RIORI Redux: Francis Lawrence’s “I Am Legend” Revisited


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The Players…

Will Smith, with Alice Braga, Dash Mihok, Charlie Tahan and…Abbey.


The Story…

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.


The Rant (2013)

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.

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 f*cking 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 it all vicariously through Robert Neville and only him. 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.


Rant Redux (2019)…

I Am Legend was cut back in the “remake era” of moviedom, whatever that’s supposed to mean. According to some pop culture pundits we’re presently in the “reboot era.” What’s the diff and the point? In the original intro above I groused about the quadrillion remakes of good and not-so-good movies from yesteryear (EG: the 2000s), claiming—perhaps rightly so—Hollywood had gotten lazy, ran out of original ideas or banked on the notion of how Millennial sense of history is so palsied. Might have the hattrick there. In the end run audiences got bored with all the “new boss same as the old boss” folderol and the ticket taker showed exactly that. Despite Legend being one of the better remakes, the cracks were starting to show even then.

Now we have studios rebooting every franchise they can ferret out of the pre-WiFi vault. Probably also hedging their bets on Millennial knowledge of history, with all the world info in their pockets yet can’t work an ancient rotary dial phone. That’s not an insult; they could ask Alexa. You hear what I’m screaming? Right. I’d like to think that Gen X was the last generation that appreciates nostalgia. One doesn’t need nostalgia now; we have Facebook et al. Not a swipe, it’s true. That and most Millennials are so very forward-thinking, not ones to dwell on things left undone. There’s work to be done, achievements to reach, goals to scratch off the great To Do List of life. Who has time for longing after that year old memory? We have new ones to make!

Okay. Sorry. That’s as schmaltzy as I’m ever gonna get. Here.

So what does all that mean with this rebooting trend? Hollywood is trolling the Millennials. There were a lot of cool-ass movies series back in the ancient 80s and 90s (and 00s. Sigh). Let’s dress them up in some flash togs and market them to the forward-thinking brats and introduce the (market) value of nostalgia for stuff they never knew. Or wanted to. Or needed to. Do we really need another Bill & Ted sequel?

Sure. Rebooting isn’t necessarily a bad thing nor a cash cow. Picking up where we last left off is common in other media. Like when a rock group decides to reunite and tour. Or some spin-off of a popular TV series (EG: Cheers begat Fraiser, the many Star Trek series and the prequel Young Sheldon from Big Bang. Okay, two outta three ain’t bad). Or when some writer brings back a popular character for a new novel, like Jack Ryan, Lestat or every-bloody character from Kurt Vonnegut’s body of work. Jump-starting that rusted engine now and again allows the next generation of talent to see if their dog will hunt as Big Cinema crosses its arthritic fingers.

Rebooting, remaking, whatever. Hollywood is a business, commerce, trafficking in entertainment. At its core, like all bottom lines, Hollywood wants to make money, not art. If a film becomes “art” it does so by no means attached to the studios’ mission statements. A fine example is the classic Casablanca. No one intended it to be a classic, endlessly quotable, ideal ensemble piece during its production. No. Michael Curtiz was interested Howard Koch and friends’ concept of a film version of the play Everybody Comes To Rick’s. Only after the word-of-mouth, quotable quotes and ensuing awards, boom: classic. The film was made under the old studio system, so free press and agency were no-gos, not to mention the scalding absence of social media. Meaning: nope, Curtiz and company just had a job to, and the film itself was riddled with production problems and budgetary concerns despite being the nice, neat romantic triangle movie under the now standard 100 minutes long.

BTW: Trivia! Casablanca is the most quoted movie in Hollywood history. So here’s looking at you.

All that being said, remakes and its red-headed stepchild reboots can be a good thing. It all depends on the context and construct. Those two factors carry a lot of weight, especially when the movie in question is based on pre-exisiting media, like Legend was. Like with sequels, remakes and reboots have to demand: “Well, is there more of the story to tell? What can be added? What can be excised? Will it make money? Could you get off Instagram for one darn minute, Mr Producer?”

Re-whatever is a good thing if they can enhance a movie’s legacy. It’s hard to determine that if the continuous iterations fumble with the atmosphere of the originals against the story’s original potency, which invites future interpretations. Also what counts as a “re?” Consider all the adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays. How many times has Romeo And Juliet been spun? We have from the definitive Zeffirelli version to the hip, 90s take with Leo DiCaprio and Claire Daines in their respective, titular roles. How about master Japanese director Akira Kurosawa plundering the Bard’s catalogue with samurai infused films like Throne Of Blood and Ran? Or even George Lucas plundering Kurosawa’s oeuvre gaffing-taping the plot of 1958’s The Hidden Fortress onto Star Wars: A New Hope? Christ, even the original Die Hard was ripped from a pedestrian novel.

Did all this creative theft prove right? Yes, if any of the above movies seem salient. Like way above, Legend was made into a movie four times over. I guess the story lent to fresher interpretations, and most of them were entertaining and made money. Unfortunately that’s the bitter bottom line, but occasionally those dollars made meant something. I did not intend for this revision to become a relatively even-handed screed about the pros and cons of re-anything, but the nature of Legend‘s being done again again lent some credence. I’d like to think so.

Oh, and as a coda: It was good to see Smith stretching himself by performing a one-man show, a la Tom Hanks in Castaway. That was the best part about the movie. If I Am Legend gets another do-over (I think it will), leave in all that solitude business. It kinda reminds me of myself carrying on this way to precious no one.

Hello? Wait, was it something I said? Come back, Shane!

(That last line was totally lost on the Millennials, despite its riffs in endless memes.)


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Sustained: rent it. We all need an awkwardly moody vampire/character study now and again.


Epilogue…

Well, that’s it, friends. Sanded off the rough edges of my early entries. Feels good to know after revisiting them I didn’t come across as a vomiting demon most of the time. Mostly. I suppose more barf may come up in future installments. Thanks to the evil social media I’ve learned my bile has become a stock-in-trade. I guess thanks are in order. You’re welcome.

So now it’s off to fertile fields. New territory. Gerard Butler to put in place. Business as usual. Hope you stay tuned. Excelsior!


Next Installment…

My man Don Cheadle is ex-con-turned-DJ Ralph “Petey” Green demanding his audience to Talk To Me so he may face the consequences.


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