As 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:
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.
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?
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.
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.
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: a 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.””