When a major feature film is adapted from an iconic and much beloved source it is impossible not to compare the film to the original story. “The Lord of the Rings“, “The DaVinci Code” and “The Chronicles of Narnia” are some recent examples of film adaptations of classic or very popular fiction whose fans are legion and result in close scrutiny of the movies. “I Am Legend” starring Will Smith is just such a film.
Richard Matheson published “I Am Legend” in 1954, and the novel has become a standard of modern science fiction. It had already been adapted twice for film, once in 1964 as “The Last Man on Earth” starring Vincent Price, and also as 1971’s “The Omega Man” starring Charlton Heston. Neither film was a particularly close adaptation of the Matheson original (although “The Last Man on Earth” was not too far off). This latest “I am Legend” again takes great liberties with the story and in some cases completely changes the most basic premises of the original.
As I have mentioned before I have no problem with changes to the source material of an adapted movie if it means it makes it into a better film. Books are books and the dynamic of that medium are far different than film… sometimes you just can’t make the translation. There are several examples of that with this movie, but overall I feel that the horror that made the original so gripping was given up on early in the film in favor of a more conventional zombie post-apocalyptic flick.
Will Smith plays Robert Neville, a military scientist who was part of an anti-viral program to try to stem the spread of a mutanted virus that began life as a cure for cancer but is now wiping out the human race. The virus doesn’t neccesarily kill. Those it infects but who survive become enraged, ultra-violent zombies who cannot survive in sunlight. They are mindless killing machines who in turn wipe out the few who are not infected or have some natural immunity. Neville is apparently the last surviving unaffected human, living in New York City three years after the virus took over. He is hiding out in a fortified town home with his uninfected german shepard, where he continues his research to try and find a cure for the zombies. The story revolves around Neville’s efforts to both find a cure and stay sane in the face of incomprehensible loneliness.
The film departs wildly from the book almost right away. The Robert Neville of Matheson’s original was an ordinary man, not a super-soldier-scientist with a realistic crack at a cure. In the book Neville’s struggles to understand the virus and it’s oddities drives much of our understanding of his flawed nature. The virus itself creates creatures much closer to actual vampires than depicted in the film, and Matheson was one of the first fiction writers to attempt to explain a creature previously considered supernatural in scientific terms. Neville’s existence is also well known by the vampires in the novel, who nightly turn his home into a besieged island. The vampire’s also demonstrate some mental capacity rather than being mindless horrors as they seem to be in the film, which makes them all the more terrifying in Matheson’s tale. For example, in the book a former workmate of Neville’s named Ben Cortman torments him as a vampire nightly, screaming “COME OUT, NEVILLE!” all night as Neville’s sanity begins to unravel. The film adaptation’s changes to the nature of the relationship between Neville and the infected creatures takes away much of the terror that the original teemed with.
Not that this film misses the mark entirely. Changing the setting for the story from southern California to New York City gave director Francis Lawrence a chance to create one of the creepiest and most convincing post-apocalyptic environments ever seen in the movies. A deserted and weed filled Times Square whistles with wind in it’s dead silence, while herds of deer leap among deserted cars in the streets and other animals prowl the reclaimed-by-nature Big Apple. The effect is truly disturbing.
The film quickly turns into the standard zombie fare however, when Neville has to follow his dog into a darkened building and runs into the zombies. Here is where the filmmakers really dropped the ball. The zombies are all CGI, and they are just not convincing. Looking like vieny rubber people who’s mouths open impossibly large when they roar and have a glassy eyed but flat expression, they are only scary in a shocking way in that they jump out of the shadows at top speed. CGI is still not up to doing realistic human figures well enough to mesh with live action actors, and they would have done much better to have used actors in make-up for the close-ups leaving the CGI for the action sequences.
Will Smith’s performance is what saves this film from being a souped up George A. Romero zombie-fest. His portrayal of an obsessed man who’s sanity is slowing unraveling with loneliness is played subtly and to great effect. He is tortured by his failure to protect his family and to stop the virus, and still tries to make things right as he struggles with the solitude of knowing he is perhaps the last man on earth. The connection he has with the dog is that of a man to his life vest in the open ocean. All of it plays across Smith’s face with the kind of emotional range that is seldom seen in sci-fi movies. He manages to capture some of the essential pathos of Matheson’s original character, even if he is in this case written to be much less flawed and much more virtuously heroic.
The action is at times very intense, and eventually there is evidence that the zombies are themselves mutating or evolving into thinking beings capable of understanding concepts like revenge. The ending is also completely different from the book, which although depressing was the explanation for the title itself. In the book, Neville is captured by the living vampire infected who are going to execute him because, he realizes, they consider HIM to be the terrible and feared creature of evil who kills them in their sleep rather than the other way around. He has become the legend, the daylight vampire of the new world. The films’ conventional end has none of that deep twist.
Still, it’s a worthy thrill ride even if the zombies in “28 Days Later” were 100 times scarier. Will Smith’s performance alone makes it a must see.
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