I Am Legend is based on the 1954 novel by Richard Matheson, also titled I Am Legend. The first film version of this novel, entitled The Omega Man was produced in 1971 and starred Charlton Heston in the role of Dr. Robert Neville.
Warning: Spoilers follow.
I Am Legend, Part One
In the original film version of I Am Legend, entitled The Omega Man, Robert Neville was an army colonel scientist. The story takes place in 1977, when China and the Soviet Union are at war. After years of biological warfare, almost the entire population of the earth has been wiped out. Dr. Neville, who had previously inoculated himself against the disease, is immune to its effects.
The plague has rendered a handful of survivors who are nocturnal, highly sensitive to light and homicidally deranged. These people refer to themselves as “The Family.” Even these survivors are slowly dying.
Their leader, known as Matthias, is a former Los Angeles newscaster. He and the other members of The Family believe that modern science caused the war and the illness which is destroying them. They decide that they must destroy Neville.
Neville, however, is heavily armed. During the day, Neville searches the city of Los Angeles for the Family’s nest, and scavenges. At night, he stays inside his fortress of an apartment while they burn books outside. Finally, the Family catches Neville. The group tries and convicts him of heresy, and come very close to burning him at the stake. Another group of survivors, who are somewhat resistant to the disease, rescues Neville. Neville discovers that young children are among the survivors. He also develops a romantic attachment to a young girl named Lisa.
Neville has the idea to create a serum from his own blood. He administers it to one of the infected young survivors, but when the boy goes to the Family in an attempt to give them the serum, Matthias has him murdered.
Neville’s girlfriend turns into a mutant and provides access to his apartment to the Family. Neville is killed by Matthias, but as he dies, he gives a vial of serum to some of the young survivors.
I Am Legend, Part Two
Now, when I saw I Am Legend, I had no idea that it was based on a novel, and essentially a remake of an older film. So I suppose I watched it with a fresh eye. In the opening scene, Emma Thompson appears as Dr. Alice Krippen. In the year 2009, she tells a television interviewer that she has found a cure for cancer. Ten thousand and nine people were treated with a genetically engineered variant of the measles virus, and ten thousand and nine people were cured.
Just three years later, we see New York City. It is a wasteland, deserted, with abandoned cars strewn across the streets and grass growing out of the cracks of the pavement. When we meet Robert Neville, played here by Will Smith, we find him alone except for the company of his dog, Samantha. He is the last truly human survivor in New York City. He has taken possession of a sports car, which he is driving in pursuit of a herd of deer. He doesn’t manage to shoot the deer; a family of lions beat him to the punch.
It doesn’t take us long to learn that the virus hasn’t destroyed everyone. There are many “people” remaining, although the word hardly describes them. These survivors are hairless, shockingly aggressive, oversensitive to light, non-verbal and homicidally insane. Neville manages to capture one so that he can experiment on it with a new serum which he believes shows promise. It turns out to be a female; but looking at it you could hardly call it a woman. The creature has mottled skin, an elevated temperature of 106, and a respiration rate of around 200. Neville appears to believe he can restore her to normal. He injects her with the serum, and waits for results. The patient does not improve.
Neville has populated a DVD shop with mannequins, and when one of them is moved, he loses it. This leaves him hanging by his foot from what may or may not be a trap set by the zombies. There’s no way to tell for sure. He manages to cut himself down, but ends up with his knife in his leg. His dog is mauled and infected by zombie dogs, and Neville is forced to kill her.
After this Neville goes on a suicidal and homicidal rampage. He attacks the zombies with his car (in apparent vengeance over his dog) one of them is about to do him in when he is rescued by a young woman with a bright flashlight. She talks of a survivor colony in Vermont; he says there is no such colony. In the end, the zombies find him and try to destroy him, his friend and her son. They go down to the lab, where Neville seems to believe that suicide is his only option. One of the zombies is throwing himself against the glass, and will eventually break it. However, the female infected patient seems to be improving on the serum, so Neville hands a vial of her blood off to the woman, who hides inside an enclosed hearth with her son. He uses a grenade to destroy himself and the zombies who are attacking him. It turns out, later, that the survivor’s colony in Vermont is very real.
To watch I Am Legend, you’d be more likely to think it was a remake of The Night of the Living Dead than The Omega Man. The “zombie” survivors are clearly computer animated, and seem to be designed for hyperstimulatory effect rather than for advancing the story line. The action of the creatures was so shocking that my husband jumped several times and even I was squirming. The main problem I see with these creatures is that they all look alike. At several points we encounter a male creature who is attacking Neville, and each one opens its mouth to impossible proportions and shrieks. I assumed I was seeing the same creature, over and over again, but couldn’t be sure whether that was the case. I though perhaps that one of the creatures had singled out Neville as a rival, or that he had a romantic attachment to the captured female. These story possibilities were wasted in favor of pointless violence. These creatures seemed to attack Neville for no genuine reason. Perhaps they wanted to eat him, or perhaps they simply wanted to kill him for the fun of it.
One of the most disturbing things about this series is that it shows these zombie creatures becoming stronger and almost super-human in power. We never see them sleeping; they seem to mill about in the dark during the daylight hours, only to run amuck in the streets, shrieking at night. It simply doesn’t jibe with reality. Illness makes people weaker, not stronger.
When the two plot lines of the two different films, The Omega Man and I Am Legend, are compared, we can clearly see the weaknesses in the latter film. Unlike the mutants in The Omega Man, the zombies of I Am Legend are not real people; they are just excuses for mindless violence. They act with homicidal psychosis, but then the writers give them elements of intelligence that they really don’t deserve (such as the ability to set traps, find Neville, and break into his house.) They never qualify as true characters in the story. They have no personalities and are relegated to the status of mere monsters. The decision to make these creatures mute and to rob them of their individuality seems a mistake. It’s much like the decision to take away the voice of Frankenstein’s monster in the original film version of Mary Shelley’s novel. It’s a dumbing down of great fiction in order to get a thrilling effect. It’s throwing away a huge opportunity for high quality drama, and it isn’t worth the sacrifice.
These people had much reason to be angry at Neville, and to suspect that he was somehow to blame for their condition. But I Am Legend shies away from imparting any of the blame to him, or letting us know what his role may have been in the tragedy. He is simply immune to the infection by sheer chance. Yeah, right.
Will Smith’s role is too much the superhero. There’s too much ego in this role. The truth is, that every man has weaknesses. It appears that the fatal flaw of Smith’s Neville is impulsiveness and suicidal recklessness. I couldn’t help feeling at the end that he could have saved himself, but that he chose not to.
The makers of I Am Legend have cheated their audience. They had an opportunity to make a great sci-fi classic. Instead, they chose to go for box office returns. I Am Legend is no legend. Once its heyday is over, it will be forgotten.