I Am Legend
(SPOILERS) The version of Richard Matheson’s novel you’re really supposed to have it in for, if purists’ antagonism towards it is anything yardstick. It’s definitely the case that the theatrical cut ending of I Am Legend is a massive cop-out and entirely stuffs up any merit in this adaptation finally using the original title. Nevertheless, in many respects, this is a laudable remake. Its biggest failing is that it has too much budget to play with, leading to decisions that nearly capsize it dramatically.
This version of I Am Legend was in development hell for more than a decade before finally coming together. Mark Protosevitch’s screenplay went through a number of different subsequent writers before receiving the final indignity of an Akiva Goldsman draft. Protosevitch’s Hemocytes eventually became the finished film’s Darkseekers; the writer was a big fan of The Omega Man, so some of the antagonists’ characteristics from that feature had filtered in early on. He also ensured there were big set pieces (Neville drives a subway train into the Hemocytes’ lair at the climax). That certainly sounds like an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie move, although it had been written as a study of isolation, in part, with Daniel Day Lewis in mind.
It would have been the Arnie version of a Chuck Heston movie, directed by Sir Ridders. Which might have been interesting, in its own way, but you’d have to forget about any emotional resonance or existential angst. Mid-90s Scott was all at sea (literally with White Squall), hitching his horse to ropey material or to projects that took a swan dive (Crisis in the Hot Zone, another virus picture, fell apart thanks to Outbreak getting the jump on it).
Unsurprisingly – this is Scott, who has since repeatedly proved that, where scripts are concerned, if he’s emphatic about something, it’s probably wrong – rewrites were commissioned. From John Logan (later to underwhelm with… pretty much everything, really). Doubtless as a hangover from the plucked-from-the-headlines Hot Zone, Scott favoured plausibility (“If the human population was wiped out by a biogenic plague, what would happen? We approached it from a scientific perspective” said Logan, speaking to David Hughes for The Greatest Sci-Fi Movies Never Made).
If I’m being a bit cynical, I’ll admit that their idea of having Neville alone – not even with his faithful pooch as company – for the first hour of the picture is a pretty solid one (and no comforting voiceover). Which is probably why Scott bottled it and introduced tape recordings of his dying wife (I can definitely see Ridders getting that tonally all wrong). The setting was to be LA, 2005, replacing Protosevitch’s San Francisco. Apparently, the characterisation of the Hemocytes “went all over the map” from feral to speaking, and Scott was thinking about CGI-enhanced makeup even then (also that they should be “extremely fast, so they were running around like agile mummies”). And CGI deer. Sigh.
And a “pseudo love interest” of a captured Hemocyte woman. Logan considered this “One of the bravest choices we made”, although it is paradoxically claimed to have eased the concerns of a studio nervous at the minimal human element. Not enough, though, since it was still “very grim and extreme” and as Hughes recounts, the studio wasn’t so unreasonable for baulking at a $100m movie where “nobody seemed to know that kind of film they were making”.
Logan was out and Protosevitch back in (incredibly dull, and rather sombre and very pretentious was his verdict of Logan’s draft: “a dreary art movie that just happened to have a lot of violence in it”). But Scott eventually grew tired – budget wrangles in part – and Protosevitch was out again, and the project was officially off by early 1998. And then the writer was in again, with new director Rob Bowman (riding reasonably high off The X-Files movie; he would depart for Reign of Fire) and briefly Kurt Russell (Soldier became one of the biggest bombs ever). Finally, by 2001, things were looking closer to their final form, with Will Smith and Michael Bay (I can imagine a Michael Bay I Am Legend, but I don’t want to), but 28 Days Later’s success put it returned it to the backburner. Eventually, Smith would bring in Francis Lawrence, who was much more temperamentally suited to the material.
Ironically, one might credit Goldsman for bringing the crux of into focus I Am Legend, which the eventual movie all but ignored in its release version (“Are we the victim or the aggressor?”) That and the NY setting. Smith favoured a medley of Goldsman and Protosevitch’s versions. One also suspects, however, that the latter’s were the star-baiting elements (the over-written bordering-on-madness element – “You’re not so good with people anymore, are you?” – and the rather stranded God debate as expressed by Alice Braga’s Anna (“God told you? The God? God’s plan?”)
Epstein Island visitor Smith – it has been suggested that those in Hollywood who seem the nicest are the ones to be most suspicious of, and Smith had tattle enough trailing him before advent of the current rumour mill – is fine in the lead. Easily up to the task of acting against himself for long spells. The problem is that, when the emotionally grandstanding moments occur, he’s a victim of their being over-written. Indeed, the movie is far superior during the first half to two-thirds, when Smith’s Neville is the only human. His relationship with dog Sam (a fine canine performer) is genuinely touching.
If the isolation material with the shop dummies only half works, and the design of deserted New York is compelling if rarely quite as atmospheric as it might be, Lawrence really comes into his own during a couple of standout set pieces that key into the sinister potential of this derelict landscape. The first sees Sam chase a deer into a shadowy building full of Darkseekers (terrible name). The ensuing scene, as Neville attempts to retrieve him, is electrifyingly tense. Similarly, the movie’s high point sequence finds Neville ensnared, suspended upside down (hoodwinked by an aforementioned dummy), and only coming to as dusk is descending. The crack of sunlight protecting him from zombie dogs is a great visual, milked for all its worth. After this, and the loss of Sam, the picture never quite has the same wallop, particularly with a rather silly suicidal (actor-centric) moment in which he is rescued by Anna.
By this point too, we’ve been unapologetically notified of the picture’s biggest deficiency. At least, in terms of execution. Lawrence, whose instincts are sharp in many respects, lost his nerve when he saw the dailies of his prosthetically-realised Darkseekers and instead opted for CGI versions. We’ve already seen CGI deer and lions by this point, which are serviceable if clearly fake. The infected, however, are from the same school of dumb moves as clone troopers and the burley brawl. They take you out of the movie. They should be intimidating and unnerving, but they’re just stretchy, contorted CGI caricatures.
Sometimes they work better than at others – the female Neville has captured – but they’re always distracting and serve to undermine suspension of disbelief. I can understand Lawrence’s reasoning; he wanted something beyond human performance, where – interestingly, given the all the grim talk of Hollywood adrenochrome addiction – their hyper condition is a result of their adrenal glands being open all the time. He also knows how to cut a scene with CGI, rather than leaving it to the software house to sort out. However, in no way does his decision work in the picture’s favour at any point. In most instances, it seriously serves to undercut it.
When revisiting I Am Legend, I made the fortuitous error of picking out the director’s cut rather than the theatrical. The essence of the title is at least there in this version, albeit never announced as such. We have earlier seen Neville’s blindness to “data” as he observes a seeker exposing himself to sunlight (he’s trying to rescue his mate, whom Neville has captured): “Behavioural note. Social de-evolution appears complete. Typical human behaviour is now entirely absent”. Later he tells Anna, “They have no higher brain function”, keen to ignore the evidence of a trap laid for him based on his own methods. Finally, confronted in his lab, Neville perceives their leader’s motives and returns his missus to him. The significance of this in respect of his “disposable” test subjects becomes starkly clear.
It isn’t quite Matheson, but the essence is there in Neville being revealed as a predator. More than that, he really doesn’t earn the martyrdom exit of the cinema version (unusual to kill the lead character off in response to negative test screenings). It’s a hurried, garbled choice plot wise (“The cure is in her blood”) and thematically redundant (“We are his legacy. This is his legend. Light from the darkness”). Much better that Neville, striving to “fix this” throughout, should live. And live with himself.
The gulf between CG performance and creatures you can empathise with is still too vast to bridge, but it is nevertheless possible to see the through line from Matheson, to the replicants of Blade Runner, and on to this. Which raises the question, are the Darkseekers victims or the new master race? Is it predictive programming to denounce the inhumanity of actual man in favour of the transformed/transhumanist future of enhanced human(oid)s? Enhanced humanoids in a hyper-adrenalised state.
Because in terms of the virus at least, I Am Legend follows the standard nightmarish tropes. Everything is present and correct, from a contagion that mutates from its original purpose to one that becomes ruthlessly airborne. Emma Thompson’s uncredited cameo as the suggestively named Dr Krippin opens the picture, announcing a virus “engineered at a genetic level to be helpful rather than harmful”. The Measles virus, no less (you know, the one that couldn’t be proven to exist in court). Krippin is able to boast that out of 10,009 clinical trials, 10,009 subjects were left cancer free. So we know straight off the bat that I Am Legend is operating in whacko fantasy land (the very idea that big pharma would countenance the promotion of something that could put an end to its biggest money earner).
We further learn that KV (rather than CV), obeying allopathic rules, had a ninety percent kill rate. 5.4 billion were left dead. One percent had immunity; “588 million turned, killed and fed on everybody”. Bill Gates would be proud. Very apocalyptic, and taking a similar global terror tack to World War Z five years later. Neville has to keep testing himself to confirm he is “immune to both the airborne and contact strains” (Sam is only immune to airborne). Like World War Z, the scenes of spiralling panic in a world of nightmares unleashed are effective. They also recall other SF apocalypse scenarios: “They’re sealing off the island” Neville informs his wife as he attempts to get his family out of Manhattan (shades of Escape from New York). His daughter has more festive matters on her mind (“It’s Christmas. What about my presents?”) but like Things to Come, end times pay no heed to Santa.
In director’s cut form at least, and despite the crippling drawback of CG monsters – although they aren’t so hot in any version – and Will quoting along to Shrek, this is the best version of Matheson’s novel yet put to screen. It may be far from the most faithful, and it may suffer from Goldsman’s innate tendencies against subtlety, but at its best, I Am Legend is an atmospheric and immersive last-man-on-earth take. And for anyone still wondering how Vincent Price’s garlic stayed fresh, it’s nice to see that Neville does grow his own food.
Director's Cut –
Theatrical Cut –