Will Smith, Alice Braga, Dash Mihok, Charlie Tahan…and Abbey.
When a contagion spreads across the planet and turns the human race into bloodthirsty mutants, civilization’s last hope for survival lies with scientist Robert Neville, the last normal man on Earth.
Richard Matheson’s writing has never been regarded as “subtle.” In fact, his work has been compared to the literary equivalent of being bashed in the head with a sledgehammer, and this an alleged complement. Then again, there’s nothing really subtle about the concept of being ridden down by an unholy fleet of blood-sucking vampires out to chew your ass, which happens to be attached to the only human left on the planet. Pressure.
For those not in the know, Matheson was a quietly prolific writer of suspense and science fiction; some of his work was translated to many original episodes of the seminal TV series The Twilight Zone. For those in the know, he penned the classics “Nightmare At 20,000 Feet,” “The Invaders” and “Third From The Sun” (oh yeah…that guy). Steven Speilberg’s first feature, Duel, was based on the short story of the same name. Several of his novels were adapted for Hollywood also, like Hell House, What Dreams May Come (which won an Oscar), A Stir Of Echoes and, yes, I Am Legend.
That particular novel has been made into a movie four times, including this version as well as the classic adaptations starring the inimitable Vincent Price and that damned dirty ape-hater Charlton Heston. So in long, Matheson’s fantastical work has proven to be quite versatile and malleable for the silver screen, stylized to fit the tastes and times. In short, he’s Stephen King’s favorite author and primary influence. Both say something about earning an audience.
That being said, it begs the question: “Four times?!?” What, they didn’t get it right the first three?
In this our 21st Century, we moviegoers have been bombarded with remakes of classic (and not so classic) movies. Here’s a story: years ago, 2004 into ’05, when I was a practicing alcoholic (I got real good at it too) and had a lot of down time to indulge in whiskey and cinema, I noticed a lot of commercials for new movies that I knew to be remakes. Since I had the time, I decided to keep track of how many films came out that year that were either remakes, reboots or sequels (or even prequels).
I counted 40. I sh*t you not. I double-checked this via the IMDb.
Forty. That’s a lot of laziness on behalf of Hollywood. And a mean way to fleece money off people. I guess the bigwigs figured the majority of moviegoers were either too lazy or too ignorant and wouldn’t bat an eyelash for a retread of a pre-existing film. Americans in general already have miniscule attention spans already; nostalgia is breakfast. Maybe the movie moguls were right. It might explain why I Am Legend is the fourth iteration of this movie whose origins span 40 years into the past. That’s pre-Internet, so what’d you expect?
Wait, wait. I’m not saying all remakes are bad. Some are quite good, like Hitchcock’s second go-round with The Man Who Knew Too Much, John Sturges’ classic western The Magnificent Seven, or even Mark Waters’ much-needed update of Freaky Friday. So before we pass (anymore) judgment, let’s pick apart the latest version of a classic man-versus-vampires epic and see on which side of fence it falls…
Geneticist Robert Neville (Smith) was a specialist for the US Army. Was. His life has changed a bit since then. In 2009, the men in the white lab coats made a breakthrough in medical science. The good news, by a means of introducing a retrograde virus into the subject’s recombinant DNA, they have found a cure for cancer. The bad news, it might turn you into a bloodthirsty freak. Uh-oh.
Fast forward three years. Earth is a wilderness. Manhattan is a desert island. The once proud skyline is crumbling. Nature has reasserted herself. No taxicabs. No Internet. No Starbucks. Not a human soul remains. Save one. Robert Neville. By all means, he’s the last human on Earth. Immune to the plague he inadvertently helped in creating and dodging any mutant that might cross his threshold.
During the day, Robert whiles the daylight away by hunting, foraging, playing golf off of the tail of an SR-71 Blackbird and just trying to keep busy or else lose his mind. He holes himself up in lab in the basement of his Washington Square brownstone, now a bunker, trying to cook up a remedy for the virus that has turned Earth’s populace into what are essentially vampires. Dark Seekers are the technical terms. By night he locks down the house, cracks out the heavy artillery and waits for day to come. All the while things outside are going bump in the night.
Time alone is endless. Well, Robert’s not exactly alone. His only companion is his German Shepherd Sam (Abbey), an anchor of sanity in his lonely purgatory. And a reminder of his past, when things were simpler and a lot less bloody. She’s his best buddy, and together they’re like a married couple. There are scary things out there. Best keep tight to your friends…friend.
Like clockwork, Robert broadcasts on the AM dial a distress/rescue message to any survivors out there. It’s a call of sanction, but moreover it’s a plea for help. Because every day that dies into night might be his last day. After all, for a man that’s lost everything—everything—in his world, it’d be nice to share the nothingness with another human being.
Will Dr. Neville find a cure for the virus? Will he survive the onslaught of hungry mutants? Is he doomed to be alone forever? Only time will tell, and Robert Neville has nothing but that…
This film received some inordinate bits of flack by critics and audiences alike. Mostly directed at Smith. Like I noted in my After Earth dissection, I figure Smith is tiring of the maverick, comical roles he’s made his money on. Audiences seem like they’re not ready for a serious, dour individual like Robert. Like all the characters he’s portrayed most of his career, people would prefer to have Agent Jay or even the Fresh Prince up there on the big screen. But like with Adam Sandler’s constant re-hashing the buffoon roles, occasionally you gotta pull a Punch Drunk Love.
I Am Legend is not your conventional vampire movie. For one, the term “vampire” isn’t mentioned once. The Dark Seekers are not pseudo-romantic, quasi-sexual beings of immortal emulation. They’re fucking freaks. An abomination to God and Nature. A plague, and the film depicts that as so; swarming rabid things crammed full of viruses. Redolent stinking hordes of shrieking rats preying on anything that bleeds. Have I made my point yet? Right. The Dark Seekers are very rather chilling and quite effective at establishing and maintaining Neville’s solitary nightmare atmosphere.
And poor Bob is stranded alone on Earth with the lot of them. In fact, “stranded” may be the key term that describes the feel of the film. For over an hour into the film, Smith is the only actor, not counting Abbey of course. We walk by his side, we only sees things that he sees, we truly live through it all vicariously through the character Robert Neville. We, as an audience, are stranded with him. Neville’s pathos is so consuming that as the movie progresses, you start to wonder if kind of relishes his solitude; wear it like a badge of pride or as sackcloth and ashes? He was directly responsible for the plague after all. Guilt can be a powerful weapon. So much so that it becomes ever obvious that Neville may be losing his mind. Wouldn’t you?
It’s good that Legend is quickly engaging. Not as in “fast pace.” The movies gets your attention very swiftly, and fails to falter. It has an urgent agendum, and quietly sweeps you up. This happens despite for the first half hour, all we really see is Neville driving through deserted streets of a ruined Manhattan, scrounging for food and sundries (yes, I used the word sundries) and tooling around in his lab. Smith is adopting a stoic, silent type of leading man, letting his actions tell the story. At this he does a fine job. A sort of relatable everyman in a dire circumstance. Him wandering the landscape gently affixes his sense of solitude to the viewer. By the way, how do filmmakers clear the streets like that? I mean, some of it is CGI, but the rest?
Speaking of CGI, I had a real issue (but not a big one) with the digitally rendered…well, everything in Legend. The effects were rather weak. You could almost smell the green screen wafting off the projector. What would be assumed to enhance the ferocity of the Dark Seekers only made them look rubbery and cartoon-like (still, rubbery scary cartoons). I admit I was watching a DVD on an HD television, but I’ve seen lower tech movies and the patchiness didn’t seep through. What the vamps lacked in looks, however, was made up for with screeches. So bravo Dolby.
The only other gripe I had was the film’s resolution. It had sort of a “duh” feeling to it. Considering what kind of man Robert Neville is, one would think he’d come to the proper conclusion light years ago. This would make the film really short though, and not worth the ten bucks admission. So we’ll ignore that as best we can for now.
Legend is very stark film, not unlike Matheson’s fiction. There is very little subtlety involved in the story. Bob’s alone, struggling to retain a sense of normalcy and avoiding the baddies. Not much else to the plot. You don’t really wonder if he’ll get out of this hell, nor do you invest much interest in that. It’s just watching him running errands basically. This was, in fact, the general feel of the novel some critics have said.
There are still very little amenities here. For instance, what attempts as humor here, doesn’t. It’s difficult to tell if it’s intentional or not. Smith has been understood as a comical presence in Hollywood, after all. And as for his acting, it’s some of the best he’s done in years. He’s essentially carrying the movie more or less by himself. He better be good. Again, and I hate to keep hammering on this, Neville’s sense of isolation really fills up the white space here.
Speaking of filling up space, there is next to no soundtrack. Silence—the absence of man-made noises like cars and general hustle and bustle—again creates the feeling of a desolate planet. How could you feel alone with smartphones bleeping everywhere? Like I said, stark.
Overall Legend was a pretty good little slice of cinema. I say little because it was released in the middle of December. Oscar time, not blockbuster time. And since it recouped only (yes, only) $100,000,000 at the box office, you could say it was a loss leader for Smith. Seeing that the original Men In Black movie raked in over $500,000,000, Will might have a long-ass time to go to shed some skin.
I liked Legend. I wouldn’t want to watch it again. For all its stylistic efforts, it lacked that je en sais quai I get from time to time, even from the bad sh*t I am tricked into watching. As I said it wasn’t typical Will Smith fare. Still, it had some merit as far as remakes go. It kept closer to the original source material, but even the tightest scenarists should know that following the book line for line leaves little room for interpretation. All that gooey solitude of the movie that I keep harping on was engrossing, but it did get tedious after a time. Maybe too much alone time with Will Smith’ll do that to you. Then again, the same can be said of Mathson’s stories.
Rent it or relent it? Rent it. Then turn it off. Then go read the book. Alone. In the dark. Get it?
- “Just the way you like it: disgusting.”
- I read once that Smith and Abbey would spend “sessions” alone for weeks at a time before, during and after filming so that they could create a special bond. Talk about creating on screen chemistry.
- Saw the accident with the knife coming. Smith’s scream is priceless.
- “It’s my birthday. You wanna sing?”
- “Please say hello to me.” Pretty much captures the spirit of the film.
- The toss away line, “Let’s say hello to mom” has a deeper gravity later in the film. It might be a nod to a theme Matheson employed in his fiction. Or maybe it was lifted directly form the source text. I dunno.
- Nice detail with the weight loss. The flashback scenes feature Smith as sort of well-fed. Later in the film he looks as if he’s aged ten years.
- “I like Shrek.”
Billy Crudup feels just like Jesus’ Son, but not in a messianic kind of way.