| Richard Matheson’s classic 1953 sci fi novel I Am Legend
deserves its reputation as a great read, and it is surely the best
thing the man ever produced; as others of his novels and short stories
are rather generic (save for a few The Twilight Zone television
adaptations). That book is the granddaddy of modern undead cinema and
literature- from vampires to Carnival Of Souls and the George Romero
Dead films, to their parodies and updates, like 28 Days Later. It also
was a successor to Daniel DeFoe’s Robinson Crusoe, in its handling of
human loneliness, and precursor to Pierre Boulle’s Planet Of The Apes
novel and films, in its post-apocalyptic tones. Twice before the 2007
Will Smith take on the film it was released as a Vincent Price vehicle,
in 1964, and titled The Last Man On Earth. Seven years later Charlton
Heston, that Apes film franchise alum, essayed the role in The Omega
So, flashforward four decades and one gets the wisecrackin’, vanilla wiseass Negroisms of the former Fresh prince, Will Smith, in directorial hack Francis Lawrence’s version. To say that he is miscast as the lone survivor of the tale, Robert Neville, is an understatement as vast as the film’s budget. While the novel was set in Los Angeles, the Smith film is set in New York- specifically Manhattan. Why pick this most trite of settings to show loneliness? Because, claim the film’s producers, because it’s always so busy that to see it empty would be a shock. Well, no, not if one has seen the Harry Belafonte post-apocalyptic film from the 1950s- The World, The Flesh, And The Devil. Not if one had seen Martin Scorsese’s After Hours, or John Sayles’ The Brother From Another Planet, or at least four to five dozen other lesser known films. But, then again, this is a Hollywood film, and the collective memory in that industry is about 18 months.
The actual story is simple: Neville believes he is the last man in New York, possibly the world, after a cure for cancer, made by Dr. Alice Krippin (Emma Thompson, in an unbilled role) mutates with a rabies virus to become a virus that causes most humans to become cannibalistic ultraviolet light-avoiding superstrong zomboid things. It’s not so much that the science is implausible (hell, even Romero’s zombies moved only until their flesh rotted away- their shelf life was only a few months) but that the special effects in this film are absolutely dreadful. The zombies are all CGI, and as expressive as Shrek (whose film is pimped in a few background scenes where Smith does his Happy Negroisms), and there are many pointless scenes, such as the film’s opening that shows Smith and his dog hot rodding down Manhattan in chase of totally phony looking deer. Neville spends his time trying to cure the zombies, occasionally catching and treating them. They all fail, until a female zombie seems to get a bit better. By that time, however, the head zombie has been able to find out where Neville lives because, after he barely escapes a trap set for him (which mirrored the trap he set for the female zombie- a nice touch), and his dog is attacked by zombie dogs and dies, Neville tries to suicide.
Then, comes the deus ex machina that almost all bad fiction has, or at least, that signals the viewer (already not savvy enough to pick up on the prior Dumbest Possible Action tropes) that this is bad fiction. With his car overturned, and about to be overrun by zombies (or drown him in the Hudson River), Neville is saved by a blinding flash of light from a South American woman, Anna (Alice Braga), who believes she is an agent of God, and child, Ethan (Charlie Tahan), who have heard his radio message and sailed into New York. How they do this, aside from a flash of light, is never shown nor explained, but this rescue eventually leads to the zombies following the trio back to Neville’s home, where, the next night, they attack. Neville and the other two are forced into his laboratory, behind some superstrong glass. Here is where we get two versions of the film. On the two disk DVD set, from Warner Brothers, we get the original theatrical ending, and an alternate version. Neither is good, but the alternate ending is a little bit better. In the original, the girl and child are sealed in a vault until morning, and as the head male zombie tries to bash his way in, Neville detonates a grenade that kills himself and the zombies. The girl and child make it to a Vermont retreat, filled with unaffected humans, and spread the legend of Neville, who made a serum to save mankind from the female zombie he was trying to cure. In the alternate version, Neville gives the female zombie to the head male zombie, for they seem to be mates, and the zombies retreat. There is no cure, and the trio head out of New York to search for the Vermont retreat- presumably in a car waiting on the Bronx or New Jersey mainland since all the bridges and tunnels in and out of Manhattan were destroyed in the island’s quarantine.
The alternate ending is a bit closer to the original book’s ending, save that Neville survives, whereas the theatrical version is more typically Hollywood in its ending. But, neither is worth a damn. Smith’s acting is atrocious- his typical mugging. This works in lightweight crap like Independence Day or Men In Black, but I Am Legend is a far deeper and richer work whose essence has been raped in this adaptation. Like Tom Cruise and Leonardo DiCaprio, Smith has absolutely no range as an actor- and don’t give me that, ‘He was great in Six Degrees Of Separation,’ crap. It is interesting to note that with each successive version of Matheson’s work the films get farther away from the source novel and consequentially worse. The Vincent Price version, at least, had Matheson write parts of the screenplay, although uncredited. The rest of the acting is just as bad- both human and CGI. The screenplay is, as if you had not guessed, even worse than the acting, and the cinematography is almost nonexistent, in terms of aesthetics.
The DVD features are as bad. The second disk, with the alternate ending, has nothing, while Disk One, with the theatrical release, has a few bad cartoons inspired by the hour and forty minute long film. Other than that, one has to put the DVD into a computer to see two rather pallid featurettes. One is a pretentious bit trying to tie the film into modern pandemic viral threats like AIDS, Ebola, and assorted flus. The second one is standard making of fare. There is no audio commentary, and overall, for such a big budget film, the bonus features are sheer garbage. Both versions of the film are shown in 2.35:1 aspect ratios.
All in all, I Am Legend is even a disappointment if one went in expecting disappointment. There is no deeper examination of loneliness, just shots of aloneness. The threat to Neville has been dumbed down- in earlier versions he is the threat. In this film, he is the threatened. The female he meets is a religious bubblehead, rather than a plant from the semi-zomboids that are looking to start a New Breed. And on and on goes the watering down. The film fails as both an adaptation, and if seen without knowledge of its forebears. But, aside from its Hollywoodization stripping the tale of its relevance and depth, this film version even fails its low Hollywoodized standards of success- it’s dull, poorly made, and has not a second of suspense. It is a retard’s retard. But, as I always seek to give credit where it’s due, let me state to that grandfather of Hollywood dumbing down, ‘Thanks for nothing, Mr. Spielberg!’
Copyright © by Dan Schneider
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