He be leaden
Francis Lawrence's I Am Legend--third remake of Richard Matheson's novella about Robert Neville, the last surviving human in a world (or at least a California) full of vampires (Huh; who said this was science fiction?)--starts out strong, which is about par for the course. Ubaldo Ragona and Sidney Salkow's L'Ultimo uomo della terra (The Last Man on Earth, 1964) substituted Rome for some American city and featured a despairing Vincent Price as Neville (here Robert Morgan) talking to himself in voiceover; Boris Segal's The Omega Man (1971) had the eternally self-satisfied Charlton Heston (this time called Neville) roam empty Los Angeles. Both adaptations have their virtues; Ragona and Salkow's relatively cheap production for the most part hewed closely to the book, and relied on black-and-white cinematography for easy but nevertheless effective atmosphere (Romero would exploit the verite qualities of black-and-white film for his own first feature Night of the Living Dead (1968), which Romero freely admits was influenced by Matheson's book), while the image of Price wandering those empty (and suspiciously photogenic) Roman streets has its own eerie power.
The pleasures of Segal's version are more eclectic: the vampires have turned into sunglassed Luddite albinos (the shades meant to protect their light-sensitive eyes) out to destroy technology in all its manifestations, including military scientist Neville; Neville gradually realizes that His Blood Can Redeem the World, and expires in cruciform position, but not before he manages to bed a beautiful black babe (Rosalind Cash) in desperate need of a transfusion. One can't watch the picture without suspecting that Heston must have been unable to get over the fact that they chose Max Von Sydow over him to play Christ in George Stevens' The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965) while he had to settle for John the Baptist--hence his illusions of persecution and grandeur (of persecuted grandeur); as for the movie's albinos, one might mistaken them for hippies the way they resent the old-world establishment and demand a return to a simpler, less materialistic life (Heston made a career of defying and lecturing stubborn liberals, from the Israelites in The Ten Commandments (1956) to more Israelites in Greatest Story to the apes in Planet of (1968) to this movie). It's a lot of laughs, if you want it to be; in retrospect, though, I've developed an affection for the picture despite (or is it because?) of its more bizarre conceits--at least it had the courage of its lunatic convictions.
Lawrence's version is billed as being the most faithful to Matheson's to date. Not quite; the germ is now the result of a cancer cure run amok, the setting shifted to New York City--a brilliant stroke, I think. Easily the best parts of the picture are the early scenes, of Manhattan's canyonlike avenues totally bereft of life, of row after row of empty cars parodying rush-hour traffic. Matheson made a mistake setting his novel in Southern California, I think; you don't think of the cities there as being very crowded, pre-catastrophe--if anything, the region has always seemed half-deserted. Manhattan emphasizes the contrast between before and after dramatically--the sight of roots breaking through asphalt, of deer and not taxicabs leaping past intersections is startling indeed. Lawrence, whose resume consists mainly of the fantasy flick Constantine (2005) and a slew of music videos, manages to rein himself in for the most part, relying on crane shots and gliding long takes bereft of any loud music other than what Neville plays for himself. Lawrence's restraint enhances the eeriness of this early half admirably, invoking expectations that, for the first time ever, we have a decent adaptation.
As Robert Neville Will Smith harkens more to Vincent Price's anguished loner than Heston's smug iconoclast. Lawrence doesn't let us listen in on Neville's thoughts, but instead has Neville speak to a dog (in the novel the animal arrived much later, and played a diminished--if crucial--role)--which I feel is cheating, but never mind; Smith has matured considerably as an actor. He's got the personality, gravitas, however you want to put it to carry a film all by himself, literally (with support from the dog, and later from a young woman survivor making her way to a rumored survivors' camp in Vermont). His--and the movie's--most memorable moment comes when he sits at the riverbank and sends out his daily radio broadcast for survivors. "If you are out there... if anyone is out there..." his transmitter cries out; the scene recalls a similarly haunting moment in Orson Welles' 1938 War of the Worlds radio play, when a forlorn voice asked for a response from someone, anyone (tell the truth I suspect the filmmakers had Welles' broadcast in mind when they did this scene).
When the creatures finally show up all hope of a decent adaptation crumbles, like a vampire in sunlight. These monsters turn out to be your standard-issue CGI constructs, all speed and no substance, and therefore not much menace. The disappointment is all the keener considering that Dreyer, Murnau, and Herzog did wonders with makeup and stage effects; why couldn't Lawrence (word has it that Lawrence did shoot the scenes using actors in costume and prosthetics, then re-shot them at the last minute with tacked-on digital baddies)? The vampires in Matheson's novella, victims of a mindless yet complex germ that inspired Romero's living dead have become the spastic crazies that run through the Dawn of the Dead remake (2004), Danny Boyle's 28 Days Later (2002) and 28 Weeks Later (2007). These "vampires" (I need to use quotes, they're so lame) have little mystery about them, much less anything supernatural (Matheson's novel was all about weeding out the scientifically plausible from the overwhelmingly fantastic evidence at hand).
The ending is absurd; Lawrence (or possibly relative neophyte Mark Protosevich and jaded veteran Akiva Goldsman, who did the script) not only works in several large digitally enhanced explosions, they invert everything of interest that could be found in Matheson's novel. The "vampires" remain stupid; if anything, they're a mere step above velociraptors in terms of intelligence (I enjoy Steven Spielberg's movies, but I really have to put the blame on his Jurassic Park pictures for reducing monsters from figures of our id to mere animals on the loose). Neville, instead of struggling onscreen to learn microbiology and the rigors of the scientific method, is already a scientist, presumably to free up more time for them gosh-durned cool explosions (ironically Neville in the book is far more methodical and rigorous in his research than Neville onscreen ever was, or could be); the dog has become yet another Girl Friday instead of being a symbol for Neville's futile aspirations; the girl has been reduced from ambiguous ally to mere delivery girl for Neville's redeeming blood (yep, the movie is less a new adaptation of the novella than it is a remake of The Omega Man, without the cheesy '70s revisionism).
Worse of all is the title, an ironic punchline in the novel, a syrupy affirmation in the movie. Like all great science fiction, Matheson's I Am Legend went beyond introducing its initial premise; it inverted our concept of what is normal, conventional, real; it granted the monsters a point of view (not to mention a basis in scientific fact) and in fact redefined what being a monster is all about. Lawrence's picture, like all adaptations of the novel, runs with that initial premise for a little bit, then transforms back into a run-of-the-mill last-man-on-earth fantasy (Smith saves the world with his precious blood!). Give me a break; or rather, give me a real adaptation of Matheson's classic.
First published in Businessworld, 1/11/08)