I recently saw I Am Legend (2007) on DVD. It’s a good film—although it would have been a better film had the same care and patience been lavished on the second half. I don’t know if this is one of those situations in which the original vision of the director was mutilated by producers who were afraid an audience wouldn’t have the attention span to appreciate a more leisurely narrative. Let’s cut away to the action-packed special effects!
Not that the first half is without its special effects. It’s conspicuous for its dystopian vision of a deserted and dilapidated Manhattan, after a retrovirus “jumped,” either killing the human inhabitants—who had no natural resistance—or mutating the survivors into zombies.
It’s good that Will Smith is the lead actor. Except for flashbacks, there’s only one character in the first part of the film, so it’s important to cast the role with a sympathetic actor. I’ve read that other actors were considered—Tom Cruise, Michael Douglas, Mel Gibson, and Ah-nuld. The naturally likable Smith was a better choice, although Gibson would bring a certain pathos to the part.
There is one point at which I think Smith tried too hard to stretch himself and show that he’s a “serious” actor. After he has to kill his dog, he goes back to the video store to return his DVDs. That was part of his old routine, back when he had “Sam.” Having a dog for a companion, while no substitute for human companionship, is what allowed him, up till now, to preserve his sanity. And he used to play-act by talking to the mannequins as if they were real employees. Now, however, he demands a response.
The scene is meant to be poignant, but I think it’s strained. Smith is an actor who doesn’t need to force his feelings. He’s more effective when he relies on his natural spontaneity. He’s good within his range, but his range is somewhat limited. He’s not Laurence Olivier.
The film borrows a few moves from 28 Days Later. The same rabid retrovirus, turning humans into zombies. Hovering in the background of both is Night of the Living Dead.
28 Days Later also gives us post-apocalyptic visions of an urban wilderness—in this case, downtown London instead of New York. The Thames. Big Ben.
I Am Legend is generally better flick than 28 Days Later with one exception. In the British film, the outbreak is precipitated animal rights activists who “liberate” infected lab animals. These are really terrorists, and there’s a genuine danger—though not necessarily on the scale of these SF movies—that such acts of vandalism will infect the general population.
To some extent, the film falls apart in the second half. It covers too much ground in too little time. Neville’s dog dies. He goes on a killing spree to wreak revenge. He’s rescued in the nick of time. The next day he discovers a cure, then dies later that day when the hemocytes attack.
That’s no way to tell a story. Filmmaking is storytelling. I always find it mystifying that studios will sink tens of millions of dollars (or more) in exotic locations, high-paid actors, and special effects—but not invest a fraction of a fraction of that amount in writing a solid script. A coherent, emotionally satisfying storyline. It isn’t that hard to do. Bards have been doing that very thing since the days of Homer.
Neville is rescued by Anna Montez, played by a luminous Brazilian actress. And she has a cute kid in tow. This is obviously a replacement for the family he lost in the evacuation.
Logically, then, the movie should spend a little time given them a chance to develop some rapport.
Instead of Neville being happy to finally have some human companionship, he acts like a sociopath. Granted, he’s upset over the death of his dog—but his reaction is still out of sync with the occasion. The problem is not with his acting, but with the script.
Yes, we’d expect him to suffer the effects of social isolation, but that should result in some awkward moments—not belligerence.
In addition, the director succumbs to the fatal temptation of many SF films, where FX becomes an end in itself. It isn’t credible that a retrovirus could turn human beings into creatures with the strength, speed, and agility of mandrills on steroids. The use of FX to simulate an abandoned cityscape was dramatically meaningful. But this is just plain silly.
That doesn’t mean the second part of the film is a total loss. There’s enough potential that you can see the lost opportunities.
However, the most interesting aspect of the film is the providential motif. That’s unusual in a SF film. In practice, if not in principle, the SF genre is militantly secular. We can argue whether the SF genre is inherently secular. Some SF writers were Christian, or wrote on Christian themes, and James Jordan happens to think the SF worldview is inherently Christian rather than secular.
But, as a matter of practice, early writers like H. G. Wells were militantly secular in their outlook, and that cast the die.
Not that I Am Legend is overtly Christian by any means. But it is religious. There are a number of conveniently coincidental events in I Am Legend, and while this would ordinarily be too good to be true, they are integral to the text and subtext.
In a flashback, Neville’s wife prays for him. We also see a sign that says, “God still loves us.” The sign has a picture of a butterfly. That ties into a butterfly motif. Neville’s daughter was forming a butterfly with her hands. At one point, Neville’s dog is chasing a butterfly in a cornfield.
Anna hears his radio signal, makes it safely to Manhattan, and rescues him from the hemocytes. She hears God. She talks about his plan. And she escapes safely to a colony in “Bethel” (note the Biblical allusion) Vermont, with the vaccine. Here we have a string of improbable events—made more improbable by their cumulative force.
Yet, at one point, Neville saw that Anna had a butterfly tattoo. So that’s a sign from God. A fulfillment foreshadowed by these earlier events. Anna is the antitype of these prefigural incidents.
One wonders if there’s an allusion here, either to Anna the prophetess (Lk 2:36-38), or the legendary mother of the Virgin Mary.
In any case, there’s a providential theme running through the film. Divine providence is the unifying theme.