Six months ago I read Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend. Around the same time, a new film version of the 1950s novel appeared starring Will Smith. Now I’ve finally seen the film on DVD so I can write a belated sequel to my original post.
It’s often quite refreshing to come late to films. I Am Legend received mixed reviews, at least I remember it doing so. There’s also enough time passed after reading the book to prevent me from comparing it too closely, and it’s years since I’ve seen the 1970s cinema adaptation The Omega Man starring Charlton Heston. I Am Legend is no Omega Man, although it’s not really I Am Legend either. It is nearer to the three great science fiction virus-disaster movies of recent years 28 Days Later, its follow up 28 Weeks Later and Children of Men. It’s not as good as any of them, but I was pleasantly surprised nevertheless.
Firstly, Will Smith has improved tremendously as an actor. Thankfully he has left the jokey persona seen in Independence Day and Men in Black at home. Age is on his side, and the grey-stubbled Smith shows some real promise now as an actor. Secondly, it looks like brainstorming sessions in the movie planning stages quickly concluded that, whilst Matheson’s novel is a great piece of sci-fi writing, audiences have moved on. So talking vampires just don’t wash any more, and abandoned post-apocalyptic cities full of slobbering nasties has been done to death in the cinema, so be careful. The vampires, prominent in Matheson’s novel, therefore don’t take centre stage in the new film until way into the story. Instead we see the empty city, shoulder high grass and prowling wild animals. Fittingly, all of the same things seen in a recent Channel Four documentary that attempted to predict how our cities would look if all the people abandoned them. Add to this Smith, proving he can act quite well as the last non-slobbering man on Earth, although he is almost acted off the screen by a very good, semi-slobbering, Alsatian.
Perhaps I Am Legend could be criticised for attempting to pull all of the right emotional strings. Lovely dog. Lovely dog dies. Cute family glimpsed in flashbacks. Shop dummies to highlight Smith’s loneliness (although providing a good plot device). The radio message broadcast to the empty world. Smith, away from human contact for so long, talking in sync to a DVD of Shrek. And so on. Perhaps it just caught me in the right type of mood. But I enjoyed it, and if I now went back to revisit The Omega Man I might judge this the superior film.
For purists, this film is Richard Matheson’s novel in bullet-point form only. A general idea of what the book was about, although an ending that, although still suitably downbeat, results in a completely different effect from the novel (and searching on YouTube will result in an alternative upbeat ending to the movie which is worth catching). Happy/sad, up/down, who knows? But they could have made worse choices about the overall direction of this film during the early brainstorming, and top marks to the man who said “keep the dog!”