Title: I Am Legend
Novel by Richard Matheson
Movie directed by Francis Lawrence; starring Will Smith
Today the most recent movie adaptation of Richard Matheson’s classic vampire story I Am Legend comes out on dvd. The novel is one of my favorite of all time, the inspiration for many a story (be it book or movie).
The book begins with an up close and personal look at Robert Neville, the last man on earth. Robert is holed up in his home, desperately trying to block out the taunts and howls of the creatures outside. Every day Robert goes out of his home, gathers what paltry supplies he can, reloads on garlic bulbs and repairs any damage done to his defenses from the night before. At sunset, he locks himself in his home and waits for the sun to rise again…and he is slowly losing his mind. Everyone on earth has been infected with a virus that results in death, and then resurrection as an undead creature with a hunger for human blood. The vampires who knew Neville in life also know him in death, and they return to taunt him, the woman torturing him by preying on his sexual hungers, the men wailing and persuading. All the vampires tell Neville to come out, give up, it’s only a matter of time before he becomes one of them.
It’s a lonely life for Neville. After countless nights of this slow verbal torture, Neville decides to take some initiative and hunt the vamps during the day. He also devotes himself to figuring out what exactly the vampires are–why wooden stakes kill them, why garlic and certain symbols repel them. Since Neville is no scientist, he puzzles out this information through text books and random tests. For example, Neville’s old neighbor was Jewish in life, and after taking a practical hands-on approach, Neville finds that crucifixes have no effect on him, but a star of David does. Similarly, Neville struggles through the causes of Vampirism, deducing after reading through biology texts that the most logical culprit is a ‘germ’, and that Neville himself has a natural immunity.
This novel is an exercise in the human condition. The loneliness and desperation that Neville feels is palpable on every page. When Neville discovers a dog that is also unaffected by the germ, his excitement and hope for companionship is heartbreaking. The last quarter of the story involves a heckuva twist that I don’t even want to touch on for fear of giving anything away. Suffice to say that it is mind-blowingly wonderful, and gives great significance to the title.
Robert Neville (Will Smith) and Samantha
At the end of last year, the most recent film adaptation hit theaters (I say most recent because a number of films have been inspired or based on this story, from Vincent Price’s The Last Man on Earth to George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead), this time starring Will Smith as the title character. This newest movie adaptation modernizes the story and takes significant liberties, especially with the ending. This Robert Neville is a military doctor, and is the last man in New York city. The movie begins in the near future with an interview of a doctor that has discovered the cure for Cancer by genetically modifying a strain of measles. The interview is hopeful and promises only happiness for the future…and then the scene cuts to a shot of New York City, three years later.
These images of the abandoned, derelict city are incredibly powerful and stunning. It turns out that the genetically modified cure mutated into a lethal virus that ended up decimating over 90% of the human population. 9% of the population became infected with the virus and did not die, but instead degenerated into sunlight sensitive, feral creatures. The remaining 1% showed immunity to the virus…Dr. Robert Neville among them. However, Neville seems to be the only human survivor left. Every day he goes out to the docks by the Brooklyn Bridge and broadcasts a signal that says he will be waiting there, and every day no one shows up. Unlike the Robert Neville in the book, the Will Smith version has a trusty companion in his domesticated dog–and I think this adds a sense of relateability to the movie. The viewers feel Neville’s solitude through the value he places on his only companion–and it is truly heart wrenching.
Concept art of NYC
The first 3/4 of the movie are brilliant. Will Smith is flawless in his performance. He is a true star with incredible acting ability. This is a far cry from his days as the Fresh Prince. He honestly manages to do what Tom Hanks did for Castaway. I loved the oppressive, isolated feel to the movie, and the dimensions that Mr. Smith brought to the character of Robert Neville.
However. BIG however. The last 1/4 of the movie was complete and utter crap, in my honest opinion. Instead of staying true to the book, the movie indulges in some pseudo-spiritual bs. Which is NOTHING like the excellent ending of the book. I was so very disappointed with how things turned out in the movie. Not only was the conclusion terrible, but I also felt that the adaptation of the “vampires” themselves were horrible. Instead of human actors for the infected, CGI versions were used. This is a main gripe of mine in general–I don’t understand why so many movies shy away from plain, old fashioned makeup techniques and instead focus on completely fake looking CGI. It’s distracting and ultimately looks cheap. The infected in this movie would have been so much more terrifying if they didn’t look so fake. Just…ugh. Moreover, the infected in the movie were not vampires at all. They were hypersensitive to light and seemed to be attracted to the smell of blood…but that’s about where the comparison ends.
Having said all this, I still think that the solid acting performance by Will Smith, the tone and beautifully haunting images from the first 3/4 of the movie is brilliant, and worth watching (heck, even owning if you are a dvd collector like myself) for that alone. Plus, the dvd is said to have an alternate ending, hopefully one that is not as terrible as the theatrical version.
Verdict: The book is a classic, and should be read by everyone. The movie begins strong, but ultimately makes that finish line stumble so popular with modern horror movies. Had the writers simply stuck with the novel, this movie would have been an easy 9. As it stands, I would still recommend watching the movie, but after reading the novel.
Novel – 10 One of the Best Books I have ever read
Movie – 6 Good, recommend with reservations