By Noel Vera
Francis Lawrence (2007)
I Am Legend--third remake of Richard Matheson's novella about Robert
Neville, the last surviving human in a world (or at least a California)
full of vampires (Huh; who said this was science fiction?)--starts
out strong, which is about par for the course.
Ubaldo Ragona and Sidney Salkow's L'Ultimo uomo della terra (The
Last Man on Earth, 1964) substituted Rome for some American city
and featured a despairing Vincent Price as Neville (here Robert
Morgan) talking to himself in voiceover; Boris Segal's The Omega
Man (1971) had the eternally self-satisfied Charlton Heston (this
time called Neville) roam empty Los Angeles.
Both adaptations have their virtues; Ragona and Salkow's relatively
cheap production for the most part hewed closely to the book, and
relied on black-and-white cinematography for easy but nevertheless
effective atmosphere (Romero would exploit the verite qualities
of black-and-white film for his own first feature Night of the Living
Dead (1968), which Romero freely admits was influenced by Matheson's
book), while the image of Price wandering those empty (and suspiciously
photogenic) Roman streets has its own eerie power.
of Segal's version are more eclectic: the vampires have turned into
sunglassed Luddite albinos (the shades meant to protect their light-sensitive
eyes) out to destroy technology in all its manifestations, including
military scientist Neville; Neville gradually realizes that His
Blood Can Redeem the World, and expires in cruciform position, but
not before he manages to bed a beautiful black babe (Rosalind Cash)
in desperate need of a transfusion.
One can't watch the picture without suspecting that Heston must
have been unable to get over the fact that they chose Max Von Sydow
over him to play Christ in George Stevens' The Greatest Story Ever
Told (1965) while he had to settle for John the Baptist--hence his
illusions of persecution and grandeur (of persecuted grandeur);
as for the movie's albinos, one might mistaken them for hippies
the way they resent the old-world establishment and demand a return
to a simpler, less materialistic life (Heston made a career of defying
and lecturing stubborn liberals, from the Israelites in The Ten
Commandments (1956) to more Israelites in Greatest Story to the
apes in Planet of (1968) to this movie).
It's a lot of laughs, if you want it to be; in retrospect, though,
I've developed an affection for the picture despite (or is it because?)
of its more bizarre conceits--at least it had the courage of its
version is billed as being the most faithful to Matheson's to date.
Not quite; the germ is now the result of a cancer cure run amok,
the setting shifted to New York City--a brilliant stroke, I think.
Easily the best parts of the picture are the early scenes, of Manhattan's
canyonlike avenues totally bereft of life, of row after row of empty
cars parodying rush-hour traffic. Matheson made a mistake setting
his novel in Southern California, I think; you don't think of the
cities there as being very crowded, pre-catastrophe--if anything,
the region has always seemed half-deserted.
Manhattan emphasizes the contrast between before and after dramatically--the
sight of roots breaking through asphalt, of deer and not taxicabs
leaping past intersections is startling indeed. Lawrence, whose
resume consists mainly of the fantasy flick Constantine (2005) and
a slew of music videos, manages to rein himself in for the most
part, relying on crane shots and gliding long takes bereft of any
loud music other than what Neville plays for himself. Lawrence's
restraint enhances the eeriness of this early half admirably, invoking
expectations that, for the first time ever, we have a decent adaptation.
As Robert Neville
Will Smith harkens more to Vincent Price's anguished loner than
Heston's smug iconoclast. Lawrence doesn't let us listen in on Neville's
thoughts, but instead has Neville speak to a dog (in the novel the
animal arrived much later, and played a diminished--if crucial--role)--which
I feel is cheating, but never mind; Smith has matured considerably
as an actor. He's got the personality, gravitas, however you want
to put it to carry a film all by himself, literally (with support
from the dog, and later from a young woman survivor making her way
to a rumored survivors' camp in Vermont).
His--and the movie's--most memorable moment comes when he sits at
the riverbank and sends out his daily radio broadcast for survivors.
"If you are out there... if anyone is out there..." his transmitter
cries out; the scene recalls a similarly haunting moment in Orson
Welles' 1938 War of the Worlds radio play, when a forlorn voice
asked for a response from someone, anyone (tell the truth I suspect
the filmmakers had Welles' broadcast in mind when they did this
When the creatures
finally show up all hope of a decent adaptation crumbles, like a
vampire in sunlight. These monsters turn out to be your standard-issue
CGI constructs, all speed and no substance, and therefore not much
menace. The disappointment is all the keener considering that Dreyer,
Murnau, and Herzog did wonders with makeup and stage effects; why
couldn't Lawrence (word has it that Lawrence did shoot the scenes
using actors in costume and prosthetics, then re-shot them at the
last minute with tacked-on digital baddies)?
The vampires in Matheson's novella, victims of a mindless yet complex
germ that inspired Romero's living dead have become the spastic
crazies that run through the Dawn of the Dead remake (2004), Danny
Boyle's 28 Days Later (2002) and 28 Weeks Later (2007). These "vampires"
(I need to use quotes, they're so lame) have little mystery about
them, much less anything supernatural (Matheson's novel was all
about weeding out the scientifically plausible from the overwhelmingly
fantastic evidence at hand).
is absurd; Lawrence (or possibly relative neophyte Mark Protosevich
and jaded veteran Akiva Goldsman, who did the script) not only works
in several large digitally enhanced explosions, they invert everything
of interest that could be found in Matheson's novel. The "vampires"
remain stupid; if anything, they're a mere step above velociraptors
in terms of intelligence (I enjoy Steven Spielberg's movies, but
I really have to put the blame on his Jurassic Park pictures for
reducing monsters from figures of our id to mere animals on the
Neville, instead of struggling onscreen to learn microbiology and
the rigors of the scientific method, is already a scientist, presumably
to free up more time for them gosh-durned cool explosions (ironically
Neville in the book is far more methodical and rigorous in his research
than Neville onscreen ever was, or could be); the dog has become
yet another Girl Friday instead of being a symbol for Neville's
futile aspirations; the girl has been reduced from ambiguous ally
to mere delivery girl for Neville's redeeming blood (yep, the movie
is less a new adaptation of the novella than it is a remake of The
Omega Man, without the cheesy '70s revisionism).
Worse of all
is the title, an ironic punchline in the novel, a syrupy affirmation
in the movie. Like all great science fiction, Matheson's I Am Legend
went beyond introducing its initial premise; it inverted our concept
of what is normal, conventional, real; it granted the monsters a
point of view (not to mention a basis in scientific fact) and in
fact redefined what being a monster is all about. Lawrence's picture,
like all adaptations of the novel, runs with that initial premise
for a little bit, then transforms back into a run-of-the-mill last-man-on-earth
fantasy (Smith saves the world with his precious blood!). Give me
a break; or rather, give me a real adaptation of Matheson's classic.
Email me at email@example.com
First published in Businessworld, 01.11.08.