Written by: Wayne Weinsider, Special to CC2K
So, what is it about the end of the world that makes it so fascinating to us? What makes the extinction of our species so enthralling that we tell ourselves about it over and over again? Perhaps it’s already happened somewhere in the distant past or distant future, etched deeply into our genetic memory. Maybe that’s why it all seems so familiar. In Akiva Goldsman’s adaptation of Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend there is certainly a feeling of deja vue. There is the sidekick dog from The Road Warrior, the animals who roam the streets of an empty city from 12 Monkeys, and the deafening silence of an extinct civilization from 28 days later. Maybe that’s the way it really happens. Those memories must be stored deep within our animal brains, surfacing only in times of danger, stress and screenplay writing. Yeah, I bet that’s it.
This is the third time that Richard Matheson’s story has been adapted to the screen. The first was in 1964’s The Last Man on Earth starring Vincent Price, the second was 1971’s cult classic, The Omega Man starring Charlton Heston, and now, bearing the title of the novel, I Am Legend starring Will Smith. Each version tells the story of the sole survivor of a plague that has killed most of humanity and has turned the rest into vampire-like creatures. As with many screen adaptations, each version reflects society at the time. In 1964, the disease was a disease, random and pitiless. By 1971, it had become a biological weapon and now in 2007, it has evolved into a genetically engineered virus, created to help man, but with terrible side effects.
Smith plays Dr. Robert Neville, a top virologist, who once headed the team tasked with defeating the virus. He stayed behind in a quarantined Manhattan, racing the clock to save humanity. He failed. Ironically, he is immune and although alone, he continues his work, trying to create a cure from his own blood. By day, he searches the city for supplies. By night, he barricades himself in his brownstone fortress, hoping the vampires don’t find him.
Despite my earlier sarcasm, the screenplay starts very well. I bought it. I can believe that a man left alone in New York City would do the things Neville does. It is a credible blend of hope, fear, and fatalism. When we meet him, he is tearing through the empty streets of the city in the fastest car he can find, just for the hell for it. He’s blowing off steam before getting back to the hard work of finding food and fuel. He needs to get as much done as he can before night falls and the vampires take to the streets.
The story is allowed to unfold naturally and visually. The audience can gather the gist of what’s going on quickly, with hardly a word of dialogue being spoken. Details of the disease and Neville’s background are revealed through flashbacks and it all works pretty well. I thought to myself, “Could it be – a credible survivalist sci-fi horror movie? Could this be the Castaway of the apocalyptic nightmare genre?” My answer came quickly once I got a third of the way through the script. Now something needs to happen. It’s time to dig deep into that animal brain and see what memories are there. How odd that what comes out is a lot like I, Robot.
Make no mistake. This is an action-horror movie. It is built on the foundation created by Aliens and will undoubtedly pick up on the special effects-one-up-manship of films like Underworld. If one monster is scary, then ten monsters must be terrifying and hundreds of monsters must be stroke inducing. Of course, the opposite is true. Goldsman describes one approaching vampire hoard as “a rolling, living wave of flesh.” I’m sure this scene will look amazing and might get the audience’s adrenaline pumping, but I doubt it will scare anyone. Even speed-zombie movies like 28 days later have at their core the fear that “If I get caught by them, I’ll become one of them.” No worries about that here. Neville is immune.
I can accept that this will inevitably be an action movie. All I require is a clever and interesting plot to string together the action scenes. Unfortunately, this script doesn’t deliver. Goldsman starts to explore some good ideas, like maybe the vampires are evolving and maybe they’re smarter than Neville thinks, but ultimately these ideas don’t develop into anything satisfying. They get lost as the script moves through familiar territory on its way to an action packed climax. When the movie’s big payoff comes, it is sadly the type of conclusion that you would expect from an Outer Limits episode. It is certainly not worthy of a summer blockbuster. What is most puzzling is that the novel upon which the movie is based, has a very interesting, thought provoking ending. That ending is completely ignored. What you get is predictable apocalyptic fare. But again, maybe that’s how it really happens. Excuse me while I search my genetic memory…