Man, I’m a sucker for these QUIET EARTH type stories. You can’t help but think about what you would do in a situation like that, alone or with a couple other people, living in an abandoned city, everybody else either dead or disappeared. All of society’s leftover resources would be there for the plucking. Where would you take up residence? What would you drive? Would the rides at Disneyland still work? What sort of games would you play to amuse yourself? Backhoe Rampage? Skyscraper Free Throw? Condo Shitting? How would you deal with your loneliness? And would you bother to wear pants?
If there’s monsters involved, like in DAWN OF THE DEAD or any of the three movies based on Richard Matheson’s book I Am Legend, then it becomes more of a survivalist challenge, you start thinking about strategies. How to fortify your home, how to transport yourself around safely to scavenge, etc. In this case it’s vampires he’s dealing with so he can pretty much wander around and do what he wants during daylight (vampires have a sunlight related disability), but at nightfall it’s on.
To me that’s mainly what I Am Legend is about: living a life like that and the toll it takes on you mentally. To some people though the book is mainly about the ironic twist at the end that hasn’t been used in any of the movie adaptations. I’d love to see that too, if somebody could figure out how to translate the inner monologue realization from the book into movie form. But I’m not gonna get broken up about another re-interpretation of the story. I guess I’m not as much of a stickler for literal adaptations as alot of individuals. I think it’s more important for it just to be a good movie. For example, the remake of DAWN OF THE DEAD doesn’t have the substance of the original, has a different approach to zombies that I don’t like as much, doesn’t even spend all that much time in the mall that’s the main setting of the original. And yet I can’t complain too much because it still works, it is an effective action-horror movie on its own terms, I enjoyed watching it. So I guess I am more interested in faithfulness to the magic of cinema than to original source material.
I bring this up because for the third time this is pretty different from Matheson’s book. They finally use the original title, but it ends up meaning a different thing from in the book. For the third time it doesn’t end the same way as the book. For the first time the vampires have been drastically changed to the point where they are more monsters than people, they don’t talk, and Neville doesn’t even pick up on their humanity. It’s even been moved from L.A. to Manhattan. (At least it wasn’t filmed in Rome like LAST MAN ON EARTH was.) People have told me if they just called it OMEGA MAN again it wouldn’t offend them, but I keep going back to Dracula. I’ve never seen a movie of Dracula that was even 75% faithful to the book, but I’ve seen a whole bunch of good Dracula movies. As a literal translation, LAST MAN ON EARTH is closest to what happens in the book, but in cinematic terms it’s the worst of the three movies. I AM LEGEND is the best.
The first version I saw was OMEGA MAN, which has a classic opening: Charlton Heston driving around in a convertible – seems normal at first, but then you realize that the streets he’s driving on have no other cars, no pedestrians, just him. And then he stops and (in a goofy sped up shot) stands up in his car and fires an assault rifle into a building, where silhouettes of hooded figures run past the windows. I AM LEGEND introduces its Robert Neville (Will Smith this time) in a more epic way. He’s hauling ass through New York with his German Shepherd Sam in the passenger seat. The streets are not only abandoned but broken, rotting, being slowly reclaimed by nature. It’s appropriate because before we know it they’re on a hunt, chasing a deer through gridlocked, abandoned cars that for the animals have become a new wilderness.
What’s special about this movie is that for the most part it doesn’t dumb it down. This really is a big studio special effects movie that’s mostly about one dude talking to his dog and some mannequins. I think people were expecting I, LEGEND, but Smith doesn’t do this one “Big Willie Style.” He treats the role exactly as seriously as he did PURSUIT OF HAPPYNESS or ALI. None of that mugging and wisecracking shit at all, no “it’s raining black men” or “Ah, hell nah!” He gives a great performance, and the most effective part of the movie is his relationship with his dog and the tragedy of him losing his family (shown in strategically placed flashbacks). Even the asshole wannabe rock star behind me who kept talking through the movie started crying at one point. It’s not often that a big studio genre movie is more interested in emotions than in explosions. And you know me, I love explosions, but I am also human so I like the humanity. Good work.
He does some log recordings about his experiments, but most of the explanation of what’s going on is visual. You see him pumping his gas, turning on his generator, hunting for meat, scavenging for canned food, trying to communicate with other survivors, systematically mapping which parts of the city he has explored, even consulting charts in the Farmer’s Almanac before setting his watch to warn him the sun’s coming down. I like how some of the story is explained in background details on the set, like the newspaper article pinned on a wall in an apartment that sets up the rules that will be used later involving infected dogs (or zoltans).
I also like that a few things are left ambiguous, like what the hell the vampires are doing in the scene where we see them for the first time. Creepy shit. There’s a scene where Neville falls into a trap that I’ve found has been read at least two very different ways that drastically change your view of the vampires and Neville’s theories about them. And there’s one very powerful scene involving an injection – I think I know what happened but I could think of at least 3 ways to interpret it, and all of them are good.
The director is Francis Lawrence whose work so far includes the video where Justin Timberlake stalks his ex-girlfriend and the movie CONSTANTINE, which I thought was pretty good and showed promise for him. And I was right. One of the credited screenwriters is Akiva Goldsman, who I like to compare to Henry Kissinger because he committed artistic war crimes like BATMAN FOREVER, BATMAN AND ROBIN, LOST IN SPACE and A TIME TO KILL before winning an Oscar for best adapted screenplay. If we must have that creepo write a movie good thing it’s one where the main character has no one to talk to.
If I had to guess I’d say the scene that Akiva Goldsmanned up the most is the one really out of place scene where Neville discusses Bob Marley. Man, why do so many movies have to have that one scene? Remember before when you treated us like we weren’t stupid? So how did you go from that to explicitly stating that yes, his daughter Marley was named after his favorite musician, Bob Marley? And then we’re supposed to believe that another character has never heard of Bob Marley, and thinks he’s talking about Damien Marley? I mean I liked “Welcome to Jam-Rock” too, but come on. And then Neville makes a not entirely convincing speech comparing Bob Marley’s life with his work in virology. And this will sound like a joke but I’m serious – I do believe Goldsman has changed the meaning of the title so that it’s no longer I AM LEGEND, it is now I AM LEGEND (YOU KNOW, THE BOB MARLEY AND THE WAILERS GREATEST HITS ALBUM FOUND IN EVERY COLLEGE DORM IN AMERICA). Or maybe that’s what Richard Matheson was getting at in the book and I just never picked up on it.
I think we as a society will agree that the one major thing holding this movie back is the depiction of the vampires as CGI monsters. Apparently they first tried people in makeup and Lawrence didn’t think it was working, so who knows, maybe it could’ve been worse. But the finished product is kind of a bummer – they look cartoony and digital so it’s hard not to be at least a little distanced when they’re on the screen. It’s fair to compare their look to THE MUMMY although the filmatism makes them better – they may look silly but they are still in the context of very tense and well-staged sequences. And fortunately they are off screen for most of the movie, and don’t have dialogue or anything.
If I had magical movie-altering powers – and I think there’s a chance some day I will – I would try trading these vampires for the ones in 30 DAYS OF NIGHT. Those two movies are kind of mirror images. Remember, in 30 DAYS OF NIGHT it bothered me that the movie skimmed over the details of how exactly they survived those 30 days, the systems and routines they came up with for getting through a day. This is the part of the story I AM LEGEND excels at. Then on the other hand 30 DAYS OF NIGHT had great vampires, played by actors with some very scary makeup and digital touchup, who had a scary presence and didn’t really look like standard issue vampires. And that’s the part that I AM LEGEND is iffy on. Both movies are smart enough to leave the vampires mostly on the outskirts of the story, not really explaining what they’re up to, using them more as an off camera threat. In this one you’re more thankful for it because usually when they’re on screen it takes the movie down a couple notches.
But the filmatism is good. No shakycam bullshit. When it’s handheld it just makes it more intense. The action, when it comes up, is nicely staged. Any disorientation does not come from sloppiness but as an intentional effect, like the excellent scene where he has to go into a dark building because his dog chased a deer in there. He can’t see much but he has a pretty fuckin good hunch there’s gonna be a bunch of god damn vampires in there.
And then you think he’s gonna go BLADE or JOHN CARPENTER’S VAMPIRES on their ass but the movie takes a different approach. He’s not a vampire slayer. He knows that’s like trying to kill all the bees in the world. No, he’s trying to cure them.
I always loved in OMEGA MAN how he plays chess with a bust of Caesar and talks to it like its his buddy. In this one Neville has mannequins set up at a video store where he goes every day and is going through the alphabet watching them all. It’s cool because obviously he could just take the whole collection to his house, but going to rent the videos is his way of simulating normal life. He has names for the mannequins and has a crush on one of them. I noticed that she’s posed looking at the porn section, which made me realize that was one topic that is never addressed in the movie. In my opinion, and I don’t know if this was covered in the Popular Mechanics article picking apart the reality of the film, but I think the last man on earth would be a HUGE fucking porn fiend. You got no ladies, no nobody, of course you’re gonna be watching that shit. This is not mentioned but you know it’s true. The weird thing about omega man porn habits is that there is no need for hiding the porn, because who’s gonna find it, the vampires? And if so who cares. I wouldn’t be embarrassed. They climb around on poles and drink blood, who are they to be judgmental about you jerkin off to the College Invasion series or whatever. But I bet Neville still hides his porn, just to keep that illusion going, that idea that he’s gonna fix everything. He doesn’t want to leave those DVDs laying around everywhere, because then when he cures vampirism he’ll be all excited and forget to hide them and it will lead to embarrassment. No, you gotta have the hiding place. And knowing him, with all his fancy window shutter systems and everything, he’s probaly got a pretty amazing hiding place. Maybe that will be in a deleted scene on the DVD.
Anyway, that’s kind of the core idea of the character, that he has not given up. He doesn’t believe in God anymore, he doesn’t believe there are other living humans, but he believes he will “fix it.” At first it just seems stubborn, maybe kind of courageous. Eventually you realize that it is also crazy. He’s lost it.
By the way, Charlton Heston’s Neville had better taste in movies than Will Smith’s. Heston went to a movie theater every day and watched WOODSTOCK. Obviously that’s not totally in tune with his politics but it’s a pretty good documentary and you assume as an omega man he gets off on the crowd scenes. Will Smith’s Neville is really into SHREK. Oh well. His mind has gone mushy from all that isolation.
The weakest parts of the movie are all toward the end. You want the vampires to be more real, you want the end to be more solid. It might be fair to say that the movie loses it at the end or that it fizzles out a little. I feel like there was a point where if they had taken a left instead of a right they would’ve ended up with an all time classic, a masterpiece. Well, there’s no taking back that right turn, but let’s not throw out the baby with the bathwater. (Shit, let’s even save the bathwater. The baby needs it.) This is a flawed movie, but I love it. For years this was going to be a Schwarzenegger movie. Then it was gonna be a Michael Bay. I can’t lie, I probaly would’ve enjoyed one out of two of those options. But what we ended up with is something much better and much more rare: a solemn, serious-minded big studio genre movie. When was the last time you saw one of those?
It’s got the seriousness and sincere emotions of a smaller movie but (when it comes to the abandoned New York, if not the vampires) with the production value and scope of a bigger movie. In tone you might compare it to something like 28 DAYS/WEEKS LATER but to me it’s more powerful overall between the great performance by Smith and a directorial style that appeals to me more (you know, the old way where you can tell what’s going on). So it’s got a few things holding it back, but what it has going for it in my opinion catapults it ahead of almost all of the other horror and sci-fi type movies of recent years, even if the main character is really into SHREK.
Man, I hope he’s not one of those freaks who had a SHREK themed wedding. That might be enough to ruin it. If that shows up on the DVD supplements I might have to return the DVD and say it’s defective.
DVD UPDATE: Nope, no further information on porn stashes or SHREK weddings. In fact, there’s not much in the way of extras at all. There’s some “animated comics” that I couldn’t get all the way through. No deleted scenes, no commentaries, no making of, nothing except a “digital copy” which if you have a PC with various updated software then you can use it to burn this onto your computer and then transfer it to watch on your cell phone or your hair dryer.
But there is exactly one very good bonus: the second disc contains the entire movie but with the original ending, before they test-screened it and reshot it. I’m not sure what Francis Lawrence’s view is of this cut, since he is never heard from or mentioned on the DVD, but personally I like this version better. It feels more natural because it’s the ending the movie had been building toward. In spirit (but not at all in specifics or even tone) it is more in tune with the book, because without spelling it out it ends up that the title means the same thing as in the book.
SPOILERS FOR THIS OTHER ENDING: It also proves that I was right, that Neville was wrong about the vampires. In this version his eyes are opened so that he realizes vampires really do have higher brain functions, and relationships. And that by experimenting on them he has been murdering them. There’s a great shot of him looking at all the photos on his laboratory wall showing the faces of every test subject he’s had. He’s a mass murderer! He realizes that if these vampires can care about each other, if they have relationships, then he has no right to try to cure them against their will. And at least now he has met another human. Let bygones be bygones. It’s funny because this is a happier ending than the other one but it feels less phony. I guess people don’t like this type of ending, like they don’t like the shaky peace at the end of MATRIX REVOLUTIONS or LAND OF THE DEAD. In movies people want to see good guys kill the shit out of bad guys, they don’t want people to understand each other.
One interesting thing if you are familiar with the other ending: that one had a religious message that I assumed was all Will Smith. Earlier in the movie he has said that there is no God, but at the end he has sort of a spiritual awakening where he believes in destiny and purpose and to me it seemed to be him realizing he was wrong to say there was no God. In this one it doesn’t happen so in a sense you could say the movie agrees with him that there’s no God. You don’t get that too often in movies. That might be another reason they changed the ending, I’m not sure.
So it’s a good ending and I still enjoyed this movie, maybe even more because this time I was used to the iffy CGI and it didn’t bother me as much. I’m still not sure why she didn’t know who Bob Marley was (which by the way it turns out was Will Smith’s idea, not Akiva Goldsman’s. I read that in an interview). But I think this actually will end up as some sort of minor classic, despite its problems. To me the first hour is pretty much perfect, so it already has enough goodwill to float on past the weak spots.
One note of caution: disc one is called “ORIGINAL RELEASE” and disc 2 is called “ALTERNATE THEATRICAL CUT.” This confused me – which one is the new version? Turns out it’s “ALTERNATE THEATRICAL CUT.” I have no inside information here but I’m wondering if that weird titling means they expect to release another cut at some point. Why else would they not call it “DIRECTOR’S CUT” or “UNRATED VERSION”? My dream is that there will be a director’s cut where they take some time to tweak the CGI on the vampire’s faces, but that might be asking too much. Anyway, the point is, I bought this DVD and I’m happy with my purchase but there is definitely potential for a double dip here.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.