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United States, 2007
Directed By: Francis Lawrence
Written By: Mark Protosevich and Akiva Goldsman
Starring: Will Smith
Running Time: 101 minutes
Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi action and violence
If only they had changed the title. But no, the powers at Warner Brothers had to have their cake and eat it too, sabotaging the legitimacy of this film from the beginning. I knew I was predestined to outrage even before setting foot in the darkened theater, but I held out hope that maybe, just maybe, director Francis Lawrence (Constantine) had managed to pull off Richard Matheson’s original uncompromising vision of the apocalypse. I can usually set aside my prejudices when writing these critiques, but not this time. In this review I’m embracing my subjectivity, and I suggest you to take my rants with a grain of salt. I Am Legend is probably not nearly as bad as I think it is.
More high concept than this it does not come. Will Smith stars in every sense of the word as Robert Neville, the last man on Earth after a vaccine-gone-bad runs amuck in the genetic code of humanity. Instead of merely killing off its victims, the virus transforms them into pasty zombies/vampires that hide during the day but frolic come sunset. Neville, a US Army scientist, wiles the time away by hunting deer in Times Square, capturing the creatures for medical experiments, driving golf balls off of aircraft carriers, and working tirelessly on a vaccine. He clings to the hope that either there are other survivors out there or that he can manufacture a cure for the disease. Lest you think the entire film is Smith talking to himself (as entertaining as that would be), he’s given a canine companion named Sam who serves as the focus of his conversation and affection.
The film contains its fair share of jolts and extravagant action set pieces as Neville hunts and flees the infected denizens of the city. The creature FX are a little on the limp side, which is surprising considering how seamlessly the forsaken New York city has been rendered. I kept looking for the CG in the streets and skyline but it was perfect. If I didn’t know it was impossible, I would have thought they had actually built a life size New York and grown it over with weeds. Watching Neville scream down the abandoned streets in his black Shelby Mustang GT500 (yes, I had to google that) is a sight to behold.
Much as Tom Hanks did in Castaway, Smith carries the entire film on his shoulders effortlessly. He’s never dull or self-indulgent, and he’s always emotionally accessible. This is, sadly, not the kind of film or performance that courts awards, but Smith brings a depth to the role that deserves some. A touching moment late in the runtime with his dog could have easily descended into melodrama, but Smith keeps it reigned in and creates the most memorable scene in the film.
So why did I begin this review so harshly when all I’ve indicated thus far is that it’s a decent genre flick worth a bag of popcorn or two? If you have yet to see the movie, stop reading now and just go enjoy it. For the blissfully ignorant, it’s a 3 1/2 star apocalyptic thriller, easy. For those who’ve already taken it in or those who’ve read the book, read on as I descend into frustration.
They raped the ending. They beat it into the ground and then drug the title through the mud for good measure. This movie fundamentally alters the fabric of Matheson’s novel, and what’s worse, you can see signs that they tried to be true to it but just completely gave up at some point, like offering candy to a baby and then ripping it away at the last moment with a maniacal belch of laughter. What was a deeply affecting meditation on loneliness and isolation has been reduced to a generic sci-fi actioner in the most pathetic of senses. I Am Legend the film is an abortion of Matheson’s original work.
Think I’m being a bit harsh? Bear with me.
As it exists now, Neville sacrifices himself in order to save Anna and Ethan from the Dark Seekers (called the New Breed in the book). The mother and son journey on, taking with them the cure that Neville had developed, until they reach a human outpost. As the camera floats away from this happy ending, Anna’s voice can be heard: “Robert Neville saved the human race. This is his legend.” Sweet, huh? Here’s how it really goes down. Anna (who is named Ruth in the book; Ethan is only in the film) is really one of the New Breed, sent to gather information about Neville. After the virus hit, humans didn’t simply change into vampires – they evolved into another species, one that lived at night and slept during the day. Neville, going on his hunting trips, has been exacting genocide on a new breed of humans. He has become the boogeyman to them, a daymare if you will, an obstacle to the founding of their new society. They capture him, the last living human, and place him in a cell, preparing to execute him. Ruth visits him and gives him poison out of compassion. Here are the final paragraphs of the book:
Robert Neville looked out over the new people of the earth. He knew he did not belong to them; he knew that, like the vampires, he was anathema and black terror to be destroyed. And, abruptly, the concept came, amusing him even in his pain.
A coughing chuckle filled his throat. He turned and leaned against the wall while he swallowed the pills. Full circle, he thought while the final lethargy crept into his limbs. Full circle. A new terror born in death, a new superstition entering the unassailable fortress of forever.
I am legend.
I was speechless when I finished the book and read that final sentence. The true meaning of the title, which had remained opaque throughout the book, finally made sense. Previous cinematic incarnations of Matheson’s work went by different titles (The Last Man on Earth,The Omega Man), perhaps realizing that if audiences couldn’t accept his unbending vision then they had no right to pilfer the title, but Lawrence and company just couldn’t resist the marketing tie-in. The entirety of the novel centers on the title and its significance. To strip away its core is negligent; to pervert the entire work is criminal. This infuriates me on an instinctive level that I do not fully understand, and I’m angrier now than when I began the review. It’s one thing to screw up the tone of a book, or leave out superfluous details, or even alter the original storyline. Literature and cinema are different beasts, requiring different kinds of taming, and storytelling structure in one is fundamentally different than in the other. But this is outright abuse of an author’s creative vision, resulting in an inferior and stillborn product.
It’s difficult to know where to point the finger. As director, Lawrence obviously shoulders the brunt of the responsibility, whether he’s culpable or not. Akiva Goldsman took over writing duties from Mark Protosevich, so perhaps he bears the blame. More than likely, however, it’s some studio exec that has the blood on his hands. Matheson’s grim ending is not very palatable, and the perceived desires of the American public (who wants to think when you can just be entertained?) probably won the argument. If rumors are to be believed, this was a rocky production, with the ending being re-shot (an alternate version recently popped up on YouTube which, while an improvement, still fails to do justice to Matheson’s novel). Would I Am Legend have done $255 million in domestic box office alone if the original ending had remained intact? Someone over at Warners is patting themselves on the back for the lobotomized version they pawned off on the public and the mint they mined from their pockets.
I would not feel this way if the book were not so good. To take a literary gem like that and grind it down into a dusty shadow of its former self is just plain depressing. I cannot muster any more than 1 1/2 stars for this hackneyed monstrosity. Cry “Subjective Drama Queen!” all you want, but in my opinion, I Am Legend sucks.