Should I Watch..? I Am Legend
What's the big deal?
I Am Legend is a post-apocalyptic horror film released in 2007 and is based on the novel of the same name by Richard Matheson. It is the third such adaption after 1964's The Last Man On Earth and 1971's The Omega Man. The film sees Will Smith play US Army virologist Robert Neville, the last survivor of a devastating virus that has left New York abandoned with the exception of ravenous mutants that haunt the shadows. Despite the loneliness and precarious nature of his existence, Neville is determined to find a cure and reverse the mutations affecting humanity. The film was directed by Francis Lawrence after years of being stuck in development hell. Critical reaction was broadly positive and the film was a massive success at the global box office with earnings over $583 million, giving it the best opening of any non-Christmas film ever released in December.
What's it about?
In an alternative 2009, a genetically-modified virus is developed as a potential cure for cancer. Sadly, the virus mutates into a lethal strain that kills 94% of victims with a further 5% corrupted into mindless monsters that cannot abide sunlight - only 1% of people survive unharmed. One such person is Robert Neville, a virologist with the US Army who remains behind in the now-abandoned New York with only his dog Sam for company.
Robert's daily routine involves hunting the city for supplies and conducting experiments on captured animals and mutants (known as Darkseekers) in his increasingly desperate search for a cure. He also broadcasts a message every day from beneath the remains of the Brooklyn Bridge, hoping that some other survivors might hear it and come to his aid. But Neville's mental health is beginning to show signs of strain and as his search for a cure might bring about an end to the deadly plague, the Darkseekers are an ever-present threat...
Dr. Robert Neville
Mark Protosevich & Akiva Goldsman *
Release Date (UK)
26th December, 2007
What's to like?
Without doubt, this is the Will Smith Show - Smith displays a maturity to the role, where his usually cocky and affable manner has been replaced by despair and hopeless loneliness. He does very well and together with the dog actors playing Sam, they manage to carry the entire film for two thirds of its duration between just the two of them. The dogs playing Sam (German Shepherds called Abbey and Kona) are fascinating and utterly believable, almost to an anthropomorphic degree.
The haunting vision of a New York left to be reclaimed by Mother Nature is also something to behold. It's almost beautiful in an odd way, seeing deer jumping between abandoned cars on Broadway and Central Park becoming a vast grassy plain. These are images that stay with you after the film and gives the picture gravitas. The more tense moments such as when Neville and Sam are plunged into a blacked-out, abandoned building filled with unknown horrors is genuinely gripping while the unholy noises of the creatures coming out at night are far more terrifying to hear than they are to look at.
- A prominent poster is on display in one scene, displaying an early version of the logo from Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice. This is an in-joke at the expense of writer & producer Akiva Goldsman who had been trying to get the film made as early as 2002. When the film was finally produced, Goldsman recalled the logo and re-used it.
- Before shooting started, Smith went on 'dates' with Abbey the dog so they could get along better. By the time the film had wrapped, Smith had grown so fond of her that he tried to adopt her from her trainer, who refused.
- The screams and otherworldly noises of the Darkseekers was actually produced by singer Mike Patton, frontman with alternative rock band Faith No More.
What's not to like?
And here is where the biggest problem lies with I Am Legend. However good the effects are at reducing New York to an abandoned shell of a city, the film itself is plagued with some seriously ropey CG and this is a big issue when the film's primary antagonists are entirely CG. Even basic things like the deer running away and the lions (and I'll get to this in a second) have a strong whiff of pixels about them, meaning that you never really take the picture as seriously as you should. And this film does indeed take itself seriously.
I also had issues with the basic story as the film seems to have enough plot-holes to swallow the whole population of the Big Apple. I can just about get aboard with Neville having petrol-generators for his home, however unlikely that might be. But the cars and the food stockpile and the running water... It felt too convenient, as though he could happily spend the rest of his days in his apartment watching Shrek on DVD. It also demonstrated a certain lack of bravery on behalf of the film-makers - I wanted to see how Neville had established this relatively peaceful haven instead of him having everything given to him for the film. Surely the science lab in the basement on its own would require more than a handful of portable generators? It didn't feel as well thought out as it might have been and I found this almost as distracting as the crude zombies (let's be honest, that's what they are).
Lastly, the film differs from the book quite considerably and almost completely misses the point of the novel by the time of the finale. But when has Hollywood ever let that get in the way of a good ending?
Should I watch it?
Anyone waiting patiently for a movie adaptation of the video game Fallout (I can't be the only one, surely?) will enjoy this post-apocalyptic adventure in the deserted ruin of New York but fans of Matheson's original novel will probably be spitting feathers. I Am Legend takes a great concept and boils it down to the basic ingredients, robbing audiences of an intelligent piece of science-fiction and providing them instead with a fairly generic, albeit well-performed and slick, slice of your typical Hollywood horror.
Great For: isolationists, dog lovers, militia
Not So Great For: fans of the book, CG animation, anyone with high expectations
What else should I watch?
As this is the first adaption of the book that I've seen, I can't really comment on how I Am Legend compares to its cousins. The Last Man On Earth was the first adaptation, released in 1964 and starred veteran horror actor Vincent Price. It's reputation seems to have grown over the years although Matheson - involved in the screenwriting process, under the alias Logan Swanson - didn't really care for it much. Then in 1971, Charlton Heston was cast in The Omega Man which wasn't as well received as its predecessor. However, the director Tim Burton cites the film as one of his favourites and I certainly respect his opinion so feel free to make up your own mind.
It seems as though the days of intelligent sci-fi are long gone, thanks to the bombastic soap opera that was Star Wars. Movies like Soylent Green, Fahrenheit 451 and Logan's Run offered audiences not just the chance of seeing a distant future but also asked philosophical questions. Nowadays, a film isn't a film without explosions or a sex scene or a car chase meaning that even respected contemporaries like Minority Report are watered down and nobody's brain is taxed. And I think that's a great shame.
© 2017 Benjamin Cox