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Sunday 16 December 2007

Mister and Monster Smith:
A Review of I Am Legend

by Gary Westfahl

Directed by Francis Lawrence

Written by Mark Protosevich and Akiva Goldsman, based on the screenplay The Omega Man by John William Corrington and Joyce Hooper Covington, based on the novel I Am Legend by Richard Matheson

Starring Will Smith, Alice Braga, Dash Mihok, Charlie Tahan, Salli Richardson, Willow Smith, and Emma Thompson

Richard Matheson's flawed but fascinating novel I Am Legend (1954) is full of surprises, as it singularly depicts a nightmarish future in which a devastating global plague has literally transformed almost all of humanity into the vampires of ancient legends, their curious traits now explained scientifically as the symptoms of a once-rare but now endemic disease. Its greatest surprise, however, is surely the way that Matheson logically, and chillingly, developed his premise: in a world where almost everyone has become a monster, the inescapable result would be a new civilization of monsters, as their characteristics and behavior would become the norm while the rare surviving humans would be recast as monsters.

But the protagonist of the latest film version of I Am Legend, Robert Neville (Will Smith), speaks for himself, for actor Smith, and for Hollywood in general when he says that "I don't like surprises," and there are none to be found in this entertaining but utterly predictable film. In the first place, as the credits acknowledge, the film is not really an adaptation of Matheson's novel (like The Last Man on Earth [1964], reasonably faithful to the book but undermined by terrible production values and Vincent Price's risible performance); rather, it is based on the second film adaptation, The Omega Man (1971) with Charlton Heston, which distorted the original story in ways that seemed commercially advisable then, and seem even more commercially advisable today. The plague-afflicted vampires are less provocatively depicted as pale-skinned mutants with an aversion to sunlight (termed "dark seekers" in this film), and rather than evolving into a new society which will supplant humanity, they are destined to be transformed back into normal people as soon as Neville perfects his miracle cure. (And if you think the last sentence qualifies as a "spoiler," consider yourself a very naïve filmgoer.) Science fiction, as many have observed, is a literature which celebrates and embraces change; but mainstream entertainments, including big-budget science fiction films, always are all about maintaining the status quo.

Interestingly, an online script credited solely to Mark Protosevich indicates that he originally followed the novel more closely, until (one assumes) Will Smith handed the screenplay to reliable hit maker Akiva Goldsman, co-author of Smith's successful I, Robot [review] (2004) and asked him to make it more like The Omega Man. Still, a few traces of Matheson's novel do help I Am Legend achieve the modest victory of being a much better film than the one based on John William Corrington and Joyce Hooper Covington's 1971 screenplay. In contrast to their overly sedate and speechifying opponents of modern science, this film returns to Matheson's vision of mindlessly homicidal enemies, whose furious, acrobatic assaults make for several exciting action sequences. And, probably building upon an extended sequence in the novel about Neville striving to befriend an uninfected dog who eventually dies, the screenwriters provide Neville with a faithful canine companion, Sam, who also gives him someone to talk to until the inevitable beautiful woman appears out of nowhere (another comment that cannot sanely be regarded as a "spoiler").

The film also introduces some original twists on the story, most prominently by shifting its locale: while the novel and The Omega Man take place in the Los Angeles area, the hero of I Am Legend lives in New York City. The reasons for the change are obvious: ever since the events of September 11, 2001, the Big Apple has become the setting of choice for cinematic disasters of all varieties. (Recall, for example, that it was also the new location for Steven Spielberg's 2005 version of H. G. Wells's The War of the Worlds [review]). If by any chance the connection did not immediately occur to some naïve filmgoer, the screenplay obligingly provides both blatant and obscure references to the terrorist attack, such as the scenes of people frantically fleeing from the afflicted city. In explaining why he must remain in New York City to carry on his research, Neville twice insists that the city is "Ground Zero" — the place where the plague begins, and hence for some reason the place where he must work to bring it to an end (even though his departing wife Zoe [Salli Richardson] logically notes that he could actually do his research anywhere). The number eleven also comes up repeatedly: Neville's home address is 11 Washington Square (an actual New York residence, accurately depicted, which was home to prominent members of New York society and the site of the 1896 wedding of a man named Sydney Smith); the events of the film occur between September 4 and September 10, 2012, so Neville's observation during that period that it is "day 1001" of the plague would suggest that it all began on or around December 11, 2009 (as also indicated by recurring indications that the plague started shortly before Christmas); the film notes that Neville discovers his cure on September 9, his new friend Anna (Alice Braga) delivers a blood sample with the cure to a colony of uninfected people on the next day, and assuming that they were motivated enough and able to process the cure into usable form within 24 hours, the crisis would officially come to an end on September 11, 2012 — the eleventh anniversary of the terrorist attack.

Precisely what all of this means, however, is harder to discern. The theme of the Last Man on Earth was once common in science fiction, presumably because it appealed to the alienated youths who then represented the genre's primary audience. Observing that theme in a film aimed at the masses might then suggest that almost everyone in our society now feels alienated, compelled by terrorism to regard everyone around them as potential attackers and thus driven to spent most of their lives sequestered in their homes. Neville's lonely life of isolation in an armor-protected house, with occasional, fearful excursions into an outside world he perceives as implacably hostile, by this argument, would serve as a striking metaphor for the way that many people now view their own lives.

Yet I am by no means sure that the screenwriters or director Francis Lawrence ever thought things through in this manner. After all, the plague in this film is not the result of war, as in previous versions, or of a sinister terrorist plot, but rather is the accidental outcome of the effort of a dedicated scientist (an uncredited Emma Thompson) to cure cancer by means of a virus which unexpectedly mutates into a dreadful disease. Indeed, scenes of people wearing masks over their mouths to protect against the virus recall a different event, the 2003 SARS epidemic in Hong Kong, and suggest that a different fear underlies the film: that our civilization will be undone not by the deliberate assaults of evil men, but instead by the unintended consequences of life in an increasingly complex and interrelated world. The film's use of New York City as a setting, overall, may represent nothing more than a trendy move in the manner of The Day After Tomorrow (2004), Disaster Zone: Volcano in New York (2006), and other recent films that torment New York City without having anything in particular to say about terrorism and its effects.

One might also analyze I Am Legend as the perfect Christmas movie for our time (and it does announce itself to be a Christmas movie, with images of Christmas trees and presents abandoned by fleeing New Yorkers in 2009 and herds of reindeer running through the deserted streets of 2012 — and might the name of Neville's daughter, "Marley" [Willow Smith], described as a tribute to reggae singer Bob Marley, also refer to Jacob Marley of Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol [1843]?). In the film, we begin with an embittered, almost Scrooge-like atheist (who later announces "There is no God") living in a cold world of fear and violence; but in the end, as is only fitting at holiday time, he bonds with a family — Anna and her young son Ethan (Charlie Tahan) — rediscovers religion, decides to "listen" to God, and gives the world a wonderful, premature Christmas gift: a vial of bright red blood containing a cure for its implacable disease. True, it may not quite exude the same cheery glow as It's a Wonderful Life (1946), but hey, you can't attract that all-important teen male demographic these days without some fistfights and car chases.

What I Am Legend does, inescapably, have something to say about, for those who are interested, is Will Smith's evolving opinion of himself as a performer. And the message is clear: the easy-going, wisecracking persona that Smith was still fitfully clinging to in I, Robot has been permanently retired. His Robert Neville, relentlessly grim and never humorous, is supposed to be taken very seriously indeed, as indicated by various references to other great heroes: at one point Neville says "I'll be back," borrowing the most famous line of longtime action hero Arnold Schwarzenegger (who, perhaps not incidentally, was originally supposed to star in this film when it almost got made in 1994); the DVD store he visits features in the background posters of Green Lantern and the Teen Titans, comic book heroes scheduled to appear in films opening in 2009, the year civilization collapses; and the huge posters on Broadway include a striking image of the five-sided Superman "S" symbol superimposed on the Batman bat symbol, indicating perhaps that the once-planned Superman-Batman team-up movie will be rescued from development hell and released in 2009. (What one would assume is the film's "crypto-virus" is also called the KV virus, suggesting an actual spelling of "Krypto-virus" and possibly recalling Superman's super-dog and the infected dogs in the film.) His refrigerator also displays an old Time magazine cover featuring Neville as humanity's potential "Savior?" Thankfully, however, Smith did not insist upon a replication of the groan-inducing final scene of The Omega Man, in which Charlton Heston is literally crucified in order to convey his similarity to the greatest hero of them all. (Instead, and more evocatively, Neville seems finally driven to become the sort of monster he has long opposed, as he lets out a wide-mouthed scream and butts his head against glass in the manner of the maddened mutants.)

For a bored observer of this film, it might also be amusing to compile and ponder the various predictions that it makes about the year 2009. Among other things, one learns that the next President of the United States will be a man, not Hillary Clinton, as indicated by the male presidential voice on the radio; the price of gas in New York City will be close to seven dollars a gallon; Shaquille O'Neal will announce his retirement; and home sales will remain slow. And who knows? The fact that we first observe Robert Neville literally on Broadway may be a sly hint that Smith, tiring of the routine production of sure-fire hit movies, might in 2009 be looking for new worlds to conquer (Men in Black: The Musical?).

As the last comment suggests, I Am Legend is ultimately a film that one struggles to discuss intelligently, since it was manifestly not crafted in order to inspire intelligent discussion. While, as noted, it is a superb piece of entertainment, this film is not really an artistic statement about anything of importance; rather, it can be analyzed only as a set of symptoms — of what we have become, of what Hollywood has become, and of what Hollywood thinks we have become. The film will be remarkably successful, and it will inspire many other films along the same lines which I am probably not suited to review. For this virulent, monstrous disease, there appears to be no cure.

© 2007 by Locus Publications. All rights reserved.