When I was in San Diego this past summer, Mrs. Speculator and I went to a panel regarding the comics DC was doing in association with the upcoming movie I Am Legend. Part of what was really gratifying about the panel was that Will Smith’s personal assistant was at the panel, talking about how devoted Smith was to doing a good adaptation. In addition, the son of the author of the original story was at the panel describing how good a retelling this version was going to be. So when we went to see the movie, we had high expectations. Sadly, I think most of those expectations went unfulfilled.
Will Smith does a very fine job of playing Robert Neville, dancing on the fine line between sanity and insanity. Until the audience is shown the vampiric remainders of civilization, the story is a fairly solid last man on earth scenario, much like The Quiet Earth. The quiet scenes of the steps he takes to try to overcome the virus that has affected humanity and the daily schedule that Neville keeps with himself are evocative. Despair resonates as Neville travels the empty city with his dog and his memories as his only companions. The story of the evacuation of New York and Neville’s family are told in flashback, but I can’t say what they really add to the story. It’s enough to know that he is alone and that he has lost his family, so the minute details of the crushing car ride through the city on their way to the evacuation point don’t add any information that are essential to the story-telling. In fact, I think we have seen these kinds of crowd scenes handled better, from the likes of the recent remake of War of the Worlds. But it is the Neville that talks to himself that is riveting, as well as the steps he takes to maintain a sense of normality in the most abnormal circumstances.
But then the antagonists show up and things fairly rapidly deteriorate from a story-telling point of view. Part of the problem is that when they are seen full on, they are done in CGI…and it’s not very good CGI at that. I was reminded of the work done on the Scorpion King in The Mummy Returns, very plastic and more animated than life-like. That Neville has somehow found an adversary among the diseased is never explained. There is apparently one really smart vampire in all the world, and it just happens to be where Neville is. We’re not given time to ponder this bizarre coincidence, but his appearance throws off Neville’s carefully maintained timetable so that he is pushed over the line into insanity just when he needs to be at his best.
There is also the unlikely coincidence that Neville is an expert virologist who continues to pursue a cure for the plague, hoping to bring humanity back from its plagued state. The moments when he is working in his lab are when we see him the most sane. Unfortunately, at those moments the movie becomes a procedural, following the steps that Neville takes to discover the cure. Try as they might, it’s next to impossible to make the scientific method exciting.
Enter the plot twist in the form of a young woman and child, led by God to search for a haven for those who have somehow survived the plague. There are some interesting moments where Neville and Anna argue about the presence of God in this post-plague world, but again they feel like part of another movie. Those arguments add very little to the film; we already know how Neville thinks about his world, and Anna is really a plot device more than a fully realized character, so we don’t really care what she thinks. Given the contrived ending of the movie, it’s apparent who the movie wants us to believe won the arguments, but it’s not clear why the writers felt they had to go in such a bizarre direction. Perhaps by contrasting the ineffable actions of a deity with the overreaching actions of man when he first caused the plague that destroyed the population, the movie is attempting to make a statement about our current policies or technological direction. But it’s not clear what that message might be, and it is not constructed very well since it would seem to ignore that mankind would also be the invention of that same deity. As I say, the moments between the newcomers and Neville just don’t play out very well, and it’s not just because Neville has forgotten how to be social.
Also annoying was the opening scene, involving Neville hunting deer in a late-model Ford Mustang. Somehow he races through the city at break-neck speed without ever damaging the car, and rides through the herd of deer without hitting a single one of them. As improbable as that is, what is more astonishing is that for every other scene in the movie where Neville moves about, even when he is hunting, he uses a fully equipped SUV. The Mustang is only ever there as an advertisement (“when the world ends, at least you know you’ve got a Mustang!”).
I Am Legend has a lot of potential, but it just founders at about the halfway point and becomes merely interesting rather than involving or exciting. I can’t say how much the movie resembles Richard Matheson’s original novella, since I have never been able to find it, but given the power and scope of the writing of Matheson’s that I do know, I don’t think it follows all that closely. That shouldn’t matter, I guess, but I use it to point out what a deep source the screenwriters and director had to work with. So, finally, I Am Legend is a disappointment, worth maybe a matinee viewing if not just a rental when it comes out on DVD.