s adaptation the third or fourth film version (the direct-to-video I Am Omega came out the same year to capitalize on the story’s revival in this film), and the first to use the original title of Matheson’s novel. I Am Legend also returned to the concept of a biological pandemic in this re-telling. It had such grand potential.

For the record, Ms. Braga does indeed look better than the dog, but Sam simply acted better.

Besides, it also had two of the most charismatic performances among all of its screen adaptations. Will Smith and Alice Braga, you say? Ah…no. Substitute Samantha the dog as the lead actress and you have the most intriguing couple of the entire movie. And Will was hard-pressed to garner more acting praise than her. Once Sam dies, in a wrenching scene, a good deal of the story’s heart goes with her. Believe me.

Moreover, the film’s overemphasis of special effects, and action over the original story’s psychological tenets, was where the film and I began to part company. I know what you’re thinking. “It’s a movie and not the novel…let it go, already.” A fair criticism. Fans of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining have made good use of it over the years against Stephen King and fans of his book who’ve made it their duty to criticize the director’s story changes.

And yes, the letter of the law need not apply here. But what of that spirit? Surely, a film with I Am Legend as its title would honor its source’s key premise, shouldn’t it? “It does”, you say? Another post-apocalyptic actioner. Retasking this material with automatic weapons, and animation-like boogie men, in the midst of all its thought-provoking, scientific grist. Really? Shouldn’t some of the headway made in a twenty-first century overhaul still be in keeping with Matheson’s point? The prime one, the dramatic turnaround the novel makes in its last act.

It’s that aspect with I Am Legend that concerned me most — be it in the theatrical cut or the alternate ending included on the DVD/Blu-ray release (I screened both again for this review). A finale that was the antithesis of the novel’s. More akin to The Omega Man‘s Christ allegory. Not bad symbolism to re-purpose, just not Matheson’s profound anti-villain treatise of Robert Neville. There, I said it.

The harbinger, the needle-skipping moment, arrived with Alice Braga’s unexpectedly sudden, rescue of a suicidal Neville, in an action sequence that had no semblance in the book. Plus, the film was hamstrung by filmmakers’ tendency to overuse computer effects as characters. They were, to put it mildly, some of the worst CGI creatures in any of the big budget, high-profile film releases of the ’00s. Indeed, this over reliance had the byproduct of aging the film remarkably in a mere seven years, as well as taking me right out of the picture at key moments.

I-Am-Legend-Sequel

Fortunately, or unfortunately, the film made a ton of money at the box office. So much so, the studio at one time prepared for something that should have been abhorrent to anyone who appreciated the book. The overdone studio trend of this century: prequel. God help us. Luckily, if it’s to be believed, that project is dead. Okay, I’m being unduly harsh. I don’t mean to be.

As a film, I Am Legend put forward an intriguing mix of interesting themes and clever updates. Even where it deviated from Matheson’s storyline, it encompassed an absorbing blend of ideas. Questionable creative decisions, likewise. The motion picture just should have been better, given the material it was based upon.

Moving the location to New York City, with its dark cityscapes (with references to Ground Zero), a superb fresh take with the primary character, even retooling the novel’s classical music references to legend Bob Marley, being truly inspired. The weaknesses, the CGI’d surviving viral victims  (which was handled better in The Omega Man, by the way) and animals, along with an inconsistent narrative, brought it down to Earth.

Still, I’m glad Rachel selected this work. Gave me another chance to reread one of my favorite novels, and give appreciation for what worked in this film adaptation. Particularly, the fine bit of dialogue, concerning Bob Marley, that echoed the best aspect of the remake:

“He had this idea. It was kind of a virologist idea. He believed that you could cure racism and hate… literally cure it, by injecting music and love into people’s lives. When he was scheduled to perform at a peace rally, a gunman came to his house and shot him down. Two days later he walked out on that stage and sang. When they asked him why – He said, “The people, who were trying to make this world worse… are not taking a day off. How can I? Light up the darkness.””


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30 Responses to “I Am Legend Film Review”

  1. CMrok93

    Good review. For the longest time, it was actually pretty great, but once that ending came around, I couldn’t help but feel cheated. Still, it works well on various re-watches.

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  2. cindybruchman

    Great review, Michael. I loved the premise, the book, the film for idea of it. Many things worked for me–the NYC setting, Neville’s loneliness talking to the mannequins, Sam the dog, the flashbacks didn’t bother me, the concept of the creatures is good –BUT I agree whole-hardheartedly the over-use of the CGI and their disruption to the story jarred me. I didn’t need over-the-top computer inventions. I wanted flesh and ambiguity. This could have been a great film. Instead it was a commercial film that left me feeling like I had been had.

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    • le0pard13

      Neville’s talking to the mannequins a clever use, indeed. Used effectively against him, too.

      “I wanted flesh and ambiguity. This could have been a great film. Instead it was a commercial film that left me feeling like I had been had.”

      Nailed it, Cindy. Many thanks. :-)

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  3. Mark Walker

    Superlative work, as always, Michael. I’m not a fan of I Am Legend, I have to say but I did really like The Omega Man. Normally, I can’t stand Charlton Heston but this as one of his that I really got into. I really should read Matheson’s book, though, I’m a big fan of science-fiction in general. I went through a phase of Phillip K. Dick, Damon Knight, William Tenn and many others but I never read of any Matheson’s.

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    • le0pard13

      I retain a fondness for The Omega Man. Heston in his renaissance of the late 60s, 70s brought some great roles for him, especially in the Sci-Fi genre (Planet of the Apes, Soylent Green, etc.). I always recommend this Richard Matheson book to friends. He’d be a great compliment to those wonderful authors you’ve listed. Many thanks, Mark!

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    • le0pard13

      Oh, no! You was robbed! ;-)
      Seriously, take a gander, though. See if you think it works for you. Thank you very much.

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  4. mikeyb @ screenkicker

    I love the book so when I saw thw film I was really enjoying it until the completely screwed up the ending. Apparently they shot an ending that was faithful to the book but test audiences didn’t like it!

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    • le0pard13

      You and me both, mikey. Oh, I hadn’t realized that they shot a faithful ending. I wish they had included that somewhere on the disc. The Last Man on Earth still provides the closest to Matheson’s last act in any film adaptation I’ve seen. I guess I’ll have to give a gander to I Am Omega to see if they offered anything close to it. Many thanks, my friend! :-)

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  5. Rachel

    Is the short lesson from our reviews that, depending on which form you encounter first, your mileage will vary GREATLY??? :)

    I would certainly never be one to say “let it go” as adaptations are tricky and varied things but I do have one requirement which I think is easy to fulfill and I will never let go: either you go completely off the map with a new interpretation or you go with the spirit of the work. That second allows a lot of latitude in that you can do a complete modernization but still keep the spirit of the source material or just do a straight up strict adaptation. With so much room it’s weird that films can fail. This one certainly does. It’s a bad adaptation. That’s not to say there isn’t a lot in the film I do like but it’s a bad adaptation. No way around it. Actually, I think the first 2/3 of the film has a lot of room to fulfill sticking to the spirit of the source material but the last 1/3 just ruins it. The veering way off from the ‘i am legend’ premise, the overdone monsters, the terrible ending… it all goes a long way to missing the point.

    However, it’s one that I keep coming back to because that first 2/3 is so intriguing and because Will Smith as Neville is one of my favorite scifi performances to watch. Honestly, I think his performance is brilliant and it saddens me that the crap ending and its release just before it became the fashion to be impressed with performances in scifi/action mean it’s a performance that rarely gets mentioned. Maybe I need to form some kind of group. :)

    I agree that the modernization to the world of the story came off quite well (this is excepting the modernization of film technique that is too much cgi but, actually, I agree with your assessment there too) and I loved the musical update most of all. You know I liked the changes to Neville in general from what I mentioned at the book review. While I don’t think it was necessarily a requirement that FilmNev come from such a convenient (read: highly trained, super smart) background it’s certainly easier than trying to incorporate the ‘training montage’ into the movie.

    So, really, my assessment of the film is much like my assessment of the book. Great, great idea; poor execution. For the film I thought that poor execution was mostly in the follow through.

    Thanks for your willingness to revisit an old unfavorite. It’s one that gets revisited in my household simply because Jeff and I love re-writing it and imagining our dream of it actually being the slam dunk it could have been. It’ll be interesting to give Matheson one more try this year. If he still loses me as a reader, it might be my last. :) Thanks again!

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    • le0pard13

      Great to read your thoughts about this film adaptation, Rachel. There are some really intriguing and enjoyable aspects in this production.

      ”Actually, I think the first 2/3 of the film has a lot of room to fulfill sticking to the spirit of the source material but the last 1/3 just ruins it. The veering way off from the ‘i am legend’ premise, the overdone monsters, the terrible ending… it all goes a long way to missing the point.”

      We’re really in sync in this regard. My word, I wanted this to work. I’ve enjoyed this Matheson work for so long (though, I’m aware he hasn’t gelled with you). That’s okay.

      I’d also agree that Will Smith as FilmNev (reusing some of your wonderful coinage here and in your book review) was one that should have received more praise. It’s more than worthy. As Cindy mentioned above, his reactions (to mannequin, dog, human, or animated blood-sucky thingy) worked so darn well. This character in particular, whether in the novella or onscreen, is one that has stayed with me for the longest time. And is probably why I could revisit it as readily as I did with this screening.

      That’s a great idea that you and Jeff have come up for this film. I’d not change much, 2/3’s of it, anyway. ;-)

      Glad you offered this up, Rachel. My daughter saw it with me and was pulled into film. She hadn’t read the source (she wants to now), but felt that ending ruined what it had successfully going. Thanks. :-)

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  6. Dan

    I’m not sold on the ending but I enjoyed this a whole lot more than Charlton Heston in The Omega Man which I just couldn’t get into.

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  7. 70srichard

    A very fair assessment of the film. I have not re-read the book in forty years so I could go back and do some of the same comparisons and nit-picking. The One scenario I remember from the book was when Neville was trying out all the Vampire mythos on the night people, including his former neighbor. I recall the neighbor character laughing at some of his efforts and that section haunted me for some reason. Not do demean Dan and Mark, but how can you be luke warm on Charlton Heston? I can see some flaws in Omega Man but the film does a more practical job of presenting the new survivors than this CGI imagining does. The first half of the I Am Legend film was tense beyond belief, but once the dog goes, the movie loses all the goodwill it built up. Thank you both for your work on this post.

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    • le0pard13

      Thank you very much, Richard. I remain a fan of The Omega Man. Especially of Heston being Heston in that, plus the lovely Rosalind Cash (who left us far too early, IMO). And yes, once we lose Sam the dog the film takes a big hit. Let me know what you think, if you revisit the novel, my friend.

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  8. Nostra

    Wasn’t a fan of the movie although I did think that the empty streets of New York looked great. I was not a fan of the ending and think I saw an alternative version on Youtube which I thought was better. Not a movie I feel the need to rewatch.

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    • le0pard13

      I understand, Nostra. On its own merits, without an attachment to the source novel, I can see your point. Thank you, my friend.

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