I Am Legend
Dir. Francis Lawrence
Premiered December 5, 2007
Once upon a time, I was really excited about this movie. I was days from turning 18 and looking for a good movie to celebrate with. And here we have Will Smith, idol of nineties kids everywhere, returning to the action-adventure genre, tearing around a lushly rendered vision of an abandoned New York City reminiscent of Alan Weisman’s recent bestseller The World Without Us? What could possibly go wrong?
And then cinephiles everywhere raised hell over the film’s supposedly terrible ending, so I ended up not going to the movies for my birthday.
Watching it now, I am actually kind of heartbroken. The late 2000s and especially 2007 were decidedly light on science fiction, and in the right hands, this could have been nearly as good as Sunshine. Instead, I began enthralled with a flawed but well-constructed movie, and finished in a state of righteous anger.
Based on the 1954 novel by Richard Matheson, previously adapted into several movies I haven’t seen, I Am Legend opens on the promise of a retroviral drug that can cure cancer. Smash cut to an abandoned, overgrown landscape three years later. It’s a startling introduction, if very obviously inspired by 28 Days Later.
In the year 2009, Dr. Alice Krippin (Emma Thompson) believed she had found a genetically-modified viral treatment that can cure cancer. However, most of the recipients died suddenly, and those who didn’t were progressively transformed into hive-dwelling vampire-like creatures. Army virologist Robert Neville (Will Smith) tried to find a cure, but was unable to do so before New York City was quarantined, his wife and daughter were killed in the evacuation, and the virus became airborne.
Neville, naturally immune to the virus, has continued his work for three years, hunting game in Times Square, harvesting corn in Central Park, and scavenging the deserted apartment blocks of Lower Manhattan with his german shepherd Sam. Seemingly close to a cure, but steadily losing his grip on reality, he kidnaps a young vampire for use as a test subject in his lab, provoking the hive into a conflict that may cost him what little he has left.
From there, the movie hits a brick wall.
I Am Legend shares interesting parallels with Oliver Hirschbiegel’s The Invasion. Both 2007 films were based on 1950s science fiction allegories, both capitalize on a timely fear of pandemic disease, and both give us cop-out endings that trade a poignant conclusion for an easy out that misses the point. However, The Invasion was already a shitty movie before it revealed that being a pod person was now curable; it was inconsistently written, miscast, and cheap-looking. I Am Legend, while far from perfect on a technical level, still could have been good. It almost was, but the studio’s insecurity over a tragic ending kept it from ever getting close.
In the original story by Richard Matheson, the vampires (and they are much more explicitly vampires in the book) are intelligent, and Neville is simply blinded by fear of the new society they have created. He’s arrested and sentenced to death for what is essentially genocide, and accepts this as just punishment, realizing that he is the monster that haunts their nightmares. He is legend. It isn’t Night of the Living Dead, it’s Falling Down.
I Am Legend doesn’t start out completely in that direction– in the detail-oriented language of film, it’s hard to balance Neville’s frightened first impressions of the vampires with their true nature. Nor is it visually perfect; the CGI, whether used to depict vampires, wild animals, or tracking shots of Neville driving around New York, is jarringly sterile and weightless. But the first half is expertly paced and edited, and Will Smith does some of his finest work in years. The intensity and buildup in the first hour should be the envy of filmmakers everywhere.
Indeed, the film originally ended similarly to the book (if not similarly enough for my tastes), with Neville realizing that he’s basically their Mengele. But test audiences didn’t like it, so they went with noble self-sacrifice and fiery, characterless explosions. It doesn’t just clash with the book, it clashes with the tense fatalism of the rest of the movie. You can see the scars of reshoots when Smith suddenly seems to phone it in, or when his conversations with newcomer Anna (Alice Braga) run in hastily-written circles. Ironically, I Am Legend is tragic because it chooses not to embrace tragedy.
Signs This Was Made in 2007
Broadway shows on offer during the pandemic include Hairspray, Wicked, and Mamma Mia!
The most bizarre part of this film is in the background: one of the ads in Times Square is a logo teaser for an upcoming Batman vs. Superman film, which wasn’t in pre-production at that time. My theory is that Warner Brothers, which produced I Am Legend, expected 2006’s Superman Returns to be a bigger deal than it ended up as, and intended to cross it over with the Nolan Batman films…and that theory is wrong, but not that far off.
How Did It Do?
I Am Legend nevertheless managed to become the 7th-highest-grossing film of 2007, earning $585.3 million against a $150 million budget. This is notable for a few reasons, but perhaps most notably that it succeeded as middlingly hard science fiction in a decade when fantasy had largely pushed it aside.
You can see this in the critical response to the film: with a 69% fresh rating on RottenTomatoes, most critics were in awe of its 28 Days Later-style genre mixing and most of all its ambition, a sense of weight and import that lent itself to some questionable interpretations. Bob Mondello, clearly addled by an autumn full of dreadful foreign policy critiques, insisted that the vampires were clearly an allegory for the Taliban, an unintentional product of America’s own effort to combat something else.
This popular butchering of American policy, in the public mind and in Hollywood, would happily be rectified by the next film.
Next Time: Charlie Wilson’s War