Random thoughts on most things from A. M. Craig.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Review: I Am Legend

I Am Legend
, as a movie, does a fine job of fulfilling it's various
genre conventions. As a survivor story, you see the solitary regimen
that helps preserve sanity, as well as the fabrication of companionship
where there is none. As a monster movie, you get to enjoy the
(protected) terror of the inhuman horde swarm down on our protagonist,
knowing that the story lies with him, and somehow, he'll make it out. As
a post apocalyptic epic, we see the degradation of what was once a great
society, reduced now to relics. As an action movie, we see chases,
fights, and explosions to contend with any. As a genre film, you won't
be disappointed.
However, as an interpretation of the original work, you may be. The
science fiction/horror novel I Am Legend was originally published in
1954. It was innovative in a variety of ways when it was released, and
those same innovations are still impressive today. But there are some
great differences between the film and the book, and they pretty much
nullify any of the books real ingenuity.
This is the latest in a string of film adaptations, the previous of
which I now intend on seeing. Most saw their way to the final audience.
One project, with Ridley Scott and Arnold Schwarzenegger, began serious development, but was abandoned when the proposed budget bloated. One came out earlier this year, straight to video, starring none other than the chairman of Iron Chef America. Will Smith joins Chartlon
and Vincent Price in having portrayed the main character. Not bad
company, if you're in to the sci/fi-horror-post apocalyptic scene.
Like I said, it's not a bad movie. You'll probably like it. I would
have liked it more maybe if I hadn't come into it with the expectation
of fidelity to the novel. Don't know why I expected that, fidelity isn't
really Hollywood's strong point.
If you intend on reading the book, I would suggest you stop reading
this post NOW, as there will be some pretty significant SPOILERS coming
up. Be warned.


There were a number of superficial discrepancies that are perfectly
acceptable for a film adaptation. Some were to make it more visually
appealing, like setting the film in New York City rather tha Los
Angeles, as the book does. Screenwriter Akiva Goldsman said, "L.A.
looks empty at three o'clock in the afternoon, [but] New York is never
empty... it was a much more interesting way of showing the windswept
emptiness of the world." And it worked. The vacant metropolis was one of
the most compelling elements of the film. Some of the changes made were
to modernize the story, such as the infection being a virus rather than
a bacterium.
But other changes replaced the roots and fundamental message of the
story. The title I Am Legend is almost glossed over in the film,
explained away in a passing closing line. In the book, Robert Neville
finds out that, just as he had dreaded the undead (vampires in the book,
zombies in the film), they had grown to fear him. He had become a legend
among them, the boogie man they told their kids about to keep them in
line. "Be good, or Robert Neville will get you!" The revelation that he
was, to them, even more of a monster than they were to him, is a much
more thought provoking concept than the film put forth. In the movie,
they flirt with that idea for just a couple short moments, and then
forget they ever had it.


Why movie makers feel the need to change (and spoil) good source
material is still a mystery to me. Maybe it's financial. You can't make
a sequel to a story that's already complete. Maybe it's a lack of faith
in the audience, thinking that we modern moviegoers need everything
spelled out, and with a lowest common denominator message to boot. Maybe
they are (mostly) right.
But I had hoped that I Am Legend would prove to be not just a good
action flick, or horror show, or survivor story. It was all of those,
and those can be good and entertaining. But sometimes I want something
that will challenge my notions, present to me questions rather than
answers, and if there are answers to share, then show, don't tell. A
good example I Am Legend could have followed was the 2006 movie Children of Men.
The story is bleak, revealing, and fantastic, but somehow
believable and hopeful. It displayed the short sightedness and misguided
greediness of man. It didn't push a message, but poignantly presented
several. I Am Legend did have a message at the end, albeit an entirely
different one than the movie. As good a message as it was, though, it
came off as heavy-handed and two dimensional. You can accept it or
reject it, because it is not on a spectrum, there is no depth to
I suppose all projects have more potential than they fulfill, and
potential for different viewing experiences. So with all of my criticism
exhausted, I'll close with this. I Am Legend was a lot of fun. You'll
like it. Go see it.

UPDATE: Here are a couple of videos from the NY Times on I Am Legend.
Video Review
"Making Of" Vignette

UPDATE DEC. 24: I went and saw it again today. Pretty much the same experience.


Asmond said...

As always, I valued your movie sense and was not disappointed. Now I just need to find a copy of the book to read.

Austin said...

TELL me about it. I tried to get the book from Orem, Provo, and the BYU Library. There was a significant waiting list at each. I think that one will be a Merry Christmas to Me kind of thing when I pick up the paperback.