I've never hidden the fact that reading Richard Matheson's 1954 zompire novel was heavily influential in my decision to look a little closer at zombie cinema and ultimately create this blog. As well as a bloody good post apocalyptic yarn I couldn't help notice that despite the fact the protagonists were clearly labelled as vampires their behaviour and the setting were remarkably modern zombie and their appearance was some ten years earlier than Romero. Before Matheson zombies were inexorably tied up with voodoo and magic; but his novel and The Last Man on Earth adaptation were the catalyst that allowed for the all new zombie of Night of the Living Dead. It was the green light so to speak to talk in terms of infection, virus, pandemic and move on from the Caribbean and the drums. The Last Man on Earth adaptation was almost perfect but let down by feeling the need to include a more action packed, but against the grain, gun-toting finale, which leads us nicely on to this film. Ultimately how one feels about the use of such artistic licence, will determine whether I Am Legend is a legitimate success, or an abomination that should never have seen the life of day.
This 2007 big budget block buster adaptation has A-list Will Smith as Robert Neville, this time a virologist and Lieutenant Colonel smack bang at ground zero. From the off it's clear we're in for a much more frantic and cinematically ambitious ride. Helicopters swoop, bridges explode and we get to witness society on the brink of collapse on a larger scale with more ferocity and finesse than ever before. It's dazzling and breathtaking but it's not the I Am Legend I'm used to.
The novel was written in 1954 and The Last Man on Earth ten years later. The mainstream cinema audience today are a far more demanding bunch with bigger and more grandiose expectations. I don't think cinematic ambition has altered, it's just now, with multi-million dollar budgets and modern technology, able to throw off limitations on a scale previously unimaginable. All director Francis Lawrence has done, is take the central premise of the story, the characters, the message and thrown 21st Century film making at it, and you know what, half an hour in I was thoroughly enjoying myself and starting to respect what I was watching. I Am Legend as it was had been done, successfully I might add, why not take a few liberties?
First thing first, and the most important in my mind. The infected of I Am Legend aren't dead. Obviously heavily taking influence from Boyle's 28 Days Later they catch the bug and go a bit loopy but they don't die and reanimate, they can't take death-shots to the body and they can't be called undead. As infected humans they also get to keep their abilities to run, climb and leap in quite the manner juxtaposed to the original vision, and as such the action sequences are noisier, more frantic and more explosive.
There's two ways to look at these liberties / differences; yes on face value they're poles apart but underneath there is much that is similar. Lawrence could have made them out and out zombies or vampires but he didn't. They're ambiguous, a hybrid of sorts, there's still the nod to vampirism as they burn on contact with UV and have the insatiable thirst for blood, but there's still the pack mentality, the lack of will with the rabid instinctual behaviour associated with zombies, and like the book there's an attempt to ground it all in science. There's also the nod to the idea they're possibly regaining some higher brain function, as an evolved effect of a new species-state, and this is all linked to an appearance of sorts of Neville's old neighbour Ben Cortman with one particular darkseeker (what Neville calls them) showing particular curiosity.
The rest of the narrative changes are cosmetic in my eyes. Yes he starts with his dog instead of finding him but what is important, their relationships ability to convey Neville's loneliness is just as poignant. Yes Ruth becomes Anna and Ethan, and scenes and sequences are all different but the books essence is still very much alive. As for the ending, and it's this which provokes the biggest backlash, yes it's at odds with the book. Neville doesn't become the 'legend' as the last of a now extinct race, this time he now becomes a 'legend' as the man who saved the human race and yes I know it misses the point, but I'm going to take it for what it is and happily say I can live with both.
As for the film. New York City adorned in post apocalyptic splendour is feast for the eyes. With fauna abound untamed, and smashings of urban decay and destruction Lawrence's vision is an unparalleled success. Long silences raise Will Smith's performance to one of greatness and help transmit an authentic picture of a man fighting the pain and despair of chronic isolation. I found his portrayal reminiscent of Tom Hanks in Castaway, full of paranoia, insanity and changeable mood, and dare I say just as convincing as Vincent Prices was. One small grievance is the CG of the darkseekers themselves, which I felt came across a little jarring and bit too artificial. It was the one let down of the film though wasn't quite enough to spoil the ride.
A breathtaking roller-coaster ride, lavishly presented and perfectly paced it's a stunning piece of cinema. Poignant, moving and in my opinion as legitimate a modern re-interpretation as you're likely to see. Will Smith is immense as Neville and captures the essence of his character with all his imperfections and Lawrence truly delivers a post apocalyptic cityscape that feels at once boundless and claustrophobic. If you want an authentic pound for pound vision, The Last Man on Earth is the closest thing and the one for you, if you want something new and shinier but with the same soul though, you won't be disappointed. A majestic film, alas, just not a zombie one, 8/10.