Last March, confronted with a pandemic none of us had expected or understood, many people found themselves rewatching Stephen Soderberg’s Contagion. Whether out of morbid fascination or as a guideline to what we might see in the future it quickly topped charts on streaming services. A year on and another pandemic movie has made it into Netflix’s top 10 – 2007’s I Am Legend, a horror sci-fi starring Will Smith as Dr. Robert Neville, who thinks he’s the last man on Earth after a virus has wiped out most of the population. Directed by Francis Lawrence, who would go on to make the Hunger Games sequels, a new adaptation of Richard Matheson’s 1954 novel had been in the works at Warner Bros. since the mid ‘90s, with various talent attached, including Ridley Scott and Michael Bay as directors and Tom Cruise and Arnold Schwarzenegger to star.
At its release the movie was praised for Smith’s performance but criticised for an overuse of CGI and a weak third act, but rewatching against the backdrop of 2021 what really sticks is how much of a wasted opportunity I Am Legend was. This is an hour of an excellent film, then 30-odd minutes of rubbish.
What you might remember of I Am Legend is this: cool empty New York stuff, Batman V Superman logo on a building, Will Smith talks to mannequins, the dog dies, CGI zombies, the end. But it’s so much better than that (until it’s not).
The first hour of I Am Legend is incredibly sparse. Virtually silent except for flashbacks, Dr. Neville is alone and talks only to his dog, Sam, and to mannequins he’s placed around shops and the street to try to emulate real life. New York is deserted. Each day when the sun is at its highest point, he waits at a meeting place he’s broadcast on the radio for other survivors to find him. Each day he is disappointed. His routines are down pat. He and the dog eat well from food scavenged during the day. At night they lock down and stay silent, hidden from the initially unseen threat outside. Neville is immune to infection but not to being killed by the creatures that keep him locked away at night, and on whom he experiments during the day. Neville is trying to find a cure using his antibodies, testing first on zombie rats and then on the infected human subjects he keeps chained up in his underground lab. He keeps failing. Is he really trying to save humanity? Or does he just want someone to talk to? Perhaps the two things are the same.
Forget zombies, I Am Legend is an exploration of the pure horror of being alone – it’s resonant as all hell in the current climate where we know that hordes of other people exist but that they pose an actual threat of death. That loneliness is so acute that talking to a dog or a shop dummy – or indeed a plant, your computer, the TV – seems completely legit. Neville’s struggles with socialization once Alice Braga’s Anna is in the picture feel entirely authentic and familiar – has he gone slightly mad from the loneliness and isolation, the film posits? In 2021, have we?
Keeping the CGI baddies in the shadows is a wise move, and even though they really haven’t aged well, in the first hour there’s still scope for a few decent scares. The best comes when Neville is caught in a trap set for him by one of the creatures – a trap which mirrors one he himself had set earlier to capture the latest of the infected he’s experimenting on. Hung up by a foot with the sun rapidly fading, when Neville wakes from his concussion he is in a serious rush to save himself with his faithful friend Sam barking in panic below him.
When it’s him and the dog, Smith is brilliant. Sam (played by two dogs – Abbey and Kona) is also excellent. And at the end of this sequence when the dog dies, bitten by zombie hounds and euthanized by Neville, it is genuinely devastating. Forget Marley and Me, this isn’t canine grief porn – instead the moment a grief stricken Neville goes to the record shop and talks to a mannequin, begging her to “please say hello to me,” is deeply upsetting. Smith does some very heavy lifting and it really holds up. Neville has hit rock bottom. Without Sam there’s nothing left to live for. Neville heads out into the night on a kamikaze mission to take as many creatures with him as he dies. The end. Except it’s not.
Instead, the film is completely ruined by the deus ex machina arrival of another survivor, Anna (Alice Braga) and her son Ethan (Charlie Tahan) who rescue Neville. Anna says she believes God sent her to find Neville and take him to a survivor colony she thinks exists in Vermont.
Anna’s arrival is no doubt supposed to provide hope and redemption in the final act after the incredibly moving end of the previous act but ultimately it does the opposite. Her random appearance undermines the three years Neville has endured. Neville has lived with the frankly torturous concept that he was the last man alive, but instead he’s faced with the possibility of a survivor community that somehow she has managed to track down while he has not, and the thought that for three years (or however long he’s been sending his own broadcast) survivors, in all likelihood, did hear his missive but never responded. His strength and resilience, his battle to stay sane, these were nothing, there were other people who could have found him, or he them, all along. Bad luck Neville, you spent three years trying to find a cure when you could have just had a chat with God (or worked harder on your telecoms). Bleak for him but in this version he becomes a martyr of sorts.
Anna and her son arrive and trigger a mega zombie showdown in the house. In a stroke of luck, Anna’s arrival has coincided with the latest strain of antidote actually working, so when Neville, Anna, and her son barricade themselves in the lab, Neville is able to extract a vial of the cure to give to Anna and then sacrifices himself so she can escape the creatures. Neville is killed but the cure is safe and arrives at the encampment with Anna, his life’s work wasn’t futile, and Anna gives a speech essentially saying how much of a legend Robert Neville was.
Yep, the title of the film has been completely reinterpreted from the original text here to mean “I am a total legend!” rather than the much much darker meaning found in Richard Matheson’s wonderful novel.
In the novel Robert Neville’s foes are vampires and other than the traditional vampire weaknesses – garlic, sunlight, stake through the heart, etc – they are intelligent, articulate, and human-like. In Matheson’s book Neville meets and becomes involved with a woman whom he discovers is a vampire sent to spy on him; the race of infected have managed to treat and control their symptoms and are forming a new society, while he’s been hunting them down. And the woman’s husband is one of the vampires Neville has killed.
The book ends with a dying Neville realizing that, to the vampires, he is the bogeyman, the stuff of nightmares, as vampires themselves were once to humans. He will become a legend, not because he’s a great man, but because in his extinction he will be a cautionary tale and a mythical figure to a newly formed society.
The director’s cut alternate ending of I Am Legend gives more of a nod to Matheson’s book – it’s better but it’s still not great. In this version the alpha male zombie who set the trap for Neville is bashing his head repeatedly on the locked door of Neville’s lab where Neville, Anna, her son, and his latest test subject, a female, are barricaded. Through the glass, the alpha male makes the sign of a butterfly (a call back to a gesture Neville’s daughter makes earlier in the film) to indicate the butterfly tattoo the female has. Neville understands finally that the “darkseekers” have their own relationships and community. The woman is the alpha’s partner. To the darkseekers, Neville is the monster, who has been capturing and torturing members of their group. Behind him is a photo wall of each creature he has experimented on and eventually killed. Willing to sacrifice himself so that Anna and her son can escape, he is now at the mercy of the alpha. In fact, when he apologizes and returns the captured female, the darkseekers show Neville mercy and don’t kill him. In this version Neville, Anna, and her son travel to the survivors’ community together and Neville lives.
This ending works better and gives more resonance to certain earlier scenes – the alpha male exposing himself to sunlight after the female is captured, the trap alpha uses on Neville matching the one Neville used on the female, the scenes of Neville experimenting on the female causing her excruciating pain – the final beats still don’t land. The outdated CGI renders the creatures so far away from humanity that the emotional resonance is lost. “Sorry about torturing your missus,” doesn’t have quite the impact it should and the existence of the community in Vermont, far from feeling hopeful, gives a sense that Neville has just wasted the last three years.
Neither ending properly gets across the significance of Matheson’s title, and the inclusion of reference to Bob Marley’s album Legend only muddies things further.
Lawrence’s I Am Legend is so nearly a brilliant, thrilling, troubling exploration of loneliness and isolation and it could have had a gut punch ending which remained faithful to the book had they gone for something other than the CGI zombies. Instead it’s a movie which builds to an electric crisis point and then throws it all in the bin with unnecessary new characters, a religious message, and a faux happy ending that no one needed.
I Am Legend is available to stream on Netflix (US) and Sky and Now TV (UK).