On June 23, 2013 the world lost Richard Matheson, but like many a genre legend he will never truly die. Matheson was a hugely prolific writer, so even if you don't know his name you've definitely seen something he wrote if you watched more than ten films or TV show between about 1950 and, hell, today. If he didn't write it directly, then it was based on one of his many novels or short stories. From TV shows like The Twilight Zone and Star Trek: to movies as varied as The Comedy of Terrors, Duel, What Dreams May Come, and Real Steel have had Matheson's mark on them.
Matheson made one of his biggest marks, however, with his 1954 vampire novel, I Am Legend. The novel tells the story of a man named Robert Neville who just might be the only human left alive after a plague he is strangely immune to turns the rest of the world into vampires. Vampires that he hunts out and stakes during the day, while fortifying himself inside his house during the night as the vampires call for him to come out. But is he really the last true human left alive?
The effects of the novel can be seen in a variety of ways, not the least of which is the attempt to explain vampirism in scientific terms. The novel was first adapted to film as The Last Man on Earth in 1964 with Vincent Price as Robert Morgan, which Matheson actually wrote the original screnplay for. However, while it is the most faithful adaptation of the story, Matheson was not fond of the later rewrites and requested to credited under the pseudonym "Logan Swanson." I'm sure I'll review this version in due time, but one of its biggest departures was making the vampires into slow-moving, shambling corpses. It's little surprise, then, that it's often cited as one of George A. Romero's inspirations for Night of The Living Dead.
The film was adapted a second time as The Omega Man in 1971 with Charlton Heston in the Robert Neville role. This one, however, diverges wildly from the novel. The menace that Neville faces are no longer vampires, but a cult of albino mutant Luddites that blame modern technology for the downfall of the world--and see Neville as one of the chief architects. The twist of the original novel is virtually cut out all together, so the tragic yet hopeful ending is robbed of a lot of its power. It is notable for having one of the earliest onscreen interracial romances between Heston and Rosalind Cash, but overall it's not very good.
In the 1990s, rumors swirled of a third adaptation with Arnold Schwarzenegger, but that attempt was cast into development hell until around 2002, when the project was revived as a vehicle for Will Smith. It took several rewrites and mutations before the film finally made it to the screen at the end of 2007, and yours truly went to see it with expectations firmly lowered.
What I saw was almost a pleasant surprise.
The film opens in 2009, with a television interview with Dr. Alice Krippin (an uncredited Emma Thompson!). Dr. Krippin has engineered a version of the measels virus that is designed to combat cancer. She happily announces that in the 10,009 human trials she has conducted, all 10,009 patients have become cancer free. The amazed announcer asks if this means she has cured cancer and Krippin replies, rather modestly, that she has.
A "Three Years Later" title card finds us in an empty, ruined Manhattan. (A rather clever nod to the 2012 apocalypse hysteria of the Aughts) Wild plants everywhere and not a sound can be heard anywhere--until we see a car zooming down an otherwise abandoned street. In the passenger seat is a German shepherd named Sam, but the driver is Dr. Robert Neville (Will Smith!), a former US Army doctor and current last man on earth. Sam has caught wind of something, and Neville nearly runs right into an entire herd of deer. (Which oddly vocalize like elk) He and Sam pursue the deer, ultimately having to get out on foot and chase after one buck.
|Together, they fight crime.|
Sam and Neville sleep in the bathtub that night, listening to the sound of creatures that might once have been human howling and screaming outside. In this version, the vampires (or "hemocytes" if you go by the subtitles and "Darkseekers" by the dialogue, but fuck that--they're Goddamn vampires so just freaking call them that) don't know where Neville lives and are too feral to call him out even if they did.
Neville's days are pretty loaded. He starts off each morning by experimenting on vampire rats in his basement lab, trying to find a vaccine or antidote. It seems that KV (the "Krippin Virus") turns you into a bald, albino rage zombie version of your former self. And I have to say, the vampire rats are truly cartoonish CGI, despite the fact that at least one of them could have been played by an actual hairless rat. Most of his subjects are unaffected or killed, but he does see one rat that looks like it's returning to normal. The rest of the morning consists of searching every apartment in the city, both for supplies and to ensure no vampires are hiding inside. (There's some nice worldbuilding in these scenes, particularly when we see a newspaper front page warning that infected dogs can come out at dusk) Then he swings by a video store populated by mannequins he's set up, including a mysterious woman near the adult section he promises Sam that he'll talk to one of these days.
|So, in this film the apocalypse spared us Batman v. Superman. Clearly, those of us in the real world are in the darkest timeline.|
As we soon see when Neville finds an unharmed Sam, only to be attacked by a vampire, someone decided that the bald, hairless humans that repesent this version's vampires needed to be entirely CGI. I have no idea why, since the only thing they do that needs CGI to accomplish is opening their mouths really wide like Arnold Vosloo in The Mummy movies. It renders them incredibly non-threatening because they never look real. This is a far cry from Gollum, let me tell you.
|"Whoa. Wrong book."|
In his log later, Neville attributes this behavior to the vampires becoming desperate for food and forgetting self-preservation. He also discovers that the female vampire has a butterfly tattoo on her shoulder before he tests his vaccine on her. It appears to work at first--only to then apparently kill her. Neville revives her and keeps her locked up under sedation in his lab.
That night, like most nights, Neville is tormented by his memory of the night New York City was locked down by the military. We don't see it all in one piece, but Neville loaded his wife Zoe (Salli Richardson, voice of Elisa Maza on Disney's Gargoyles) and young daughter Marley (Willow Smith, yep, his real-life daughter) into a military transport, along with Marley's puppy Sam. They barely made it past the infection scanners and through the crowd desperate to escape the island. Neville had to stay in order to continue his work, but he loaded his wife and daughter into the helicopter--keeping Sam at his daughter's insistence. Unfortunately, the helicopter took off just after the missiles had destroyed the bridges, and another helicopter lost control after being swarmed by desperate people and spun into the helicopter containing Neville's family...
Now, Sam is all he has left in the world. Too bad fate isn't done screwing him over. During a regular run, Neville notices one of his mannequins in a place it should not be. Isolation has made Neille, understandably, a bit disconnected from reality. So he angrily approavhes the mannequin demanding to know if it's real, and ends up gunning it down--and firing wildly at the windows of the buildings around him. Unfortunately, he makes the mistake of stepping into the puddle by the mannequin to investigate it--and finds himself caught in the exact kind of trap he used to catch the female vampire earlier.
Blood rushing to his head knocks Neville out for hours. When he comes to the sun is going down and cutting himself down results in landing on the knife, wounding his thigh. He crawls back towards his car, only for the male vampire to appear in the building behind the trap--holding onto three vampire dogs. A thin strip of sunight that's rapidly fading keeps the dogs at bay, but Neville has only just made it to his car (and his other gun), when the sun dips below the buildings enough to allow the dogs to charge. Neville ultimately kills the vampire dogs, but Sam has been bitten several times.
|"Bad vampire dog! Bad!"|
Unfortunately, from here on the film takes a slight dive from the great one-man show it's been up until now. Neville attempts to ambush the vampires that night on the dock, running several over with his car. However, there's too many and they finally overturn his car. The male vampire leans in toward Neville, teeth bared--only for a bright UV light to drive the vampires away. A dazed Neville hears a female voice desperately asking him where he lives and he tells her address, but warns not to let the vampires follow.
And then he comes to on his couch. His leg has been stitched up, Shrek is playing on the TV, and there are two normal humans in his kitchen. The adult woman is Anna Montez (Alice Braga!) and the young boy is Ethan (Charlie Tahan), though Ethan appears to be mute (at least for most of his screentime). Anna is making eggs and bacon from Neville's reserves, and advises she set some antibiotics by his plate for his leg.
Anna and Ethan were aboard a Red Cross ship harbored in Philadelphia, but unfortunately it was overrun. Apparently, only they survived the assault and have been on the move ever since--and they heard Neville's broadcasts. Unfortunately, he wasn't at the docks that day so luckily they had waited nearby and were able to save him from the vampires. Anna then mentions that their real destination is Vermont, since there's a colony of other immune survivors there. Neville gets furious at this, since he is sure that is a myth and he smashes his plate against the wall and storms away until he can calm back down.
When Neville comes back down, he obsessively quotes Shrek for a bit before getting down to business with Anna. She explains that on board her ship there were five immune people, but the vampires (no, stop saying "Darkseekers" just fucking call them vampires) got the others. She talks again about going to Vermont but Neville refuses. He has to stay and fix things, finally stop the plague once and for all.
Anna asks what happened to his leg, so he shows her the trap. He's mystified because he is sure the infected could not have laid the trap for him because they have no higher brain function, but Anna is not so sure. While they sit beside a koi pond, she asks Neville if the vampires could be evolving. Ethan then splashes into the pond, so Neville throws some food in to send the fish into a feeding frenzy. When Ethan observes that the water is cold, Neville realizes that temperature is the key.
Putting the female vampire on a bed of ice, he tries again. Anna brings him coffee, and then notices that one wall of Neville's lab is devoted to the human subjects he has experimented on--all of them dead. Anna begins to see Neville in a different light, but doesn't say much. After taking Ethan up to bed as the sun sets, Anna notices Marley's picture. Neville explains that they named his daughter after Bob Marley--whom Neville has been listening to off and on for the whole film--and discovers, to his horror, that Anna doesn't know who Bob Marely is,
Neville endeavors to educate her. Afterwards, they close up the shutters as Anna begs him to come with to the colony in Vermont. Neville insists there is no colony, and her admission that she knows the colony is there because God told her doesn't exactly sway him. He counters her "God's plan" bullshit with pointing out that KV killed 90% of the world's population, leaving only the immune and the vampires. And then the vampires killed those who were immune. As far as Neville is concerned there is no God.
And then, perhaps to prove Neville's point, there comes a keening scream from nearby. It seems that, concerned about Neville's chances, Anna didn't wait for full dawn to bring him home. Well, now there are dozens of vampires charging across the park toward Chez Neville. The UV floodlights in the park only slow them down, but the car bombs he sets off on the street seem to the job. Except, going upstairs to find Anna and Ethan gets him ambushed by the male vampire. Bitten on the neck and tossed around like a rag doll, Neville only escapes by stabbing his foe in the leg with a screwdriver. Well, more like this causes his foe to throw him down the stairs in a way that would kill an ordinary human.
Neville shoots at the male vampire with a hidden assault rifle,sets off another explosion, and then chases after the fiend when he scrambles up the stairs. He chases the male vampire out of a window, and then finds Ethan and Anna hiding under a dresser as another vampire tears a hole in the ceiling. Neville dispatches that vampire with another gun--but the male vampire is outside, calling down another wave of vampires. Their only option now is to flee down to the safety of the lab...
And here's where the movie completely falls to shit if, like me, you went to see it in the theater. I'll elaborate on that momentarily, but I will tell you right now that if you watch it on Blu-ray or DVD you want to be sure you have the "Alternate Cut" selected if you want the film to not completely piss all over the floor in the last few minutes.
We'll start, therefore with the alternate cut's ending, a.k.a. the ending that isn't infuriating. Locking themselves behind the plexiglass, Anna discovers that the vaccine is working, turning the female vampire into something more like her former human self. Unfortunately, then the vampires smash through the lab doors. Neville desperate, tries to reason with the vampires as they slam against the glass, telling them he can save them. However, the male vampire tosses the others aside and smashes against the glass, cracking it.
Then, to Neville's shock the vampire uses its bloody hand-print to paint the image of a butterfly on the glass. And suddenly, Neville understands, as he looks at the butterfly tattoo on the shoulder of his test subject. This whole time, the male just wanted the female back. To Anna's confusion, Neville unhooks the creature from her IV, which causes her to revert back to her vampire complexion. Neville has Anna open the door and he rolls the female vampire out to the others.
Calmly, as the male vampire keeps the others at bay, Neville gets a syringe and uses it to bring the female vampire back to consciousness. The mated pair are happily reunited, and the male gives one last baleful look to Neville--who apologizes aloud, with a sideways glance at the wall of photos of the vampires he's killed. The vampires depart, leaving Neville to realize that he is the boogeyman. You might even say, he is legend.
And then Neville, Anna, and Ethan drive across the one bridge that apparently wasn't destroyed. (Yeah, okay, that part is dumb) They broadcast to others that there is hope, that they are not alone. The End.
|"Well, your tonsils look fine from here, but that wisdom tooth has got to go."|
Sure, Neville driving happily into the countryside after realizing he has been callously torturing and murdering intelligent beings is a bit of an odd decision, but I can accept it. Meanwhile, the theatrical ending opts to have the vampires just have been mindless monsters all along--despite keeping all the obvious cues that they are more than that--and Neville becomes "legend" instead by giving his cure to Anna and then suicide bombing the vampires. It keeps the tragic ending the story has always had, while removing everything that actually made it mean something.
Oh, and the film's already heavy-handed butterfly motif in the theatrical ending takes a turn for the "Swing away" reveal of Signs, in a way it already borders dangerously on in the original ending.
Now, even with the fixed ending this movie is still heavily flawed. As I said earlier, the film takes a distinct dive in quality once Neville is no longer alone and making Anna (and Ethan) just other immune humans instead of vampires who gradually became human robs the reveal of a lot of its power, as well. And the vampires, my God, the vampires are just awful. There is no reason that the vampires had to be such awful CGI for most of their screen time, but somebody decided that was a good idea and they were wrong.
These vampires might be creepy in a Resident Evil game, but they never feel like anything but cartoons that have entered the real world. The ending still works in spite of the fact we're being asked to sympathize with game sprites, but the only way they could look sillier would be if they were all dressed in rubbery bat monster costumes. And calling them Darkseekers just makes it that much worse. At least "Hemocytes" almost sounds cool, but why is it so hard to just call them vampires? People in the real world certainly would.
Even with an ending that doesn't make you wonder why they bothered with the rights in the first place, the film is barely more than okay. But, damn it, I really want to like it more. For one thing, Will Smith gets to really stretch his chops as an actor for the first 2/3rds of the film. This film has to rely on him alone for that stretch of it, and he is more than up to the task. His performance is easily on par with the one Vincent Price delivered in The Last Man On Earth, which is high praise indeed. I mean, the aftermath of Sam's death is made even more heartbreaking by his performance.
It makes me really wish the rest of the film was deserving of that. It's not just that I feel the writing suffers a bit, but Smith's performance does as well. Unfortunately, when Anna and Ethan show up, Will Smith the actor becomes overpowered by Will Smith the Persona. You know exactly what I mean, I'm sure--the scenes of him teaching Anna about Bob Marley and quoting Shrek could just as easily have come right out of something like Hitch.
In the end, my favorite adaptation of Matheson's novel will always star Vincent Price. However, this film comes frustratingly close so many times it really makes me wish it could have actually pulled it off. In the end, I'm afraid it comes up just too short. It's definitely worth seeing, as long as you watch the alternate cut, but it will never be the horror classic it should have been.
Sad to say, it's no legend.
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