I Am Legend (2007)
Will Smith (Robert Neville), Alice Braga (Anna), Charlie Tahan (Ethan), Dash Mihok (Alpha Male), Salli Richardson-Whitfield (Zoe Neville), Willow Smith (Marley Neville)
“My name is Robert Neville. I’m a survivor living in New York City. I am broadcasting on all AM frequencies. I will be at the South Street Seaport everyday at midday, when the sun is highest in the sky. If you are out there. If anyone is out there. I can provide food. I can provide shelter. I can provide security. If there’s anybody out there, anybody, please. You are not alone.” – Robert Neville
We’re at the end of the road for adaptations of I Am Legend, but as one trilogy ends, another begins. October is going to be all Will Smith movies here on Doomsday Reels so there will be an extra column next Monday so I can knock these out.
Of the three adaptations of Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend, the 2007 movie is the most maligned. I don’t know why since, as I established last time, The Omega Man is the clear loser. I have only seen this movie once previously, back in 2007 when it was in theaters, but having now watched these three movies in order over the course of a month I gotta say tha I Am Legend is the best of the three. The Last Man on Earth is still the most faithful to the source material but its shoddy Italian-ness makes it a bit of a bore and Omega Man is hot garbage. I Am Legend isn’t a great adaptation, it’s clearly based more on The Omega Man than I Am Legend, but that said it holds up a lot better than I thought.
The movie starts strong, mirroring Charlton Heston’s joyriding scene from Omega Man as Will Smith’s Neville cruises around the streets of Manhattan in a Shelby Mustang, trying to shoot a deer. We spend nearly forty minutes with Robert before we even introduce our monsters. As with all these movies, the best part is just watching our hero fuck around scavenging for supplies and going about his daily routine. This time he has a German Shepherd sidekick named Sam and his rapport and chemistry with the dog is wonderful.
Will Smith’s best acting is done when he’s just alone in this movie. Easily the best part of the first act involves Neville stumbling on a door marked not to open until a special occassion, when he opens it he finds a newly furnished nursery. It’s a great devastating moment sold perfectly.
The one problem I have with the first act is a problem I have with both the other movies and the novel. I don’t feel that a flashback is necessary, we can glean Robert’s backstory from his present circumstances. Backstory doesn’t add anything and it actually interrupts the narrative flow. Still it’s one small scene, a little digression from an otherwise solid first act. It’s acceptable. But then the monsters show up.
I Am Legend’s CG “dark seekers” are the best case against the film. They were not always intended to be CG. Early on there was a casting call for people to play the zombies but the studio changed its mind and decided to go computer generated; only a few of the actors picked were able to stay on in mo-cap roles. The creatures are pretty shoddy-looking even for the time and their design is bland and unappealing. They’re just hairless bald people with large mouths and lots of veins, they look like an entire species comprised of John Malkovich.
Neville stumbles onto a nest of Malkoviches and captures one so he can attempt to cure the virus which has turned man into Academy award-winner. He kidnaps a lady Malkovich which really pisses off a large Alpha Malkovich. This is the first hint that the Malkovichs are more than just mindless animalistic character actors and are in fact reasoning thespians with a wide range of emotions. Alpha Malkovich gets his revenge on Neville and it makes for a truly sad scene that is one of the film’s greatest achievements. Unfortunately that scene is followed by a stupid one where Neville bitterly attempts to form a connection with a mannequin, it’s a hamfisted way of pointing out that he’s lonely.
After the mannequin the movie goes into a downward spiral that it never quite recovers from. Neville does something brash and stupid, meets two survivors, quotes Shrek in a cringe-inducing attempt at humanizing his character, and then bonds with these two people.
This is as good of a time to talk about the movie’s moronic symbolism. First lets talk about butterflies! Imagine you’re a hack screenwriter who needs to get across that something is changing into something better, what do you do? Why pepper your story with butterflies of course, butterflies are symbols of metamorphosis! But what’s that? You want another angle? Well Robert Neville is a scientist so naturally he’s a bitter atheist, why don’t you have the cute survival girl teach him that everything happens for a reason and it’s all part of God’s plan. I guess I should applaud the makers of I Am Legend for not going once-again down the Christ allegory path but the “God’s plan” angle is staggeringly stupid, and I say this as a practicing Christian. Then there’s all the junk with Bob Marley and Shrek and I just feel embarrassed for everyone involved.
The movie just sort of stumbles into a final showdown that’s actually very thrilling and one of two things happens. Obviously this is spoiler territory so skip below the next picture if you don’t wish to know. If you’re watching the “Controversial Original Theatrical Ending” when Neville and the other two are trapped in the basement, Neville realizes that Alpha Malkovich just wants his girlfriend back so he re-infects her with the virus and carts her out. Alpha Malkovich stares him down with intensity but ultimately decides that they’re cool even though he just killed upwards of 100 Malkoviches and is standing in front of a wall full of pictures of Malkoviches he killed trying to cure the virus.
I can kind of see why this ending was controversial. I Am Legend’s (the book) ending worked because there were three factions: the undead vampires, the infected humans, and the last man on Earth. Neville was killing infected humans without realizing that they weren’t monsters and since they were peaceful and basically no different from pre-apocalyptic humans with the exception of their aversion to sunlight, the whole “Neville is the boogeyman angle worked.”
It has been established that the Malkoviches are violent animalistic savages and we know from Anna’s account that they’ll attack and kill any humans they find. We see the metamorphosis thing happening throughout the movie but we see no proof that humans and Malkovichs can co-exist in peace. Alpha-Malkovich and his people are just one hive, there’s no reason to think that the other Malkoviches are going to be friendly. Still it’s a pretty satisfying conclusion because it allows the movie to have its cake and eat it too. Neville realizes he shouldn’t try to cure the Malkoviches but also that there are likely other humans who he can help to bring the human race back. This would’ve actually made for a very good approach at a sequel since Neville lives in this cut. We could have dealt with the two species trying to coexist Dawn of the Planet of the Apes style.
But we didn’t get that sequel because focus groups disliked the original ending (and from the bottom of my heart, if anyone who sat in on those test screenings and voice disapproval for the ending is reading this, go fuck yourself) so the ending that appeared in theaters was different. Instead of bro-ing out and leaving on basically good terms, Neville digs a grenade out of a drawer and charages at Alpha Malkovich, exploding them both. We’re then treated to Anna and the little boy going to survivor’s colony where Anna informs the audience that Neville cured the virus and this is his legend. Barf.
I really remember hating this movie but it’s actually pretty solid. I know I gave it a pretty thorough reaming but all the parts I complained about are pretty easy to ignore. You can just fast forward through any scene where a flashback is happening or Neville is talking to Anna and the kid and it’s a pretty great movie, especially if you’re watching the alternate cut.
I’m surprised at how much I like this movie on revisiting it and even more surprised still at how bummed I am that we never got that sequel. The filthy hand of studio interference is still clearly at play for I Am Legend but a lot more of the original vision for the film is apparent on rewatch. I’m convinced we’ll never have a true adaptation of Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend. That’s a real drag, but I’m okay with having a good version of The Omega Man instead.
I Am Legend is available on DVD, Blu-Ray, and Amazon Instant.
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