“I Am Legend” — a brief review (with spoilers)

| December 15, 2007

The first three-fourths of “I Am Legend” (starring Will Smith and Abbey the Wonder Dog) is haunting, effective, and heart-wrenching. I have traveled to New York City a lot over the years on business — in fact, I was there just this week — and the film does a great job of showing an abandoned, decaying NYC (apparently in part by shutting down and decorating long sections of actual NYC streets for filming). Smith does a great job of portraying Robert Neville, the lone uninfected (and immune) human in NYC, as someone who’s smart and determined, but whose sanity is starting to fray, even as he seeks to find a cure for the retrovirus that has wiped out 90% of humanity and turned most of the rest into bloodthirsty, light-fearing monsters.

In my opinion, the film is definitely worth seeing — but I do have some strong criticisms, which involve spoilers, so I’ll only discuss them after the jump.

(SPOILERS AHEAD! SPOILERS AHEAD! SPOILERS AFTER THE JUMP!)

The film’s emotional climax is when Neville (Smith) is forced to put his own dog Sam (Abbey) to sleep after she’s bit and infected by zombie dogs. I did wonder a bit why Neville didn’t simply chain up Sam and use her for his on-going clinical trials, particularly since he still had a live infected human in his labs upon whom he was testing possible cures. But nevertheless, it was a wrenching scene — particularly for anyone (like me) who’s had to have a badly injured dog put down — and you felt very much that Neville might well plunge into full-blown insanity without Sam to keep him grounded and keep him company.

But then Anna (Alice Braga), a young Hispanic woman, immediately shows up with Ethan (Charlie Tahan), a young Anglo boy — and the film starts to splinter and collapse to a rushed ending. First, Neville goes off on a long riff about Bob Marley (yes, that Bob Marley), which you could almost take as another example of Neville’s struggle with sanity — except it appears to be played straight, and a Bob Marley song comes on during the closing credits. Anna, for her part, goes off on a tangent about being led by God to an uninfected colony in Vermont — sort of like “The Stand“, but without even the dreams as some form of evidence that such a colony exists (“I just know!”). Anna mentions picking up Neville’s radio broadcasts down in Maryland, but apparently these hypothetical Vermont survivors have neither been receving Neville’s broadcasts or nor broadcasting themselves (NYC is just about equidistant between Maryland and Vermont).

[INSERTED 12/22/07 – 1515 MST]

A few of the other reviews on the ‘net raised an issue I entirely overlooked: how did Anna and Ethan show up on Manhattan in a working car when all the bridges had been destroyed and the tunnels flooded? If you assume that they found a boat of some kind to get over to Manhattan, then you have to assume they found a car that was still functioning — battery live, no moisture in the fuel systems — after sitting unused for 3 years. And, by the way, that car just happened to have a rack of high-intensity flood lights bright enough to drive off infected humans.

Also, I could be wrong, but I think that Anna may be driving that same car at the end of the movie, which means she got it off of Manhattan somehow.

[END OF INSERTION]

And then the infected people attack Neville’s house due to a silly error on Anna’s part (after three years of surviving among these monsters?). A fight through the house ensues, ending in Neville’s basement lab. Neville give Anna a vial of his blood (no notes? no computer? not the current most-effective serum? none of the six redundant hard drives?), and then blows himself and the attacking infected people up. Anna and Ethan, tucked away in a very small hiding space, somehow get out of what is almost certainly the collapsed, burned (or burning) and oxygen-depleted basement of Neville’s house, escape from New York, and show up at the walled Vermont compound (yes, it turns out at the very end that the colony does exist) . The end. And all this seems to take place in about 10 minutes of film time — maybe 15.

Wha…?

While there were certainly very tense scenes during the final portion of the movie, the ending as a whole felt very rushed, unsatisfying, and somehow anti-climactic. Neville is talking to real live human beings — and direct analogues for his long-dead wife and daughter — for the first time in 3 years, yet mostly all that we get is the Bob Marley/God-told-me exchange (though there’s actually a good breakfast scene prior to that — “I was saving that!”). As my wife Sandra said after the film, “I felt as though 10 to 15 minutes were cut out at the end.”

In that regard, “I Am Legend” is very similar to Steven Spielberg’s “War of the Worlds”, which also had a rather abrupt and (from a dramatic point of view) unsatisfying ending. One moment, Tom Cruise and Dakota Fanning have barely escaped from captivity and certain death, the next scene they’re walking into Boston, the tripods are keeling over, and the movie’s done.

“I Am Legend” clocks in at 101 minutes (1:41). I suspect that the ending was indeed trimmed down (or not allowed to go any longer) in order to keep the film short and allow a fast turnaround cycle in movie theaters. Pity, because as it stands, the movie’s ending is rushed and a bit incoherent/inconsistent, particularly when compared to the methodical, wrenching build-up during the rest of the movie. Even another 5 minutes — giving Neville some real time to bond with Anna and Ethan, and then face the prospect of losing his wife/child surrogate (and the only other normal humans he’s seen in 3 years), just as he lost his real wife and child and the rest of humanity — would have given a dramatic intensity to the film’s ending that just wasn’t there. (As it stands, Anna is to blame for his death and the destruction of his work, instead of being the reason he is sacrificing himself.) Done correctly, “I Am Legend” could have been a classic on the order of “Aliens.” Alas, it is not. ..bruce..

[UPDATED 12/21/07 – 1755 MST] First, an item of interest: there are reports (from a month ago) that the studio forced the director (Francis Lawrence) to shoot a new or modified ending to “I Am Legend”. This means that we’re likely to see the original ending on a special-edition DVD some time in the future.

Second, I ordered, received, and (re-)read Richard Matheson’s original novella. It has probably been at least a few decades (or more) since I had read it, possibly dating back into high school. The novella itself was written in 1954 and was set in the mid-70s. While many of the aspects are the same — such as Neville’s fragile hold on his own sanity, his effort to find a cure, the appearance of a dog, and the appearance of a woman — the novella is, in the end, a very different story.

SPOILERS! YES, SPOILERS FOR THE NOVELLA!

It turns out that there are actually two infected groups: honest-to-goodness vampires and humans who have contracted the ‘vampire bug’ (an actual bacterium, spread through post-war climate change) but have not actually died, though they are subject to the same weaknesses and needs as the vampires. Neville, who is immune to the vampire bug, has been pretty indiscriminate about hunting down and killing both groups on a near-daily basis. However, the still-living infected humans have been slowly building up a society (albeit a brutal one), finding ways to cope with sunlight, restore some infrastructure and technology, and so on. Neville has become their bogeyman, their day-terror, the One who comes during their sleep and kills them. So not only are the infected humans systematically wiping out the real vampires (who have been feeding upon them), they capture Neville to execute him publicly so as to put their fears of him to rest. The (infected) woman used to track him down has slipped him some poison so that he can die less painfully. Here are the last four paragraphs:

Abruptly that realization joined with what he saw on their faces — awe, fear, shrinking horror — and he knew that they were afraid of him. To them he was some terrible scourge they had never seen, a scourge even worse than the disease they had come to live with. He was an invisible specter who had left for evidence of his existence the bloodless bodies of their loved ones. And he understood what they felt and did not hate them. His right hand tightened on the tiny envelope of pills. So long as the end did not come with violence, so long as it did not have to be a butchery before their eyes…

Robert Neville looked out over the new people of the earth. He knew he did not belong to them; he knew that, like the vampires, he was anathema and black terror to be destroyed. And, abruptly, the concept came, amusing to him even in his pain.

A coughing chuckle filled his throat. He turned and leaned against the wall while he swallowed the pills. Full circle, he thought while the final lethargy crept into his limbs. Full circle. A new terror born in death, a new superstition entering the unassailable fortress of forever.

I am legend.

Heh. A very dark and different ending, and one with a wonderful twist, one for which the title actually makes sense. Maybe in another 30 years, someone will actually make that movie.

[UPDATED 01/21/08] I’ve actually watched the other two films based on Matheson’s novella — and they gave me an appreciation for just how good this film version of “I Am Legend” is, my complaints about the ending notwithstanding.  ..bruce w..

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About the Author ()

Webster is Principal and Founder at Bruce F. Webster & Associates, as well as an Adjunct Professor of Computer Science at Brigham Young University. He works with organizations to help them with troubled or failed information technology (IT) projects. He has also worked in several dozen legal cases as a consultant and as a testifying expert, both in the United States and Japan. He can be reached at bwebster@bfwa.com, or you can follow him on Twitter as @bfwebster.

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