(a film review by Mark R. Leeper)

CAPSULE: Richard Matheson's classic horror novel I AM LEGEND comes to the screen with CGI and lots of guns, most of which work against rather than for the story. Will Smith plays Robert Neville robbed of most of his anguish and his advancing madness. Some of the visual images are nice, but this is a story that needs to be made on a low budget to really work. Rating: +1 (-4 to +4) or 6/10

If one were to choose the Great British Horror Novel it would likely be DRACULA or perhaps FRANKENSTEIN. The Great American Horror Novel would probably be Richard Matheson's 1954 I AM LEGEND. Stephen King acknowledges the debt he owes to I AM LEGEND and to Matheson in general. This short novel reverses the conditions of DRACULA. In this story there is a single human in a world full of vampires. By day Robert Neville hunts vampires as they avoid the sunlight. At night the tables are turned as he barricades himself in his house and the vampires try to break their way in or tempt him outside and into their clutches. What has left the world in this state was an all-consuming pandemic. A deadly plague has ripped through the human race, killing all but one man. However, while the plague appeared to bring death, it did not really. Instead it put its victims into something deeper than a catatonic sleep. After a period of time they rise up again with many of the classic characteristics of vampires. The flashbacks are rich in some very basic human fears. One is the fear of disease and of being its victim. The other is the fear of not being its victim, losing all ones loved ones and being left alone. And I suppose we all have some revulsion of the dead made even worse with the fear they will arise.

Prior to the current film version there were two others. The first was an American/Italian co-production starring Vincent Price, called in the United States THE LAST MAN ON EARTH (1964). Charlton Heston starred in a 1971 version entitled THE OMEGA MAN. The latter was in my opinion terrible and very different from the novel. The first version was fairly faithful to the book based on Matheson's screenplay, though Matheson objected to changes and used a pseudonym. The novel and the first adaptation inspired George Romero to do the similar story NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968) and hence all zombie films owe their inspiration to the original Matheson novel. The novel was one of the first sources to suggest the idea that vampires were not supernatural beings but diseased humans. One of the virtues of the story as a source for film is its minimalism. It requires no special effects and only minimal makeup effects. This undoubtedly was an attraction for Romero. The makers of the Italian version seem to have realized this. THE OMEGA MAN went in for exaggerated makeup for the infected and big action scenes, some involving large guns. The new version I AM LEGEND starring Will Smith also has its guns and action. And in this version the infected turn into rabid CGI-animated monsters that are a far cry from anything a virus could likely produce.

It is a little hard for me to evaluate the new film version without comparing it to the book and to THE LAST MAN ON EARTH. The new film version (directed by Francis Lawrence) does not take full advantage of the story but does have some original and very nice touches. The premise is that Robert Neville (played by Will Smith) is the only human left in Manhattan and maybe the world. In this version it is a human-made plague from a virus originally intended to cure cancer. The plague seems to kill people, but then brings them back as monsters. Neville wants to turn these vampires human again by nullifying the infection. But he is being slowly driven insane by his extreme loneliness, his memories of the loss of his family, and this unending regimen of hunting vampires by day, and being hunted by them at night.

For me Will Smith is out and out wrong for the role of a man with such mental anguish. He does not have the range to play someone mentally breaking down. Smith seems to have gotten into physical shape to play Neville as an action hero, a complete misreading of the novel. Smith's never has much chance to get as lonely as the character in the book. Though much of the film he has a dog for companionship and talks to her like she is a sidekick. He also talks to mannequins, which is probably a symptom of his solitude, but it is treated very lightly. We see not the pain that Neville feels but instead his spirit of soldiering on.

Francis Lawrence's directing of the screenplay by Mark Protosevich and Akiva Goldsman have spiced the story up with battles and chases through dark buildings, sadly dumbing down the concept. There are hints that the infected might be intelligent, but it never goes much beyond their setting the same sort of traps for Neville that he had previously set for them. The story is so distorted that the infected seem to be little more than fierce animals and no longer capable of having legends. So when for the first time a film takes the title of the novel, it is given a different meaning. What is nice about the film is its visualization of Manhattan abandoned for three years and already in the process of being reclaimed by nature.

Perhaps the biggest problem of this film is the size of its budget. The best versions of I AM LEGEND, namely THE LAST MAN ON EARTH and arguably NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD were made in black and white for pocket change and were much more effective because of that. The real problem with I AM LEGEND it that there is just too much money on that screen. Most of it just ruins the tone. I would rate I AM LEGEND a +1 on the -4 to +4 scale or 6/10. The film leaves the way open for a sequel. Warner may already working on II AM LEGEND. We see in the film a 2009 billboard suggesting that Warner Brothers, who produced this film, will then be releasing a film that brings together Superman and Batman. I am surprised they will take that long to make that one. For those interested in seeing the original film version THE LAST MAN ON EARTH, it has fallen into public domain and is very available in a low-quality transfer in what must be a dozen different DVD horror film collections. There are higher quality transfers available at higher prices. For those highly tolerant there is even a free low-resolution version on line at the URL below. Since this was a minimalist film and not a highly visual one, it does not suffer too badly from the low-quality reproductions.


Film Credits: http://us.imdb.com/title/tt0480249/

					Mark R. Leeper
					Copyright 2007 Mark R. Leeper