Last week, I said I’d talk about John Brahm’s The Lodger this time around. I want to hold that off for another week, in order to put in my two cents’ worth on I Am Legend.
So here we are with the third adaptation of Richard Matheson’s classic novel, and the first to actually use the title. There was certainly room for improvement on the other two. The Last Man On Earth (1964) is still the closest to the book, but Matheson himself was sufficiently displeased with what was done with his original script that he had his name replaced in the credits with a pseudonym. The Omega Man (1971) has some great early mood stuff and neat makeup for the creatures, but descends into risibility by the end. So is the third time the charm?
Short answer: no. Though things look hopeful initially. Let me say that what I Am Legend does well, it does very well indeed. The vision of a deserted New York City is spookily convincing. Will Smith turns in a terrific performance, effortlessly carrying most of the film solo (though the very expressive German Shepherd he’s co-starring with does stellar work as well). The scene where he chases the dog into a pitch-black building is utterly nerve-fraying. The first act is stupendous.
Problems being to surface in Act Two, with the introduction of the mutants (no longer the vampires of the novel). They are far too obviously CGI, especially when we finally see them clearly. They’re a real problem, but the narrative at this point is still so tight, and Smith is so good, that I was able to forgive the dodgy creatures.
And then, in the third act, everything goes into the toilet. Two utterly inane characters are introduced, the sentimentality goes through the roof, the plot descends into competent but old-hat and out-of-place action, and the script drowns in a morass of brain-dead religiosity that collapses under the weight of its own contradictions. The conclusion, with a stultifying voice-over that tries to justify the title, is the final betrayal of the novel.
Okay, spoiler time for the rest of this column. If you haven’t read the book or seen the film, go away now and don’t come back until next week.
Smith becomes Legend, we are told at the end, because he finally found a cure for the disease that was mutating the human race. No such cure is found in the book. Instead, a new society of the more civilized vampires emerges, and Matheson posits a brilliant reversal. If everyone is a vampire, then Van Helsing is in that world what Dracula is in ours: a monster. Our hero has been staking every vampire he can find. He is the monster who comes for them in their sleep. He is finally caught, imprisoned and sentenced to death. He must be eliminated for the new world to survive. He is Legend. He is the boogeyman.
No surprise that Will Smith doesn’t wind up in that situation (now THAT would have been some brave filmmaking). To date, only The Last Man On Earth retains at least part of this conception. The current film, by retaining the novel’s title, engages in something that is tantamount to reworking Casablanca with a happy ending – the whole point is lost. So in the final analysis, what we have here is a superior remake of The Omega Man.
But we still don’t have a first-rate film of Richard Matheson’s novel.