I’ll start this review by saying that Richard Matheson’s story providing the source material for this movie is the best piece of post-apocalyptic fiction I’ve read. The perfect blend of psychological and physical horror, the book excites and pleases right to the surprise ending.
The movie, however, is a different matter. It is still far better than some other movies of the genre I could name, but it seemed to me more like two movies than one, both of which falling short of their potential. It’s as if the filmmakers were trying to decide whether they should make a film that they wanted to compete for an Oscar or one with the blockbuster appeal to generate a lot of revenue and decided to make both. The first hour is fraught with tension, allowing a wonderful stage for Will Smith to again display his versatility and talent as an actor. Smith plays everyman Robert Neville, but plays the everyman we would all like to be. Instead of the regular Joe found in Matheson’s book, the film turns Neville into both a soldier and an immunologist, two skill sets that make him an ideal (and remarkable coincidental) person to remain immune to a virus that kills 90% of the world’s population and turns all the survivors but a few million into vampires. Smith seems to have cornered the market on this type of character–the guy pissing at the next urinal who could still kick your ass in midstream while not letting a single drop fall to the floor. In one scene, Neville’s beloved dog, Sam, rushes into a dark building chasing a deer and when Neville goes in after her, he is more panicked than one would expect from a well-built man holding an assault rifle. A few moments later, you find that his fears are justified as he and his dog nearly become Purina-brand Vampire Chow.
Simply stated, the first half of the movie was fantastic. In the second half, however, the movies goes far astray from the book and, in doing so, enters the realm of the cliched action film. Neville, upon losing Sam, tries to commit suicide by attacking a pack of vampires at night and ends up being saved by two survivors, the first two living people he has seen in three years. Oddness ensues as the woman and her son try to convince Neville to flee with them to an alleged colony of survivors in Vermont. Neville, convinced he can reverse the effects of the virus, refuses to leave, a fact made moot by a bold attack by the vampires on his home.
Matheson’s book ends with Neville finding a young woman out on his daily trek to destroy the vampires, a woman who turns out to be an enhanced vampire herself, immune to sunlight, that leads Neville into a trap. The novel concludes with Neville awaiting his execution by this new society, one that considers him, the murderer of so many of their number, the monster. As he looks out upon the multitude of anxious, fearful faces, he realizes that he has become a legend to rival the vampire in the previous society.
In the movie, Neville realizes that he has found the cure to the virus, but only after the vampires have entered his home and are moments away from killing him. Securing the young woman and her son with a sample of the cure, he sacrifices himself via hand grenade, allowing they woman and child to make their way to the colony with the cure. Movie over.
What makes the ending disappointing to me is that it completely whiffs on the point of the novel. Matheson wrote about how our legends form within society. The theme of the movie version, instead, seems to be that persistence pays off. A noble thought, but far less reaching than Matheson’s. Had the movie stayed along the line set by the novel, it might have held less action, but would resonate more upon its completion. Matheson’s story was thrilling and poignant, while the movie proved less so on both counts.
Overall, I Am Legend is a worthwhile film to see. It could have been better, but Smith’s incredible charisma makes up for much that is lost in the translation to the screen. Perhaps someday, another version will be made, one truer to the story Matheson created.