by Mel Valentin
In "I Am Legend," the third adaptation of Richard Mathesonís highly influential 1954 science fiction/horror novel, the world ends, not with a bang, but with a virus, a mutated version of a bio-engineered, anti-cancer virus kills most of the worldís population. A small percentage survives in violent, aggressive, nocturnal packs, mutated beyond recognition. An even smaller percentage survives, immune, but they quickly become prey for the infected. One survivor, Robert Neville (Will Smith), a military scientist, survives in an almost unrecognizable Manhattan. With every bridge and tunnel destroyed by the federal government in an attempt to contain or quarantine the outbreak, Neville is cut off from the mainland. While he could probably escape using a boat or makeshift raft, he refuses to leave ďground zero,Ē continuing his research into the virus, hopeful that heíll find a cure.To survive in Manhattan among the infected, however, requires an almost superhuman effort. Nevilleís days are tightly scheduled around foraging for supplies and food with his dog, Sam, hunting wild game for fresh meat, driving to a pier at mid-day, hoping survivors will find him through his daily broadcasts, and continuing his research into the virus. Animals are affected as well, but are immune to the virusí airborne strain (but not the contact strain). Immune to the virus, Neville hopes he can find a cure through experiments using his blood. For that, Neville needs subjects, animal and infected. At night, Neville barricades himself in his Washington Square home, shotgun ready for any unwanted intruders, the infected. Neville is both hunter and prey. One mistake means capture by the infected and capture means instant death.
"Not the definitive interpretation fans of Matheson's novels hoped for."
At least premise wise, Mark Protosevich and Akiva Goldsmanís adaptation doesnít stray far from Mathesonís novel, but they seem just as influenced by the 1971 adaptation of Mathesonís novel, The Omega Man starring Charlton Heston as Neville and directed by Boris Sagal. Neville is a military scientist in both adaptations (he isnít in Mathesonís novel), heís actively researching a cure for the virus, and, most importantly, both films share a similar ending. The similarities end there, however, as Protosevich and Goldsmanís adaptation departs significantly, first by changing the setting from Los Angeles to New York and changing the infected from cult-like, anti-technological nutters with pigmentation and attitude problems in The Omega Man to the pack-like, non-verbal, feral, light-averse cannibals in the latest adaptation.
Both adaptations, however, stray far from Mathesonís conception of the plague and its effects. Those who donít die are reborn into nocturnal, blood-craving monsters, but theyíre closer to zombies than the gothic vampires found in 19th-century literature. Mathesonís genius (and it is that) was in adapting the myths and folklore associated with vampirism into a contemporary setting and coming up with a pseudo-scientific explanation for the plague and the effects on the survivors. An earlier adaptation of Mathesonís novel, The Last Man on Earth, a U.S.-Italian co-production made in 1964 with Vincent Price, but itís not surprising that itís as faithful as it is to Mathesonís novel, since he wrote an early version of the script.
Every adaptation shares Mathesonís exploration of the ďlast man on earthĒ scenario, focusing, to varying degrees, on Nevilleís isolation, loneliness, despair, and near-insanity as he attempts to survive in a post-apocalyptic world. Mathesonís novel, however, includes a twist that only the 1964 adaptation carries over: Neville is just as much of a monster as the infected, but that revelation doesnít occur until late in Mathesonís novel, but itís central to understanding the title of Mathesonís novel. The title is also the novelís last line. Here, thereís a nod to the ďlegendĒ line in a bit of voiceover near the end, but it has none of the originalís emotional or dramatic power.
As directed by Francis Lawrenceís (Constantine), I Am Legend is strongest early on, in following Neville as he goes through his daily, enervating routine in an abandoned, mostly silent Manhattan. Itís also effective during the first two encounters with the infected, who are more glimpsed than seen, but, and thereís no way to discuss I Am Legend without issuing a spoiler alert (as in skip to the next paragraph if you donít to find out what happens next), shifts gears, badly, when two new characters, Anna (Alice Braga) and Ethan (Charlie Tahan), are introduced. The long, very long first act turns into an improbable second act that depends on coincidence and contrivance to push the storyline forward and an even more rushed third act thatís disappointing for its brevity and lack of tension building or adequate payoff.
Thatís bad enough, but it gets worse. Protosevich and Goldsmanís screenplay makes the infected non-verbal, closer in conception and design to the infected in Danny Boyleís 28 Days Later than Mathesonís original conception of sentient vampire-like creatures or even the Hemocytes found in Protosevichís original screenplay which has been available online for several years (an ill-fated adaptation starring Arnold Schwarzenegger directed by Ridley Scott was almost made in the mid-1990s). In Protosevichís screenplay, the infected need human blood to survive and kept humans alive to harvest their blood for sustenance. The Hemocytes also had a culture, something barely hinted at in the latest version.That aside, what really weakens "I Am Legend" is the choice Lawrence and his producers made early on to switch from practical effects (i.e., prosthetics) to CGI for the infected. While CGI aids in world building (e.g., backgrounds, set extensions), it has to be of the highest caliber where living, breathing characters interacting with the ďrealĒ world are involved. Here, the CGI is nothing less than sub-par. Itís often so bad that audiences will spend more time nodding their heads in dismay during the last half hour than in following the storyline. Unfortunately, itís one decision that Lawrence and his producers canít take back. To Will Smithís credit, though, heís never less than watchable in "I Am Legend." Combined with an improbable second act and an underwritten third act (Protosevichís original version was better conceived, overall), "I Am Legend" will simultaneously disappoint genre fans, fans of Mathesonís novel, and even Will Smithís fans.
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originally posted: 12/14/07 13:00:00