Still, as clear as Matheson attempted to make the fictional phenomenon of vampirism, it's interesting how difficult it has proven to be to adapt I Am Legend into alternate media. This has been famously done in Graphic Novel form, of course. More famously, perhaps, have been the movie versions. The first being 1964's The Last Man on Earth, followed by 1971's The Omega Man (interestingly enough, released at about the time the events of the novel were taking place). While all of these have been "good" (The Omega Man is still a consistently watchable cult sci-fi thriller and The Last Man on Earth was among the more influential Zombie films ever made until Night of the Living Dead changed everything), none have quite captured the essence of the book. Yeah, big surprise "The movie is different from the book!", I know, I know, but read the book and you'll see what I mean.
The third major film adaptation of I Am Legend (and the only one, thus far, to maintain the book's title) was a long time coming. Is 2007's I Am Legend guilty of many of the same issues the other two adaptations were? Indeed. Much was changed, some things inexplicably. Was I Am Legend worth waiting for? Most definitely. The end result is a very fine film.
Warner Bros. has had some version or other of I Am Legend in pre-production limbo almost as long as it's had the varied Batman and Superman movies that had gone through so many revisions. As a possible joke on both facts, decimated New York still has a large billboard advertisement for the Batman vs. Superman movie which was abandoned in real life before Batman Begins and Superman Returns were green-lit separately. Apparently in the world of I Am Legend the film becomes a reality (just as I Am Legend finally did) toward the end of the first decade of this century.
The debut was interrupted, as you may know, by the end of the world.
Dispensing with the underlying mystery surrounding what caused this apocalypse, our opening scene shows a television interview with research scientist Dr. Krippen (Emma Thompson) who has created a retrovirus that attacks, destroys and therefore cures cancer. It also mutates and evolves rapidly to keep up. In some of its final(?) mutations, the Krippen Virus (or "KP" as our hero calls it) first mutates its host to a form of primative vampirism (including total hair loss, melanin deficiency, sunlight allergy and a nutritional dependency on blood) and then becomes airborne, making sure that every man, woman and child on Earth is either dead from the Virus or mutated into a hungry vampire, more than willing to hunt down the "norms".
Every man, woman and child, it would seem, except one. Our hero Robert Neville, as portrayed by Will Smith.
Smith does a very fine job with the role and succeeds greatly in interpreting the character of this solitary man in a dead world who neither stops caring about himself or the cure that he believes that he (and only he) can deliver. Luckily screenwriters Mark Protosevich and Akiva Goldsman(!) maintain many of the scientific aspects of the story, even in their attempt to make I Am Legend accessible to a blockbuster audience. While there is no substitute for the novel, the film expends great effort in maintaining a level of maturity with its action and horror themes. One reason this works is, of course, Will Smith who has gone from "Fresh Prince" to a modern movie star equally adept at dramatic turns and action packed hero roles (and yes, he can still do comedy, too!).
Director Francis Lawrence balances these mostly divergent elements to create a film more cerebral than gothic in a post apocalyptic New York that looks just a little too much like the real thing for comfort. Through long periods of silent development as well as well-placed flashbacks, we learn a good deal about Doctor Robert Neville, a Military Scientist devoted to his wife (Salli Richardson's Zoe) and daughter (Willow Smith's Marley) in life and now having no one at all. So that Robert will have someone to talk to (and to eliminate the need for narrative voice-overs) the character of Samantha (his daughter's dog, now grown up and played by the German Shepherd Abby) is developed to play Robin to Neville's Batman. He also verbally chronicles his medical experiments by recording the audio and visual into an Apple Computer and he has created for himself a series of townsfolk with whom he can interact in the form of dressed, posed and placed Mannequins (a remnant of The Omega Man) whom he speaks to as if they were real. This all helps him to maintain the closest thing he can muster to a normal lifestyle (he even rents and returns DVDs at the local video store).
We soon learn how vital that normalcy is, as Robert and Sam go hunting deer in the streets of Manhattan with a high-powered rifle and a souped-up Mustang. If that's not striking enough, Robert has to compete for his game with escaped Lions from the Zoo! By night he is holed up in his home with the windows blocked off, sleeping in his bathtub with his dog and gun (in this version, the monsters don't know where he lives). By day he travels from building to building, sealing off city blocks and trapping vampires for medical tests as he can. And we're shown in great detail how dangerous a game this is. In fact, in the course of this films 101 minutes, things go from very bad to much, much worse.
Along the way many more questions are asked and we are shown some very emotional and even tear-jerking scenes both from the past (as the world begins to end) and the present (as Neville's new world starts to crumble). Are these Vampires animals or do they have intellect and society (note, this isn't a question in the book, but it's a major point here). Is Neville, in fact, the legendary last man, or might there be others out there?
Many of these are hard to answer, especially as the vast majority of the "people" he meets are the monsters (called, occasionally "dark seekers", most often "Infected" and never actually "vampires"). Although the vast majority of the characters in the film are a combination of CGI, Motion Capture and the amazing voice of Faith No More's Mike Patton(!!), there is still room for a few actors in the film, especially as it follows two essential timelines. The actors include Alice Braga (who plays Anna) and Charlie Tahan (who plays Ethan). The Infected, too, are credited (due to their Motion Capture roles). The "Alpha Male" was portrayed (pre-CGI) by Dash Mihok and his female counterpart was played by Joanna Numata.
However, this ultimately becomes one of the drawbacks of I Am Legend. Although the CGI is certainly well-done, it still looks like CGI. Neville's zooming through the streets of New York in a shiny red Mustang, chasing CGI Deer clearly shows a CGI Mustang in many shots. Further, the effects we see in the Infected don't look like the movements of damaged Humans, but a more rubbery look that is most assuredly CGI-Oriented. This gives less of a surreal, other-worldly look than a cartoon horror feel. The Infected look more like monsters from Silent Hill or cave dwellers from The Descent than Vampires or Zombies. That's not to say that the film isn't scary. It commonly is, but it doesn't always look real.
This is more noticeable due to the fact that a lot of effort was put into making this film realistic. The film explores the nature of the solitary life and the core of loneliness and loss without slowing the story down to the point that it becomes less action-oriented. Neville's lack of human contact leads to some interesting moments of drama between himself and varied inanimate objects. If you've seen Zemeckis' Castaway think of the scene in which "Wilson" is lost. Such things are striking in this kind of film and surprisingly they almost always work.
An additional "human layer" is added by the music. This is true for James Newton Howard's score, true, but the song choices here enhance the story by focusing not on death and destruction but on life and love. If Neville's daughter's name wasn't enough of a hint, the music of poet and prohet Bob Marley is played, analyzed and discussed throughout this film. Songs like "Three Little Birds" played against a backdrop of a formerly thriving, now dead landscape could have provided a pessimistic and ironic dichotomy. Instead this comes off as a ray of hope for what was and what could be.
Although many of the changes from the novel seemed arbitrary, the final result fits with its own internal logic and never jumps all over the board. Even the change in venue from Los Angeles to New York worked for this film. Seeing Neville as the only character awake in the City that Never Sleeps brings the desolation of the piece home in a chilling way. Further, the idea that he and his feral neighbors are still in a metropolitan area, but are also cut off from the land and trapped on Manhattan adds to the isolation and the imprisonment aspect of the film. No Thriller-esque Broadway number, though. Clearly it's Neville who refuses to leave, for his own altruistic reasons.
I Am Legend is flawed in a few ways, to be sure. However, it's an above-average adaptation that rises above the travesty that it could have been. Will Smith's warm, thoughtful performance adds both depth and realism to this Gothic tale. A lesser actor might not have been able to pull so many varied aspects of Neville off as Smith did. With the choices made in the presentation of the Hoards of Villains here we're given a very of-the-now threat that works for the story, but still makes I Am Legend feel like a cousin of Resident Evil or 28 Days Later... as opposed to The Omega Man or The Last Man on Earth. Three and One Half Stars out of Five for I Am Legend. The story remains one of the best and smartest Vampire tales of all time. The movie comes close in a lot of areas and is well worth watching, but the film is much less of a Legend than the Novel. So, until we finally see Batman vs. Superman debut in direct competition to Green Lantern, but still nobody sees it because everybody's dead... I'll see you in the next reel. Besides... Superman and Green Lantern ain't got nothin' on me!
And I thought MY Neighbors Sucked!
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