I Am Legend

LEGENDS OF THE FALL

Main Cast: Will Smith

Director: Francis Lawrence

I Am Legend PosterThe rehearsal process for Dancing With The Stars continues apace and Derek and I have all of our routines polished. We can rumba and quickstep with the best of them but I really do not care for his form in the waltz as he keeps trying to lead and we occasionally end up tripping each other. The last thing I need is to fall on my splendidly shaped, if ample, fanny in front of a television audience of ten or twelve million people. I’ve seen Vera Charles and Derek huddled in dark corners from time to time and I trust that she isn’t up to some nefarious plot to trip me up and increase her chances of winning. I may have to slip a little something in her sidecar to calm the poor old dear down a bit before she gets any ideas. Lord knows, Vera isn’t going anywhere on dance talent. She thought a time step had something to do with clockwork machinery.

I am arranging a few little surprises of my own for my initial appearance on the show. I know I should really run them past Mr. Puptent, the producer, but I simply haven’t had the time to meet with him, what with the rehearsal schedule and some of our wonderful new projects at MNM Enterprises. The VickiWear line of clothes, fine fashions based on the costumes of classic musicals, has long only been available at Pic n Save but I am pleased to announce that Bargain Hut has recently signed contracts to carry the line and you will soon be able to get Miss Saigon pajamas and 1776 culottes at affordable prices at a whole new set of fine retail outlets. I am having to write additional contracts with seamstresses to meet demand as Kim Dee and Mary Gee cannot possibly sew them all themselves; even though I recently bought them new Singer machines with the electric pedal rather than the manual treadle.

I had to make a quick trip to Chicago this weekend for a concert gig as soloist with the Hinsdale philharmonic accompanied by the Lena Lamont singers. It was a program of old standards from the Great American Songbook and was sensationally received, but the four hour running time was a bit taxing so I found it necessary to call it a night afterwards and retire to my hotel for a nightcap and a film. My selection was the 2007 fantasy/horror/science fiction epic I Am Legend with Will Smith in the central role. The film was new to me although I had seen an earlier version of the same story, The Omega Man with Charlton Heston back in my youth. A still earlier film version, The Last Man on Earth with Vincent Price also exists but is rarely seen these days.

All three of these films are based on the 1954 novel by Richard Matheson, entitled I Am Legend, which was incredibly influential in pop culture for being the first depiction of what we would now call the zombie apocalypse. Matheson is an interesting guy. He is not as well known as some of the other mid century fantasy writers such as Ray Bradbury or Arthur C. Clarke but in some ways, he is more pervasive. Over the years he wrote novels, screenplays, several classic episodes of The Twilight Zone and Star Trek, and was influential in the development of George Romero (whose Night of the Living Dead takes many of its ideas from I Am Legend), Steven Spielberg (whose first big hit was his adaptation of Matheson’s story, Duel), Anne Rice (whose interest in vampire fiction was sparked by some of his stories) and Stephen King (who credits him as a major influence and who dedicated his novel Cell to him). Matheson’s original novel, about the survivor of a world-wide pandemic who battles vampiric others in an attempt to survive, is somewhat simplistic but makes major philosophical points about the nature of good and evil and what it means to survive.

I Am Legend NYC street by Terry Ballard

A New York City street set being prepared for I Am Legend. Photo by Terry Ballard

In this film adaptation of I Am Legend, Will Smith plays Robert Neville, an army virology researcher who finds himself in a deserted Manhattan. We learn through flashback and other devices that a few years previously, a virus was modified as a cure for cancer. All was well and good until the virus mutated and became a world-wide pandemic killing 90% of the population. Most of the surviving population mutated into ravenous creatures killed by exposure to sunlight and other UV radiation and who now hide in the dark until sundown, when they come out to hunt and feast on anything they can. In this way, most of the uninfected or immune have been decimated and Neville remains alone in a deserted city, with only a German Shepherd for company and hoping for contact with another survivor. He also continues to experiment with the lethal virus, trying to find a way to restore the vampire zombies back to humanity. He eventually meets another survivor, runs into trouble with the ravenous hordes and we have a final showdown very reminiscent of Night of the Living Dead.

This is Will Smith’s movie. He has to carry it as he is essentially alone for the majority of the screen time. There is little dialog to carry things and instead we have to get to know him through action, expression and interaction with his faithful canine companion. This all takes place against the backdrop of a deserted and decaying Manhattan. Manhattan, as a place, is never deserted and the familiar vistas of Central Park, Grand Central Terminal and 5th Avenue devoid of habitation and with weeds and detritus littering the landscape are far creepier than the CGI monsters that inhabit the night. Smith uses his movie star looks and persona to seduce us into the desolate world he inhabits and, as long as we remain in his haunted world with the occasional flashbacks to the chaotic scenes of a technological society in collapse, the movie succeeds. Unfortunately, the needs of plot and the possibility of love interest eventually lead to the introduction of other survivors, the Brazilian Anna (Alice Braga) and the child Ethan (Charlie Tahan playing a heavy-handed symbol of hope for the future). Neither is as strong as Mr. Smith and their presence diffuses the mood from elegy to action thriller. The movie doesn’t really fall apart but it runs into the usual Hollywood problem of how to end it. The five credited writers (which usually means a long time in development hell) jettison Matheson’s original ending and settle for one of noble self sacrifice, however, an alternate ending exists (and can be seen on some DVD releases) which is closer to the balanced tone of what Matheson was originally trying to achieve.

Special kudos to the production design of Naomi Shahan who brings us a scary deserted Manhattan and to director Francis Lawrence who knows how to frame the lonely Neville in this urban desert. They are aided by James Newton Howard’s score. A very special shout out should go to the residents of Manhattan who endured days of traffic delays for location shooting that required clearing major thoroughfares of vehicular and pedestrian traffic. (A few stragglers were removed through post production CGI).

I found much to admire in I Am Legend and give it a tentative recommendation, but if you need to do something pressing like your ironing, go ahead and start as soon as Alice Braga makes her entrance as the last part of the film is just not as engaging as the first, no matter how many evil zombie creatures leap at the screen.

Aircraft carrier golfing. Mannequins. Temple pool fishing. Canine companionship. Gratuitous Willow Smith (fortunately not whipping her hair). Exploding helicopters. Exploding Manhattan Bridge. Vital sera. Central Park driving.

To learn more about Mrs. Norman Maine, see our Movie Rewind introduction, and visit her entire back catalog.

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