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Friday, January 11, 2008

Review of I AM LEGEND

They changed the ending.

And for that, I cannot forgive.

For the first two-thirds of the film, I Am Legend with Will Smith is pretty faithful to the spirit of Richard Matheson's original novel. I think that Akiva Goldsman (and whatever made it into this final draft from Mark Protosevich's original script) was hitting on the right cylinders so far as portraying Neville's loneliness and despair went. The scenes of Smith in the video store, where he's talking to the mannequins and trying hard not to gaze upon the adult DVD section, seemed especially inspired by the book.

And when we see Neville going to the dock every day at noon, waiting in vain for anybody who might have heard his signal: even though that was never something we saw in the book, it was a nice touch. It's something that I could see Matheson's Neville doing.

I don't even mind how the nature of the plague was changed from bacterial epidemic to a genetically-engineered virus that got loose (shades of The Stand). Part of me is even willing to overlook how this new film's Neville is already a scientist who was trying to fight the contagion, instead of being the average Joe from the book who struggles to grasp scientific methods out of dire necessity.

Heck, a tiny part of me is even okay with letting slide how the vampires of this new I Am Legend movie are mindless pack-animals instead of intelligent and well-coordinated former humans. I couldn't resist, however, saying aloud "Come out, Neville!" during the first nighttime scene.

But whatever good there is in this movie... which could have become something much more magnificent and haunting... is totally undone by the final minutes. Which not only brings the entire work to an anticlimactic halt, it completely undermines the very meaning of the title itself. If you've read the novel you know what I'm talking about. If you haven't then here's a chance to find out, but since this is major spoiler material, I'm going to have to do this in "inviso-text":

SPOILERS (click mouse and swipe over to highlight and read): By the end of the novel, a new race of humans - who are infected by the virus but are not truly "undead" - has gradually taken over. Neville has been going around during daylight killing the still-living, and to them he has become a terror. In the final pages of the story it dawns on Robert Neville that just as the vampire had been a myth preying on human fear, so too has he now become a myth to the new society that has arisen from the ashes of the plague. As Neville takes the suicide pills, he reflects in the very last words of the book that "I am legend." END SPOILERS

Why couldn't they have used that ending? Were Goldman and company too intimidated by Matheson's original conclusion? Did the possibility of sequels blind them on how to give this story the respect it deserves?

The novel I Am Legend is about loneliness and despair, but it's also a story rife with irony and, in my opinion anyway, about obsession and where that can take anyone. I think that too much emphasis was made on Neville's solitude and how he copes with it, to the detriment of everything else that made I Am Legend a classic horror novel. Unfortunately, I think this reflects a long-time trend on how Neville's character is handled. I saw this with my lifelong friend Chad Austin and his friend Aaron from church. On our way back to his home Chad said that he thought Smith's Neville was like a "Christ figure" in this movie. And he's right. Neville even gives his own blood so that others might live. And that's what Charlton Heston did in his take on Robert Neville in 1971's The Omega Man, too. The weird thing is, the Robert Neville of the original novel is not a Messiah-type character at all. By the end of the story, in his own way he's become a non-Christian (but not "anti-Christian") figure.

I would have loved to have seen that happen in this movie, and how during the story there's been this process at work, in spite of whatever Neville intended, that has made him into this kind of legend. But instead of being strong enough to give us that, we're shown another Neville: one that we've seen before, that comes as a result of lacking courage enough to tackle the book's ending. I didn't mind this in The Omega Man... but it's four decades later and Hollywood should have matured enough to take on the challenge this time. And it didn't.

This is a project that I've been following since 1997, all the way back when Ridley Scott was supposed to film this with Arnold Schwarzenegger with the original screenplay by Mark Protosevich. And in the minutes after watching I Am Legend 2007, I was immediately thinking back - with a lot of regret - on Scott's unfilmed version and how we'll never get to see it. That adaptation was going to be extremely faithful to the novel, right down to the end. I've still got the concept art for the Scott version's vampires somewhere, and trust me: his version would have rocked the house and given everybody bad dreams for days to come. When Matheson's story was first adapted for the screen as The Last Man on Earth (with Vincent Price in the lead), that was probably the closest anyone's come yet to the book's ending and ultimate meaning.

I was really hoping... and expecting even... that I Am Legend with Will Smith as Neville was going to be the definitive movie version of this story. Sadly, it's not. It's been a long time since I've looked forward to a movie, only to meet with such frustration...

I Am Legend does shine throughout most of the movie though. The scenes where Neville is going around a desolate New York City certainly outweigh what was technically feasible when Heston was driving around in his convertible in The Omega Man almost forty years ago. And the fate of Neville's dog will break the hearts of anyone who still cries when Travis puts down Old Yeller. Will Smith also puts his heart into this version's Robert Neville. I can believe in Smith as Neville, even if I can't buy into what becomes of Neville at the end of this movie.

Ultimately, I Am Legend is a very good technical movie that is wrecked by a failure to follow the production wizardry with adequate courage in the writing. For that reason, I would recommend I Am Legend as a study on how not to be too timid with how one tells a story. Get it through Netflix if you have a burning desire to see this new I Am Legend, but otherwise your money is probably going to be better spent this coming week when Cloverfield comes out (of which I am hearing nothing but crazy good news about).


Anonymous said...

I know you compare this to the book, which has a pretty bleak ending considering it represents the end of the human race. I enjoyed the movie very much because it gave an ending that had some hope, and for the fact that Smith's character gave his life for the survival of the human race. I think that the movie is worth seeing in the theater if only for the sheer spectacle of an abandonded New York, which was pulled off in amazing fashion....but Smith gives a masterful performance that I still ponder almost 2 weeks after seeing it and truly made the movie palatable to me. I liked it, a lot. Just have to keep it mentally seperate from the book - this isnt the first time Hollywood has done that to a book!

qemuel said...

I'm gonna have to somewhat disagree with you on this one, anonymous. There is nothing wrong with deviating from the source material when you are balancing out the differences with what works on the page as opposed to the silver screen; they are different mediums with different needs. The problems arise when you deviate from the very essence of the book--there's nothing wrong with making this movie and having it be different: just don't call it I AM LEGEND. It's simply about brand recognition at that point.

Anonymous said...

I just saw I Am Legend this afternoon, and I'd have to say I enjoyed it more than I thought I would. I was afraid it might get boring with just Neville and his dog against some vampirish zombies, but the movie progresses at a decent pace and didn't get too repetitive.

I'm not familiar with the novel, so I'm not a purist of the original story. From the way you describe the ending of the novel, I'd have to say I actually like the movie ending better.