I Am Legend (2007)
Generally, I’m the first to say that movie adaptations of literary works need to be considered as separate entities from the progenerating material. Expecting unwavering faithfulness to the original work is not only an unreasonable request, it often results in poorly shot, painfully boring films (take the first Harry Potter film, for instance). However, while I will tolerate a lot of concessions in the name of good filmmaking, I expect a movie adaptation to stay true to the spirit of the original, enough so that I can at least recognize the vestiges of the original plot amidst the new additions and modifications. Francis Lawrence's I Am Legend, however, hasn’t been adapted from Richard Mathesons’s novella, so much as it’s sent the novella to its room and thrown an unsupervised party in its absence.
In I Am Legend, Robert Neville (Will Smith) struggles for survival in a world that, as soon as the sun goes down, is crawling with monsters (called Dark Seekers in the DVD special features). Apparently, three years back, some fool (Emma Thompson) decided to cure cancer using a virus, and managed to cure people of their humanity along with it. The world's population has been almost annihilated and the people who were once Neville's neighbors are now horrible, undead creatures who will eat almost anything that moves. Alone with his dog, Neville spends his days inquiring the supplies he needs to continue surviving, waiting at the dock for possible survivors who never show up, and experimenting on a wall full of rats, hoping to find a cure for monster-ism. He is, it would appear, the last man on Earth, or at least in New York City. That is, until, he meets Anna (Alice Braga) and her young son wandering the streets of the once Big Apple
After watching I Am Legend, I really had to wonder if the writers had even read the original novella. They kept the names, killed the dog, and populated the city with monsters. After that, they said good-bye to Matheson’s plot and base concept in favor of cliché “fight-against-the-germ” scientific babble, sappy storytelling and a creature so ridiculous I can only describe as a “zompire”. Nowhere in sight is the main “man becomes the monster” theme of the original story, or, for that matter, even the “last man on earth” concept. The results are flat, predictable, and downright boring. Will Smith saves the human race and we all feel bad about the dog – certainly nothing I would call innovative, or even interesting.
The largest flaw that plagues I Am Legend, and from which the movie never recovers, is the story. Matheson's original tale was a poignant social commentary about what it means to be human. Sure, it wasn't perfect (it's incredibly unlikeable Neville made me want to stab babies, for starters), but it had something to say. Mark Protosevich and Akiva Goldsman's adaptation, however, seems to have nothing to say other than “Look at my very large budget.” Neville is no longer a regular guy, but an intelligent, capable army scientist. The monsters are, well, mostly just monsters. And the sappy flashbacks to Neville’s last moments with his wife and child are almost enough to make me gag. The effect is artificial, lacking any real human connection. We don't feel for Neville, because he's cooler than us. We don't feel for the monsters because they lack depth. And we don't feel any sympathy for Neville's tragic life and mission because, frankly, it reads like your stereotypical example of When Bad Things Happen. It's completely unengaging.
Further, this flat screenplay is confounded by the writer's disinterested poking of Matheson's original themes. There are hints of intelligence in the “Dark Seekers.” For example, the trap the monsters set for Neville reeks of revenge, and the fury of one particular Seeker seems almost like outrage. Unfortunately, this depth quickly falls victim to an obviously short attention span, as these sparks of reason are lost to unrealistic feats of physics and disturbingly large jaws. The Dark Seekers never really progress, never become more than just mindless beasts. This leaves the audience with the feeling that there should be more, coupled with the painful realization that this is all there is.
This seems like the perfect place in the review to expand on the concept of “zompires”. In the original story, the monsters were definitely vampires. They couldn't tolerate sun, they didn't like garlic, and you killed them with a stake to the heart. Definitely vampire. I Am Legend kept some of this. The Dark Seekers react violently to sun, they congregate in nests ala Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and they're pretty damn pale. However, once again, I Am Legend has deviated from the original story, not to improve it, but to show off a fancy budget. If you want to create a vampire, you put someone in some fancy make-up, and that's not cool in today's computer age. So, instead, the monsters become a twisted, grotesque, almost undead looking zombie/vampire cross, for the sole purpose of looking cool. The changes do nothing to improve the story, and, unfortunately, it doesn't really illicit a reaction visually either. Just because you can do something with CGI doesn't mean you should. The creatures of horror are entirely CGI, created using motion capture techniques. As a result, they look like something out of Dawn of the Dead, if DotD had gone terribly wrong. Using the powers of computers, the makers of I Am Legend have created a reasonable approximation of what would happen if a zombie, a vampire, and a lot of vodka got together one night. And it isn't scary.
The conception aside, the actual implementation of the CGI effects fails miserably. The main downfall of these effects is that they are obviously computer generated. Despite the use of motion capture, the creatures move in ways that nothing beholden to the laws of gravity could ever move, and their bodies have that overly 3D look that is so perfectly dimensional it, ironically, looks flat. The monsters just don't look real, or even plausible. And so, when they do things that only CGI monsters could do, such as open their mouths three times as wide as they ought to, it just looks ridiculous. Contortion and horror is based on some degree of believability. I Am Legend has creatures that fall well outside the bounds of any normal person's suspension of disbelief, and, as a result, they just look silly.
This strange, computerized flatness doesn't stop at the zompires. Because the setting is post-apocalyptic New York, and our lovely creators are CGI-happy, the production is littered with poorly animated lions, deer, and, I can't believe I'm saying this, IV fluid lines. That's right, they CGI'd the medical equipment used on a zompire test subject. Because, you know, you can't just go out and buy that stuff or anything. The ridiculous abundance of computer graphics would be bordering on funny if it wasn't so sad. And, unfortunately for me, not only did I see the film in theaters, I got to rewatch it in the new high definition Blu-ray format. The image quality and resolution in Blu-ray is fantastic, which means you get to see exactly how bad the CGI really is, right down to the most minute details. I never thought I'd say this, since I've been a huge fan of Blu-ray overall, but if you have the choice between Blu-ray and the lower resolutions of regular DVD, take the latter. There are some things you are better off not knowing.
As with any bastion of awfulness, I Am Legend must have at least one good thing to say about it, one aspect of the film that I can't say anything negative about. I Am Legend has Will Smith. In fact, the majority of the movie is Will Smith and a dog – and the dog isn't doing much acting. Which means that Smith has to carry the entire show, all by himself. And he does a fantastic job. In his hands, Neville is capable and dangerous, and right on the edge of losing the last of his mental screws. He manages to make talking to mannequins seem normal; in his hands, the crazy becomes dangerous and the grieving heart-wrenching. I actually felt sorry for Neville when they killed his dog, and I certainly can't blame the writing for that.
Sadly, not even Will Smith can save I Am Legend from the theatrical ending. I won't spoil it for you, just in case you're still looking forward to the film, but I will say that's it's painfully apparent that someone was taking their stupid pills that morning. The alternate ending, which comes as a special feature on both the Blu-Ray and the two-disc special edition DVD, is better, but not by much. All that belligerent poking at Matheson's story I mention above? Well, in the alternate ending, they try to clean all that up and give it meaning. They get about half of it right. After an hour and half of zompire hell, I'll take 50%.
Overall, I Am Legend is a poorly executed attempt to update Matheson's original, slightly out-dated, horror novella. It fails. The monsters aren't scary, the effects are painful, and the story convoluted. I wish there was something more positive to say, but I've got nothing. Guess I'll just have to wait for them to actually make I Am Legend into a movie. Because this? This ain't it.