The most offensive thing about the newest adaptation of Richard Matheson’s indelible classic is that it has the temerity to call itself I Am Legend. Maybe the producers considered the age of the original novel and thought no one would care. Well, I care. I care a great deal about those three words. They echo a science fiction clout that few others can lay claim to. Not only that, but those three words mean something. They are not just a title, they are a sentence; the final sentence, to be precise. Those three words comprise Matheson’s maddening revelation. Read the inside jacket of I Am Legend and see how much of an inspiration it has been to minds everywhere. There are four Gods damned pages of accolades from famous people the world over in that thing!
In Francis Lawrence’s adaptation, which marks the third time Hollywood has returned to Matheson’s vast well specifically for this single title, those three words are meaningless. They exist as a title yes, but even in that capacity they are only a paraphrase of a brief voice over at the end of the film. A voice over I am convinced exists solely because the producers decided late in the game, “Shit, we called it I Am Legend, someone should probably say the word legend at some point.”
I would be well justified to gripe like a fanboy about script changes, and I may do, but the above is no simple fanboy complaint. I’m not mad that Warner Brothers decided to (re)adapt I Am Legend and call it such. That is all well and good, especially since they made a damned decent movie in the process. However, calling it I Am Legend and removing every single element that builds up to the revelation of Robert Neville’s legendary status is an unforgivable perversion, the literary equivalent of rape. It hurts me inside to know that this film will go on to make 70 million dollars opening weekend. Hurts that people are going to eat it up, recommend it left and right, and only a thimbleful of them are going to know the film’s ending is a sham and that the original is perfect.
In this strain of the last man on earth story, Robert Neville (Will Smith) is a military virologist who stayed in Ground Zero (Manhattan) to engineer a reversion to a cure for cancer that went wrong. The original cancer cure transformed those who took it into hairless, pale, monsters that are not so much human as they are humanoid. Three years later Neville has free reign of the island. He has a day-to-day life, the portrayal of which is the film’s highlight, that consists of hunting wild deer, watching DVDs or trapping the daylight fearing creatures in his, supposedly, relentless pursuit of a cure.
This is nothing close to Matheson’s original tale of the last man on Earth, his alcohol-fueled excuse for a life and the unexpected ascension above and beyond either of those to a, well, legendary status. Only superficial similarities exist between Protosevich/Goldsman’s screenplay and Matheson’s original. This is to be expected and my disappointment should have been conceded before hand. Matheson’s writing credits include 16 of the best episodes of the original “Twilight Zone” (including Nightmare at 20,000 Feet), The Incredible Shrinking Man, Duel, The Night Stalker, Hell House, Stir of Echoes and about 90 other pieces of fantastic television and film. Mark Protosevich has only written two produced films to date, not counting this topic of discussion, and those are The Cell and Poseidon. Akiva Goldsman has been a little more prolific with a total of 11 to date, but those include The Da Vinci Code, I, Robot, Practical Magic and not only Batman Forever, but Batman & Robin as well.
Any Hollywood adaptation is bound to be a glossing over of the source material. That’s fine. I’ll submit and move onwards.
For Francis Lawrence, I Am Legend is a huge step forward in his career. Not because it more money in its opening weekend than Constantine did in its entire domestic haul, but because he muscles around the film’s numerous restraints with ease. The orchestration of his production design is extraordinary. Cliché and obvious winks, so prosperous in blockbusters, are kept to a minimum. The direction is, perhaps, best described as patient. Several action sequences are still a bit too hectic, a bit too blurry, but to my surprise, what will be remembered about I Am Legend is not its action, but rather the inaction. The first half of the film, aka Smith’s one man show as the last man on Earth, is more dedicated and deliberate than most other big budget flicks. I am glad it is going to kill the box office as this proves people are willing to be patient themselves. Then again, it proves that studios can get away with gutting the brains out of their source materials.
To the credit of Protosevich and Goldsman, they may have excised the soul of the story, but the artifice put in its place does at least have a good deal of premeditation to it. Time granted to show little, seemingly insignificant things pays off in the end. There is a logical degree of paranoia and purpose put into the behavior of this take on Robert Neville, and for that I am thankful. On the opposite spectrum, however, some of the character traits given to the star are illogical. There are a legion of assumptions left up in the air here and the cohesion of the plot suffers accordingly.
The post-apoc NYC is stunning, but many of the other effects are sub-par. The creatures, or Dark Seekers, are uninteresting. They all look the same, they all act the same and seemed to all be wearing the exact same clothes when they changed. The science in the film is that the virus causes the loss of skin pigment and hair, a sensitivity to light and inhuman levels of aggression, but it does not account for almost godly levels of strength or jaws that open a good 5 inches wider than normal and feature huge canines. Just call ’em vampires and be done with it.
I could complain all day long about how I Am Legend could have been improved upon. Doing so, however, would be misleading. It is still a good little film. It doesn’t put up a fuss, gets all its homework down on time and even eats everything on its plate. The problem is its homework wasn’t all that challenging and the plate wasn’t all that full to begin with. For a movie that sure backed down from all its ideas, it holds its own, but the amount of squandered potential is depressing.