Monday, November 1, 2010

I Am Legend Movie Review: A Legend for the Wrong Reasons

Robert Neville (Will Smith) and Sam stare down the Dark Seekers.

In the opening moments of I Am Legend, the 2007 film based on Richard Matheson’s 1954 novel, Robert Neville (Will Smith) sneaks up on a deer grazing on the streets of New York after chasing it away from a scampering herd in midtown Manhattan. Suddenly a female lion pounces on the deer, stealing what would have been several nice meals for the presumed last man on Earth. The lioness is swiftly followed by her cubs and a stoic male waiting for his share and staring down Neville until he decides the better part of valor is to live to hunt another day. In this sequence the hunter striving for survival is supplanted by a different type of hunter also acting out of self-preservation, suggesting the theme of the source novel – a promise the film never lives up to.

That state of New York and the world in the film is explained only in passing by a prologue newscast of a scientist (Emma Thompson) explaining to a reporter that they have found a cure for cancer. Three years later we see, in overhead CGI-enhanced helicopter shots of Manhattan, what man’s hubris has accomplished. In case you don’t get the message, Neville helpfully asserts later in the film, “God didn’t do this. We did.” The vast emptiness of the city streets eventually gives way to the roar of a car engine as Neville races down the avenue, assault rifle in hand, his only companion, Sam the dog, by his side, chasing down those deer. After the hunt his watch beeps and he peers at the setting sun – time to get home.

Once he’s at home he encloses himself in a veritable fortress, inspired by 28 Days Later, with steel shutters over the windows and an elaborate line of defense. He lies in his bathtub, weapon at hand, while a cacophony of screeches and screams echoes through the streets outside. Although this is meant to be a harrowing experience and one which he doesn’t look forward to I do have to wonder at the look of great distress Smith puts on when he sees the sun going down. Surely after so many hundreds of days with the same routine, he would no longer feel the same sense of concern. The need to return home and close up the house every evening should be standard procedure, not something to look deeply troubled by. But then, it’s a ploy used to signal the viewer that Something Really Bad is coming.

This is just one of the many clunky uses of foreshadowing that screenwriters Akiva Goldsman and Mark Protosevich scatter throughout, including a glimpse of a Time magazine cover proclaiming Neville a “savior,” for it was his work that created the cancer cure that ultimately devastated the human (and dog) population. Another is the not so subtle use of Bob Marley’s music (Neville is a big fan because of the famous incident in which Marley was shot in his home and then performed a live concert two days later saying, “The people who are trying to make this world worse are not taking a day off. How can I? Light up the darkness,”) in particular “Three Little Birds” which opens with the prophetic lyric, “Don’t worry ‘bout a thing ‘cause every little thing is gonna be alright.”

He tells this weak paper-thin parable to a woman (Alice Braga) and a young boy who answer his distress signal broadcasting on a loop to find him at South Street Seaport at midday every day. His recorded message assures anyone listening, “You are not alone.” Did Neville make that message for other potential survivors or as a reassurance to himself?

The terror that comes at night is the infected people, who are now something of a cross between zombies and vampires. In fact, Matheson’s novel may have been the original source of the zombie idea as popularized by George Romero. UV radiation is deadly to the creatures, ominously referred to as Dark Seekers, they feed on blood, and they live in ‘hives.’

Through the occasional flashback we learn that Neville was a high-ranking military scientist whose wife and young child were evacuated from the island of Manhattan in an attempt to quarantine the disease. Neville stayed behind to try to fix the problem he ostensibly created. His work continues in an elaborate basement laboratory in his house, using the antibodies of his own immune blood to test different serums on infected rats. Occasionally he has a breakthrough and has to catch one of the Dark Seekers to test it on a human subject. This has produced failure upon failure.

Director Francis Lawrence is clearly an effective action director. And with the film clocking in at a trim 100 minutes, he obviously knows a thing or two about pacing. There is one truly effective sequence that conjures a feeling of tremendous dread from what is unseen but heard when Sam disappears inside a dark building. Neville is so attached to the one companion he has that he risks everything to go in after him. But the problems abound and, in addition to the ham-handed handling of the material, they are mainly to do with the digital rendering of the creatures. The lions in the early hunt scene are merely a couple of stops up the evolutionary ladder from The Lion King, but still a long way from The Chronicles of Narnia. The Dark Seekers are the biggest distraction. They don’t look or move like human beings. Why not employ actors to play them? They would look textured, they would move like animate (as opposed to animated) beings. There is nothing the creatures do that couldn’t be performed convincingly by sentient beings on set. Likewise there is no physical feature they have that couldn’t be produced by a decent makeup department. CGI was used because it’s cheaper and less time-consuming, but the result is a cheap looking film.

As to the theme of the novel versus the lame film adaptation, the novel turns out to be a commentary on evolutionary change and a recognition that humans in their present form will not be around for eternity. In the end the creatures replace uninfected people as the dominant species, rebuilding society in their own image. Neville recognizes eventually that he has become the exception to the new world order, the title referring to him as a figure of the past. There’s real potential in that ending. It’s dystopian, honest, and contemplative. But because blockbusters pander to the lowest common denominator we’re left instead with the obligatory happy ending and Will Smith taking another step toward replacing Morgan Freeman as Hollywood’s Magical Negro.


  1. The sad thing is that the Dark Seekers originally WERE portrayed by actors, after which Lawrence---dissatisfied with their onscreen appearance---decided to "improve" them (at the last minute and, presumably, great expense) with CGI. Like you, I'm convinced that anything the actors did would have been more convincing and/or had more character than those lame computerized critters. One small correction: it's not quite accurate to say that Neville's family was evacuated, since they were killed in a helicopter crash in the process. For a more faithful version of the novel, check out Vincent Price in THE LAST MAN ON EARTH, and for further information on both films, plus the Charlton Heston incarnation, THE OMEGA MAN, see my book RICHARD MATHESON ON SCREEN (, now on sale.

  2. I didn't know that about the film's production. That's helpful information. Thanks a lot.

    A note on your pointing out my inaccuracy: I wrote it that way in an attempt to avoid a spoiler.

  3. Which I've now spoiled. Sincerest apologies.