So yesterday I hared off down to the local fleapit to see shiny new Will Smith vehicle I Am Legend. Those who know me know that I’m not averse to big, dumb Hollywood blockbusters. But this time I had a more concrete reason – this particular big budget epic is based on one of my favourite books of all time.
I Am Legend is a 1954 novel by the great horror author Richard Matheson. For those unfamiliar with his work, Matheson’s the guy who wrote most of the best Twilight Zone episodes (as distinct from the sickly schmaltzfests written by Rod Serling) and also wrote the Spielberg classic Duel, in which a man pursued by a psycho in a diesel truck becomes the stuff of archetypal legend. He also wrote my favourite haunted house novel Hell House, filmed to great effect in 1973 as The Legend of Hell House.
I Am Legend is probably his most famous work, and is a must-read for any horror fan, especially those into zombies. The plot goes like this: Robert Neville is the lone human survivor of a plague that has killed most of humanity. The only other survivors have become honest to goodness vampires who roam the night in search of blood. By night, Neville cowers in his besieged house as the vampires try to get in and drink his blood. By day, he researches the germ that caused the vampirism, and roams the deserted Los Angeles, staking and burning any vampires he finds.
The key to the novel, and indeed its title, is this: some of the vampires have evolved beyond being slavering predators and have started to form a new society. From their point of view, Neville is a terrifying monster, a shadowy figure who kills them in their sleep, leaving only the dead bodies of their loved ones as evidence of his existence. In a world of vampires, it’s the vampire hunter who’s the monster that frightens children, as Neville realises in the book’s final, chilling scene: “he saw on their faces awe, fear, shrinking horror – and he knew that they were afraid of him… a new superstition entering the unassailable fortress of forever. I am legend.”
George Romero acknowledges that the book was his primary inspiration for writing Night of the Living Dead, and by association is responsible for the entire zombie genre. The evolution of the zombies in Romero’s Dead series directly parallels the evolution of the vampires in I Am Legend, as they become ultimately more human than those left alive.
So with an entire genre of horror cinema indebted to this book for its very existence, surely Hollywood should be able to make a decent film of it? I Am Legend has been filmed three times, firstly in 1964 as The Last Man on Earth, then in 1971 as The Omega Man, and now in 2007 under its own title. Both of the first two efforts were lacking something compared to the book, but with the new one having the proper title and everything, it could be good, surely? Well, it’s not. It sucks. And it sucks big time.
But why does it suck? Who can we blame? OK then, let’s start with the director. Francis Lawrence is an ex-music video auteur, and the man responsible for turning Hellblazer‘s John Constantine (a shifty, blond, Scouse magician) into Keanu Reeves, and then putting him into an incomprehensible plot seemingly comprised of set pieces from different stories in the comic glued together with little regard for logic. Like Constantine, I Am Legend displays Lawrence’s penchant for big, flashy visuals in place of anything resembling drama.
To be fair, the opening sequences of Neville roaming the deserted New York are very good, possibly the most realistic depiction of such scenes yet committed to celluloid. But even here, any fan of The Omega Man will recognise that half of the shots are just nicked wholesale, particularly the iconic zoom into the deserted streets from above onto Neville’s car. Plus, impressive though the post-apocalyptic vistas undoubtedly are, Lawrence has succumbed to the temptation of any shallow hack given a huge CG budget and packed every shot with so much detail that the eye is still trying to take it in while the brain should be following the drama. Sometimes, less is more; The Stand achieved a similar effect with just a traffic jam full of corpses going into the Lincoln Tunnel.
So what about the vampires? In The Last Man on Earth, the vampires are moaning, barely coherent bloodsuckers with all of the traditional traits of such creatures – they don’t care for crucifixes, garlic, or stakes through the heart, and there’s a scientific explanation for all of this, just as Matheson intended. Plus, any Romero fan will recognise the genesis of Night of the Living Dead‘s shuffling ghouls here, a full four years before Night hit the screens of a horrified America.
Fast forward seven years, and The Omega Man‘s vampires are merely light-phobic albinos with a Luddite agenda, intent on destroying the knowledge that they see as having led mankind to its extinction. Yet even this has its plus points; their leader Matthias (a fantastic turn from prolific character actor Anthony Zerbe) is urbane, civilized and erudite, and able to acerbically debate the finer points of ideology with his nemesis Neville. He’s also a screaming loon, but the civility only adds to his menace.
This time around, in one of the director’s better decisions, we hear the vampires before we see them, snarling and roaring through the empty city while Neville cowers in his fortified apartment. Sounds promising, you think – but then you actually see them. As Neville rather foolishly follows his dog into a darkened building, they descend on him en masse, and you realise that they’re yet another version of the athletic, superfast zombies we saw in 28 Days Later and the 2004 version of Dawn of the Dead.
That’s not too bad per se- though what’s wrong with proper vampires? – but the crowning irritant is that the “darkseekers”, as they’re referred to, aren’t even real. They’re yet more bloody CG, and they look it. As they attack, you’re reminded of nothing so much as an advanced game of Resident Evil, and their cartoonlike nature robs them of any real sense of menace because they’re just another special effect. At least 28 Days and Dawn had real, tangible ghouls.
Even then, you think, the movie could work well if it had a decent screenplay. But it doesn’t. This version was in development hell for years, and it shows, with the script bearing the unmistakeable feel of many different drafts lumped together with insufficient erasing in between. For one thing, it’s not just “based on the novel by Richard Matheson”. Oh no. It’s “by Mark Protosevich and Akiva Goldsman based on the screenplay by John William and Joyce H Corrington based on the novel by Richard Matheson”. If that sounds like a jumbled mess, it looks like one onscreen too.
The Corringtons’ screenplay in question is in fact the one for The Omega Man, and this new version has many obvious lifts from it. As in that version, Robert Neville is a military doctor who discovered the cure for the plague too late for it to have any effect, rather than having immunity conferred by Matheson’s admittedly specious device of being bitten by a vampire bat. There are plenty of minor lifts too; in one scene Will Smith’s Neville quotes along with the DVD of Shrek, obviously knowing every line of dialogue, echoing the scene where Charlton Heston’s Neville quotes along with Woodstock in an empty cinema. The difference being that the quote from Woodstock was profound and relevant, and funny though Shrek is, it doesn’t really have anything to say about the possible extinction of humanity.
Also nicked from The Omega Man is Neville’s attempt to populate his haunts with shop mannequins, which expands on the original where Heston looks longingly at a female dummy in a posh clothes shop. Even the inexplicably clean and shiny Shelby Mustang that Neville drives at the beginning of the movie echoes the ’71 Mustang that Heston memorably drove through a showroom window in the earlier version.
Just nicking from a previous version wouldn’t be too bad – we call those remakes, fellas – but it doesn’t sit too well with yet another attempt to film the actual book. Changing the location from LA to New York doesn’t rob anything from the premise, and the rotting Christmas trees that indicate the epidemic started in late December are a nice touch. But the new script also attempts to utilise the book’s structure of revealing what happened to Neville’s family in a series of interspersed flashbacks, and unwisely tries to improve on it. The book dispenses with this device halfway through, the story told, but this screenplay tries to eke out the tension by not revealing the end of the flashbacks till very near the end of the movie. What’s the bloody point? We know Neville’s family is dead, there’s not really much suspense to be gleaned by eking out the information of how it occurred.
Plus, the way they die turns out to be disappointingly mundane. In Matheson’s novel, first Neville’s daughter then his wife die of the plague itself. Horrified by the military’s burning of his daughter’s body, Neville chooses to bury his wife himself, leading to one of the most chilling scenes in the novel as he opens the door later that night to find her standing outside as a vampire, rasping his name. This scene is faithfully and superbly recreated in The Last Man on Earth as Vincent Price (playing Robert Morgan – the name was changed for this version) opens the door to a shadow of a woman, gravedirt clinging to her tattered nightdress, and readies himself with a stake.
In this one, they die in a helicopter crash trying to get off Manhattan before the military seal it off. Simple as that. No real drama compared to the original, and they eke the revelation out through the whole length of the movie so that ultimately all you’re left with is a sense of anticlimax.
Also taken from the book then irritatingly altered is the plot device of Neville having a dog. In the book, he gradually gains the trust of a stray mongrel only for it to die of the plague not too long after. In the movie, the stray mongrel is transformed into some kind of superdog, as Neville’s faithful hunting companion Sam, a German Shepherd apparently capable of understanding Will Smith’s every utterance. Now, the dog does well – it’s one of the better cast members – but having Neville accompanied by a sidekick, even a canine one, robs the character of the sense of loneliness he should have. To be fair, they don’t chicken out of having the dog die, but his time she dies as a result of heroically fighting off a pair of CG vampire dogs(!) intent on tearing out her master’s throat. The best aspect of this is the look on Neville’s face as he realises she’s infected and has to strangle her offscreen while the camera holds on a closeup.
Which brings us to Will Smith. Of necessity, any lead actor in this role has to pretty much carry the movie, since for the most part there are no other characters in it. And Smith, an actor who I genuinely admire, is probably the best casting as Robert Neville in any version. Richard Matheson disowned The Last Man on Earth even though it’s the most faithful adaptation of the book, purely because he thought Vincent Price terribly miscast as the hero. He had a point; Price tries hard, but he’s too associated with eye-rolling Roger Corman schlockfests to give the role the impact it should have.
Matheson preferred Charlton Heston in The Omega Man, and indeed the ultra-conservative former Ben-Hur makes quite a good job of it. But still, he’s really playing Charlton Heston, the screen hero who since Planet of the Apes had become the go-to guy for any big budget sci-fi epic. The screenplay’s attempts to equate the character with Christ don’t help, since it just makes one remember all those Biblical epics Heston was in back in the 50s. “Are you God?” a little girl asks him at one point. Of course he is; the movie rams that point home as he dies in a cruciform pose, but not before saving humanity with his blood.
Will Smith possibly carries the same sort of star baggage as Heston, but as anyone who’s seen Six Degrees of Separation will know, is capable of real, emotional acting. His portrayal of Neville as a doomed, possibly mad hero still trying desperately to end a plague that’s already over carries real weight, and it’s a great shame that it’s wasted in a movie that’s a pile of steaming poo.
Carried over from The Omega Man is the notion of Neville as a modern Messiah, saving humanity with a vial of blood. As if to finally underline the way the screenplay totally misses the point of the novel, offscreen narration explains that this is why he is a “legend”; his cure will provide safety for an extremely unlikely colony of survivors walled off in Vermont, obviously a tenth draft variant of the vampire colony that sentence him to death in the novel. Even the woman he befriends, who turns out to be an evolved vampire in the book, is a heroic emissary from said colony, and accompanied for reasons that defy any kind of sense by a small boy.
I Am Legend 2007 then, a wasted, missed opportunity from a hack director who’d be more at home making the latest Fall Out Boy video. It’s telling that an adaptation of the classic novel that kickstarted the zombie genre has ended up being little more than a pale imitation of recent, better zombie movies like the Dawn of the Dead remake. If you’re a fan of the novel, and if you can find it on DVD, you’d do far better to seek out The Last Man on Earth, which, Vincent Price aside, is a genuinely good version of the story. “They were afraid of me,” Price gasps as he dies. Now that screenplay got the point.