Tuesday, 8 January 2008

Many a spoiler lies herein: I've just returned from a Hoyts La Premiere session of I Am Legend, an average adaptation of Richard Matheson's justifiably classic novel of the same name. To start with, it would be unfair to berate director Francis Lawrence for updating the time period of the novel to our (very) near future since it would make little sense retaining the novel's then-futuristic 1970's setting (Matheson's novel was published in 1954). That's not to say that such an update doesn't bring its own fair share of problems and changes to the source material; that's an inevitable factor in these kinds of novel-to-film adaptations. The major difficulty that I imagine the writers faced was in translating a novel that primarily takes place inside its protagonist's head into a visuals. As a result we have Will Smith talking to mannequins he's posed throughout an abandoned New York city, and the family dog offers a companionship not found in the novel, but which is perhaps justifiable on film where it would be problematic having a character who practically never speaks. The dog still dies in much the same way it does in the novel: tragically and representative of Neville's complete isolation.

There are two changes in the film that frustrate me, and very much alter two important aspects of Matheson's novel. The first is Neville himself. I quite enjoy Will Smith's movies and I don't think many people can complain that they don't get what they expect from his films. But in this instance, he's as miscast as he was in I, Robot. Both films were great popcorn flicks, but as adaptations of classic science fiction stories, they fail (I, Robot more so than I Am Legend, in my opinion). Matheson's Neville is a relatively uncomplicated man: he misses his wife and daughter and struggles with the fact that he is the last human being alive, but what he is not is the uber-slick military scientist that Will Smith portrays. One has enough trouble buying Will Smith as any kind of military officer (see Independence Day), but compounding that by asking the audience to believe he is also a top-notch scientist is pushing the boundaries of credibility. Plus, how on earth did he manage to get all that lab equipment into the basement of his New York apartment? What is frustrating about this is not so much the stretching of belief, but that Smith's Robert Neville doesn't learn anything about the virus over the course of the film, since he's responsible for it. In the novel, Neville is one of the few immune to the virus, but has to find out for himself the nature of the enemy he is fighting. It's an important distinction to make in terms of character development, because Smith is essentially the same man at the end as he was at the beginning - sorry for what he's done and trying to right it. While Matheson's Neville goes through several phases of depression and rejuvination before the novel's end.

Which brings me to the second aspect of the film that frustrated me, namely the ending. For those who have read the book, you'll remember that Neville takes a woman in who he is lead to believe is another human survivor, but is in fact a vampire sent to spy on him. This was possible because Matheson included two types of vampires - the undead zombies who do all the drinking of blood, and humans who are simply infected by the virus, of which the woman Neville discovers is of the later. In them, the virus has mutated enough to allow them to go out into sunlight and on discovering this, they determine to form a new society of their own kind. This was the crux of Matheson's novel, of the ending of one social order and the rise of another. The classic status of the novel is derived from this depiction of how humanity as we know it might deal with its own (self-inflicted) demise, when we believe we are the dominant species on the planet and aren't going anywhere. It challenged the assumption that we've always been the way we are, and always will be, evoking both a consideration of Darwinian evolution and a reconsideration of the foundation, function and place of societies throughout history. Lawrence's film discards any semblance of this powerful theme in favour of a standard humanity-will-find-a-way-to-survive ending that sees Will Smith sacrifice himself so that his (very human) female companion can escape to the survivor's colony in the mountains. Robert Neville became the titular legend for all the wrong reasons - as saviour of the human race as we know it, able to cure the vampires of their 'otherness' because they threatened the assumptions that his society was founded on. Mathesons' Neville goes to his death understanding and accepting that his world is at an end. He's tried to find a cure, he's tried to survive, but ultimately he must give in to the hubris of his kind. To a degree, then, the novel was a cautionary tale. In Lawrence's film, humanity suffers no such hubris and is able to overcome anything if it a) has enough guns, and b) puts its mind to it (whatever that means).

On film, I Am Legend is more suspense than action. The sequence of Neville going into the dark warehouse to find his wayward dog is a standout, lit entirely with only the light available from the flashlight on his rifle. Flashback sequences provide all the drama such a film requires, establishing Neville's back story as the virus spreads chaotically and New York becomes ground zero. The blowing up of the bridges wasn't nearly as epic a moment as the trailer made it out to be, but the subsequent scenes of a deserted New York are really the trump card of the film. The all-CG vampires got boring quickly and I was left wondering why at least a portion weren't extras in prosthetics. According to ShockTillYouDrop.com, Richard Matheson has already signed over rights to an as-yet unwritten sequel, based on this film's current box office receipts. Personally, I can't see why a sequel is needed and it will no doubt only further dilute the mythos of the source material. But that's Hollywood.