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FILM REVIEW: I Am Legend. Starring Will Smith, Alice Braga, Charlie Tahan, Salli Richardson, Willow Smith, Darrell Foster, April Grace, Dash Mihok, and Joanna Numata. Music by James Newton Howard. Cinematography by Andrew Lesnie, A.S.C. Production design by Naomi Shohan. Costume design by Michael Kaplan. Edited by Wayne Wahrman, A.C.E. Screenplay by Mark Protosevich and Akiva Goldsman. Based on the novel by Richard Matheson, and a screenplay by John William Corrington and Joyce Hooper Corrington. Directed by Francis Lawrence.
(Warner Bros./Village Roadshow Pictures, 2007, Technicolor, 101 minutes. MPAA rating: PG-13.)
April 2008 -- Down here in south Texas, I’m occasionally drawn unawares into conversations with congregants of the evangelical Cornerstone Church, whose flock is herded by Pastor John Hagee. Before I can brush off their proselytizing with a terse “you’re barking up the wrong tree; I worship St. Thomas Aquinas and statues of Mary,” I am inevitably informed about the impending End of the World and its attendant Second Coming of one Christ, Jesus H. Invariably, the Left Behind post-apocalyptic book series is recommended for my edification and salvation. Sorry, but the closest thing to the rapture I’m eagerly awaiting is the pending second coming of Led Zeppelin.
What’s up with all this hysteria about the four horsemen drawing nigh, anyway? And, are adherents to this viewpoint really the kind of people you’d want to be hanging around if and when it all goes up in smoke? Can you imagine being subjected for the rest of your days to the bipolar histrionics of talk-radio blowhard Michael Savage or to that Mister Rogers-on-Thorazine environmental doomsayer, Al Gore? I’d sooner play a few rounds of “Hi Bob,” while popping Demerols with shots of tequila (Disclaimer: Do Not Attempt).
The only way to tough it out through the ultimate hard times is with an ironclad American action hero at your side, someone who can stay focused and optimistic while everyone and everything is going to pieces all around him. In the 1980s heyday of the action genre, it was Schwarzenegger, Stallone, and Willis. Today, Will Smith is the movie-going public’s hero of choice, having saved the day time and again in flicks such as Independence Day, Men in Black, and I, Robot.
Their prototype was square-jawed Charlton Heston, who enjoyed a cinematic second wind starring in sci-fi and disaster-action pictures. Whether it was rescuing us from a San Andreas Fault getting fidgety, or from mystery-meat TV dinners, or from plummeting Boeings, or from damned dirty apes, you could always rely on Chuck Heston.
Given Hollywood’s penchant for remakes, perhaps it was inevitable that Smith would soon step into Heston’s shoes. He does so in the latest screen adaptation of the short novel I Am Legend, writtenby sci-fi/fantasy icon Richard Matheson (The Incredible Shrinking Man, Duel, and many “Twilight Zone” and “Star Trek” episodes). I say “latest” because while director Francis Lawrence’s version is a remake of Heston’s 1971 sci-fi cult classic The Omega Man, this is actually the third time that Matheson’s story about the last survivor of a deadly plague has been translated to the big screen. The first, 1964’s The Last Man on Earth, starred B-movie idol Vincent Price in what was probably the version closest to Matheson’s dark novel. (Ironically, Matheson was dissatisfied with how his work was altered by the producers, had his name pulled from that project, and was listed in the credits under the pseudonym “Logan Swanson.”)
I Am Legend opens blithely enough, with a morning-show TV host interviewing scientist Dr. Alice Krippen (Emma Thompson, in an uncredited cameo). Krippen self-assuredly discusses her cure for cancer: genetically engineering the measles virus to attack only undifferentiated cancer cells, thus leaving healthy cells and body organs alone.
Cut to a title: “Three Years Later.” Cut again to downtown and midtown Manhattan: The capital of the world has become a ghost town, and the hollow rush of the wind echoes between the walls of the vacated skyscrapers. As the camera pans across an abandoned, decaying Times Square, the soft chirping of crickets and the twitching of grasshoppers accentuate the desolation.
Dr. Krippen’s cure-all virus has mutated, wiping out virtually all of humanity.
The handful of survivors went through bizarre mutations, degenerating into a zombie race of living dead called “Dark Seekers.” They’re basically your standard-issue zombie horde, howling, spitting, and lurching like animated gargoyles possessed with super-human speed and agility. They reminded me of another human mutant—slugger Barry Bonds, albeit transformed into a psychopathic cannibal with bad cases of vitiligo and rabies.
U.S. Army Lieutenant Colonel Robert Neville (Smith) is the sole immune survivor in the city that never sleeps. As fortune would have it, however, he’s a military virologist, who stayed behind in his fortified Washington Square flat to search for a cure at the “ground zero” (a September 11 reference) of the infection. Neville cruises the empty Manhattan streets by day in a Ford Mustang, with a sniper rifle at the ready in case of attack from zombies and escaped zoo carnivores (poorly inserted into the film’s frames via CGI). At Neville’s side is his sole companion, Samantha, a German shepherd who accompanies him as he methodically goes door-to-door searching for uninfected survivors and scavenging for canned food. Neville carries on constant one-sided conversations with Sam, providing this grim movie’s few moments of comic relief.
Mankind’s sole hope broadcasts radio messages to survivors to meet him each noon at the South Street Seaport, at the foot of the Brooklyn Bridge’s remains. Alas, no one ever shows up. Bereft of human companionship, he kibitzes with the mannequins that populate a video rental store. Although he wisecracks in these imaginary conversations with the same cynical sense of humor as when talking to his dog, Neville betrays his inescapable loneliness as he approaches a chic female mannequin. “Please say hello to me,” he whimpers. As with his radio transmissions, his plea goes unanswered.
His ghoulish daily routine—springing traps for zombies, hauling them back to his laboratory, experimenting on them in search of a cure—is a lot like combat veterans’ description of warfare: long periods of boredom punctuated by moments of sheer terror. Yet Neville shows great resolve despite the utter horror and hopelessness of his situation. As he attempts and fails to hit upon a cure, again and again, he still holds onto a shred of hope, repeating, like a mantra, “I can still fix this. I’m not going to let this happen.” Smith simultaneously projects undying determination and a troubling sense of desperation as convincingly as he did in The Pursuit of Happyness.
Throughout most of the narrative, the zombies remain out of sight, but never out of mind. Although I had a lot of problems with the unevenness of the CGI effects (especially with the herds of deer running effortlessly over asphalt), director Lawrence and production designer Naomi Shohan give viewers a New York City whose familiar landmarks make it all the more eerie. When Neville is hoisted on his own petard in front of an empty Grand Central Station, it seems completely real—and therefore, real frightening.
The unconscious man comes to as the last rays of sunlight recede from the pavement. It’s unsafe to be out at night, for that’s when the zombies and their stalking dogs come out to play. Though Neville dispatches the rabid beasts, Sam is bitten in the harrowing attack and becomes infected. What happens next, I won’t reveal.
Comparisons with The Omega Man are inevitable, and in many ways the 1971 movie had something more for everybody. Including sex: It had a pretty racy (for its time) cocktail-induced coupling of Chuck Heston and black actress Rosalind Cash, featuring what has been billed erroneously as the first interracial screen kiss (in reality, that happened six years prior, between Sidney Poitier and Elizabeth Hartman in A Patch of Blue). I enjoyed the zombies in the Heston version a lot more, as well.
Most disappointing, the screenwriters of I Am Legend stripped the story of its theme: the conflict between the man of mind and the tribal collective. Heston’s Robert Neville was a scientist whose reason was depicted as a threat to the Goth zombies. The latter were led by the charismatic Matthias (Anthony Zerbe), a preacher of death and doom, whose blindly obedient minions called themselves “The Family” (a contemporary allusion to Charles Manson’s gang). In a show trial, they persecute Neville for bringing light into their new Dark Ages; Matthias condemns him as a symbol of scientific progress, reproaching him for the invention of the wheel and weaponry. That movie had a lot of food-for-thought to chew on. In I Am Legend, however, we are fed only generic CGI zombies with the reflexes of leopards, spitting like rabid dogs. The abstract theme vanishes, leaving merely a tale of physical confrontation between Will Smith and killer zombies.
What rescues it is Smith’s portrayal of a scientist who uses the power of his mind to reverse the ravages unleashed on mankind by misguided technology. Man is portrayed as savior from his own sins, and thus the film becomes a powerful tale of hope and redemption. Whereas The Omega Man made for better entertainment, I Am Legend is better crafted. Although it’s darker, it also has tighter focus and narration. It forces the burden of carrying the movie squarely onto Will Smith, and he shoulders it well. He takes Heston’s role as the Last Man on Earth and makes it his own.
Literally and figuratively, I Am Legend is a one-man show. The show has been done better, but by evoking a wide emotional range not usually seen in action flicks, Will Smith elevates this rendition to one still worth watching.