I Am Legend is the third film adaptation of a Richard Matheson novel of the same name. The 1954 novel is credited with being the first work of fiction involving zombies. In the book, a bacterial pandemic has spread through 1970’s Los Angeles. The only survivors have turned into zombie vampires. And only the protagonist has remained human. The expression, I Am Legend, arises from a realization by the protagonist that vampires have become the norm for humankind, and he has become the legend.
The 2007 iteration of the story interprets the expression in a different way. Instead of a realization that humans have changed and that the hero has become a creature of myth, the hero has become a legend because he may have saved humans from the disease. In the movie, instead of a bacteria, the pandemic arises from a virus that had mutated from a cancer cure. This seems to match our contemporary fears of viruses from HIV and the avian flu, as well as a hopelessness against cancer.
The two previous film versions of the novel similarly mirrored the fears of their times. In The Last Man on Earth (1964), a plague spread from nuclear war. And in The Omega Man (1971), biological war between the Soviets and China was the cause of widespread death and mutation.
I wonder what the 80’s and 90’s versions of the movie would blame as the source of the mutation. I imagine the 80’s version would have a plague of poverty that would produce money-grubbing zombies in nice suits, infecting others with their greed. The 90’s movie would have a heavy wave of ennui turning people into mindless slackers.
But back to the movie. The music-less silence of the empty New York streets was both eerily menacing and beautifully serene. I’ve always wondered how a city might return to a natural state. So the lions, the deer and the cornfields that dotted the cityscape was visually arresting. The best scenes were when Will Smith, as Robert Neville, and his dog, were wandering the streets together.
I watched both endings of the movie and wasn’t satisfied with either of them. In one, sacrifice leading to hope in a colony of non-mutants in Vermont (the hippie East Coast version of Oregon) was too transparently Hollywood. Even in a movie where basically the only character is Black, the Black man dies, just as in 90% of all horror or action movies. But at least he’s doing it heroically. For the survival of the human race. So that’s nice. To be fair though, in all the other movie versions, Neville is killed.
In the alternate ending, the alpha mutant, a relentlessly cunning adversary, tries to communicate that all he really wants is his mutant girlfriend back. Neville had previously captured her for experiments. And so Neville realizes that there is some kind of humanity in this new race of rabid, hyperventilating, flesh-eating humans. It was chillingly poignant to see the wall of pictures of all the other mutants that Neville had captured and experimented on and had subsequently died in his lab. Perhaps he was the monstrous predator and the mutants were just trying to survive. But the way it was done was complete nonsense. The alpha mutant went from a growling expression of pure violence to a wide-eyed pitiable victim making impressions of butterflies with his hands.
Still, I enjoyed this movie very much. The zombies were made to have a modicum of intelligence which made them more compelling. Will Smith is always a pleasure to watch, and he carried the movie as the sole actor for most of the film. The Bob Marley references were also nice touches. Best of all was the vision of a deserted New York, creeping back towards a natural state.