Review: I Am Legend

Posted by Peter Hall - December 16th 2007 @ 2:09 pm

Directed by Francis Lawrence
Written by Mark Protosevich and Akiva Goldsman, based on the novel by Richard Matheson

I Am Legend Poster

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.

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  1. December 17th, 2007 | 12:52 pm | #1

    Good review. I do disagree with one small thing, though; I don’t think they stripped all remnants of the old story. I think they left in all sorts of things which made it feel as if they were going to go down the same path…and then simply didn’t. SPOILERS BELOW…

    There were numerous indications that the creatures were intelligent. Some of them were so obvious and blatant that I can’t believe the film never followed up on them. They’re laying traps and marshalling dogs and such…so clearly they’re not just mindless, bloodthirsty fiends. They’re planning and scheming. That made me believe that we were leading up to the “they’re not the monsters you think they are” ending, but it never came. This is arguably even worse than stripping all remnants of the original story from it, because it’s a good deal more confusing.

    Anyway, I’m with you on the general conclusion that it’s still a pretty good film.

    Also, anyone who doesn’t like Will Smith is a Communist.

  2. j0j0
    December 18th, 2007 | 1:36 pm | #2

    I agree that they may have subtly left in a VERY small margin of the original story elements, but as you mentioned, the manner in which they added some of those elements just didn’t make sense in the film. Why is it that in one scene, the “humans” are running around like mindless animals, and the next, they’re domesticating dogs and setting traps…this is very inconsistent in the context of the film.

    To be honest, one thing that really turned me off to this film was the “monsters” themselves. I don’t understand why they couldn’t just use at least SOME real actors for SOME of the scenes, or at least spend the time to make them look somewhat realistic instead of like they were just ripped right from some lame Sunday afternoon Scifi Channel movie.

    Finally, the biggest gripe I had was, they had a book with an incredibly deep and smart story attached to it that could’ve taken the whole “apocalypse” genre that’s been done to death recently and added a much needed twist. Instead, they said “fuck that” and basically left everything in the book out except for the title and the name of the main character. Which in turn translated into yet another by-the-numbers apocalypse movie to add to the stack.

    I understand that books have to be “adapted” to the big screen and can’t always be spot on to the books, but not all of them need to be changed so dramatically that it loses all essence of the actual story.

    Everyone always says the books are better than their adaptations, yet Hollywood rarely listen$.

  3. January 5th, 2008 | 6:44 am | #3

    The wife and I were *so* disappointed with this one. I went into it with low expectations, but then quickly found myself being sucked in by the first half of the movie. I thought the lonely scenes with Will Smith (who was, IMO, fantastic in this one) simply trying to survive, going about his day-to-day routine, were wonderful.

    And then the monsters showed up.

    I find it hard to believe that anyone with half a brain would think it was a good idea to go with CGI monsters that looked as bad if not worse than the creature from THE MUMMY back in the 90’s. Haven’t digital effects progressed since the, for Chrissake?! What’s more, these were supposed to be former cancer patients that had been horribly mutated, right? So why were they leaping onto rooftops and scrambling up lamp-posts with no less agility than your Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man?

    Absolutely ridiculous. Like I said, we really, really liked the first half or so. Smith was great, perhaps his best performance in a movie to date (which isn’t saying much, as I’m no fan). But it ended there.

    For me, I AM LEGEND was *not* an adaptation of one of the greatest books ever written. It wasn’t even close to a *good* movie. It was a sad glimpse at what could have been, based on that first half or so . . . one half of a potentially enjoyable film. :(


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