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The cover story for FANGORIA #301 (out now, and available for purchase on this site) is an extensive interview with LEGEND-ary author Richard Matheson. In the chat, he talks about his considerable and influential literary works as well as the TV and film adaptations of his stories. Matheson had quite a bit to say about his seminal 1954 novel I AM LEGEND and the movies inspired by it, including the 2007 film starring Will Smith. Here’s Michael Gingold’s review...
Of the many cosmetic changes wrought upon Richard Matheson’s classic novel I AM LEGEND for its latest and biggest screen adaptation, perhaps the most effective has been the switch in setting. From the environs of Los Angeles, which is better known for its car traffic than its foot traffic, the action has been moved to the perpetually walked streets of New York City, where the removal of the human population creates a far starker vision. In both technical and atmospheric terms, the deserted Manhattan presented in the new LEGEND is a remarkable achievement, the first few views of its empty, overgrown streets setting an immediate mood of desolation and loneliness—along with the inevitable suggestion, since this is a genre film after all, of awful, unseen things hiding in the shadows.
It is in this environment that Robert Neville finds himself apparently the last man on Earth, and where Will Smith proves himself a fine choice for the role. Reining in but not entirely submerging the likable, quick-witted attitude that originally made him a star, Smith creates a compelling portrait of a man who has survived three years entirely on his own through a combination of determination, invention, pure survival instincts and, yes, occasional humor. And there’s something else motivating him, too: In the script by Mark Protosevich and Akiva Goldsman (for some reason, the writers of previous LEGEND adaptation THE OMEGA MAN receive screen credit as well), Neville is, or was, a government scientist tasked with stopping the accidentally manmade plague that spelled humanity’s doom. Through vivid, well-placed flashbacks, we see that he was unable to save the populace in general and his family in particular, and even with no one left to cure, Neville continues to conduct experiments on animals that also, in a sense, help keep himself alive.
Director Francis Lawrence displayed a great deal of promise with the muddled material of his feature debut CONSTANTINE, and fulfills it with I AM LEGEND. What a relief to see a modern science fiction/horror/adventure that dispenses with the jittery camera tics and monochromatic gloom that have so overtaken big-ticket genre fare that they no longer qualify as edgy style. Lawrence stages the action cleanly and swiftly, generating honest excitement and tension, while also evoking a hushed stillness on the deserted Manhattan streets and giving Smith’s performance plenty of breathing room. The cinematography by Andrew Lesnie, who shot KING KONG and the LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy for Peter Jackson, is eye-fillingly lush and colorful, conveying a Big Apple gradually being reclaimed by other kinds of nature. And enough can’t be said about Naomi Shohan’s production design, as evocative in the intimacy of the well-stocked Washington Square home Neville has taken over, and the deserted apartments he explores, as it is on the postapocalyptic city streets.
So much of I AM LEGEND is so good that it’s a shame the movie’s horror content, in the form of other “survivors” turned into blood-hungry monsters by the plague, isn’t up to the level of the material around it. These “infected” only go on the prowl at night, leaving Neville to bolt the doors and lock steel shutters over the windows after dark, but they also provide a glimmer of hope—capturing and performing his tests on them could help him in his quest for the cure. Originally played by actors in prosthetics and body suits during the early portions of I AM LEGEND’s shoot, the infected are entirely computer-generated in the final feature, and these FX, alas, don’t entirely transcend their digital origins. The ghouls look fearsome enough, and their movements are plausible, but they don’t convince as living, breathing beings. That might not have been quite as big a problem were they alien in origin, but both the terror and the pathos that these were once ordinary humans gets lost.
There are infected dogs as well, and while the CGI involved with them is also technically proficient, they come off more like escapees from a RESIDENT EVIL game than actual flesh-and-blood canines. Far more persuasive is the performance by a real German shepherd named Abbey, playing Neville’s constant companion Sam, who provides him a sounding board along with moments of both warmth and humor (best throwaway gag: a shot of man and dog on side-by-side treadmills), and also figures into I AM LEGEND’s most powerful scenes. In the very best of them, Sam pursues one of the deer that have made the New York streets their roaming ground into an empty, darkened warehouse, and Neville, knowing that the infected may be inside and also knowing that they’re likely to kill Sam, plunges into the blackness with only a flashlight to see by. The result is a tour de force of nerve-frying suspense, paying off in a truly chilling first glimpse of the creatures (and not the one you’ve seen in the TV commercials).
The more we’re subsequently shown of the infected, the less persuasive they are, and even their apparent leader (billed as “Alpha Male,” with THE DAY AFTER TOMORROW’s Dash Mihok credited with the reference performance) doesn’t demonstrate much personality beyond growling and a few cunning sneers. The movie never completely loses its grip, however, thanks to Lawrence’s proficiency with the staging and storytelling and the very solid center provided by Smith. He does more than carry almost the entire movie on his own; he also demonstrates—particularly in one devastating moment—that a simple close-up on his emotion-ravaged face can deliver more punch than a million bucks’ worth of pyrotechnics. The film’s ending may significantly alter the meaning of the title from Matheson’s, but this I AM LEGEND proves that alterations in (most of) the right places can give a cinematic literary adaptation its own compelling identity.
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