I am Legend (2007)

When it’s on: Thursday, 17 May (10.00 pm)
Channel: ITV2
IMDb Link

The first half of I am Legend is brilliant, the first ten minutes especially so. I’ve always thought CGI is best used with static objects, where it can produce wonderful results, and it’s deployed to great effect here in recreating New York as a dead city, devoid of people. Flora is creeping back onto the Manhattan streets. Brooklyn Bridge is a collapsed ruin. Wild animals run and hunt along the empty boulevards. There’s no one… no one that is but Robert Neville (Will Smith), who spends the daylight hours cruising the roads at the sort of top speed never seen outside Grand Theft Auto. It’s three years since the events that led to this state of affairs. Neville believes he’s the last man on earth. He leaves messages on all radio frequencies. They aren’t returned. He practises his golf off the wing of a fighter plane that nobody will ever sit in. The sound of glass shattering in the distance should be satisfying, but there’s no one with whom to share the moment.

Smith’s great as Neville. Considering for much of the film, he’s the only human actor on the screen, he makes a demanding role look effortless. The cloying loneliness his character ought to be feeling appears natural, and it comes out in delightful, unexpected moments, as in the conversations he holds with mannequins that he’s arranged in a DVD store, or the way he talks to his German Shepherd, Sam, like there’s a real two-way dialogue. These bits are so good that once the actual tension in the story arrives, it’s almost disappointing.

And sadly, this is where it starts to fall apart. Neville isn’t alone in the city. There’s a reason for him barring the doors and windows at dusk and sleeping with a gun. Far from being empty, New York is home to mutant monsters, victims of the plague that has wiped out most of the people. Only able to come out at night, there’s nothing other than rage within them. Neville’s a scientist. He doesn’t know why he’s immune, but he spends time testing out various cures based on his own blood. Our first meeting with the ‘Infected’ is powerful stuff. Sam runs after a deer into a disused building and Neville has little choice but to follow. He knows what might lurk in the dark recesses within, and sure enough he comes across a nest of the creatures. They’re ‘asleep’ and he has to back away without making a sound.

The ‘Infected’ are fine when they’re viewed in shadow or the things howling in the night outside Neville’s fortified townhouse. It’s when we get to see them properly, in their full CGI glory, and it sucks because the downside of computer generated imagery is things that move and need to look like they’re alive. By all accounts, the producers did an exhaustive series of tests before giving up on actors wearing make-up and prosthetics and opting, disappointingly, for creations with no weight whatsoever.

Fans of the Richard Matheson novel upon which this film is based are likely to feel ill served also. The book can’t be recommended highly enough (I personally love the audiobook, read with suitable atmosphere by Robertson Dean), particularly because it carries such a satisfying twist in the tale that the entire concept of ‘legend’ is turned on its head. 1964’s American-Italian adaptation, The Last Man on Earth, starring Vincent Price and made on a tight budget, is a lot more faithful to the source material. The 2007 film fails to trust Matheson’s concept, instead going for a shirked second half in which Neville indeed finds a cure, along with a woman (Alice Braga) who turns up at the optimal moment wittering about a survivors’ camp. The build-up to the finish drops the natural suspense in favour of action, for no very good reason. But it could have been even worse. There’s an alternative ending available on certain DVD editions (not mine; I went for pure vanilla) that offers a more feelgood conclusion. It would have made even less sense and turned the Copout-o-meter up to 11. As it is, the bleak philosophical climax served up by Matheson is entirely jettisoned, and for what?

I am Legend: **

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6 Replies to “I am Legend (2007)”

  1. Great review Mike and I really agree with you about the merits of the Matheson original, and the real irony inherent in its tittle by the conclusion, and the misstep of the CG in this remakeI. The second half of the movie is presumably derived from the earlier Warner adaptation of the book with Chuck Heston, which I notice you have omitted from your discussion here … Go on, tell us what you think of THE OMEGA MAN! Or is that going to be the subject of a separate post?

    Yours in anticipation,
    Sergio

    1. Easy answer – I’ve never seen The Omega Man, so I can’t comment. What I’ve heard about it doesn’t suggest I’m missing a lot, and I would imagine Chuck’s been in better post-apocalyptic films, but until I get around to it I really can’t say. Thanks for ‘outing me’ on that one! The CGI Infected in the 2007 film is a real mis-step, as you say – personally, I love the ‘people with make-up’ from the 1960s version, but wouldpresume there are very good reasons why these wouldn’t be as effective in a modern film sporting the latest technical wonders. Sadly, CGI often enough looks like what it is, and this coupled with the cop-out second half, made it a bit of a disappointment. Thanks Sergio.

      1. Ha ha, but in fairness to you there’s the odd bit of Roman culture otherwise within which to fill your soul. I’m from the north-east of England – there’s nothing here. Oh the football, but I was raised supporting Middlesbrough and it’s always left me feeling slightly resentful. The Price flick really is worth a watch and I believe it’s part of the public domain now. Vince doesn’t bring too much of his traditional hamminess to bear either, which makes it even better, or perhaps worse, depending on what you love about the great man.

      2. In the UK it couldn’t go into public domain due to the underlying rights, so that’s interesting. I shall see about getting the DVD though (double bill with Ray Milland’s PANIC IN YEAR ZERO will be hard to resist for under a fiver!) if for nothign esle to be reminded of what the EUR area used to look like (my dentist was there in the 80s, ironically enough for a vampire story).

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