The last man on Earth

Grabbed some time to go and sit and watch I Am Legend before I go back to work. Now I had already surmised from trailers and articles in Empire that yet again Hollywood had not done the book. Third time a film has been made of Richard Matheson’s classic 50s novel of Cold War paranoia and humanity’s seemingly endless ability for self-destruction and third time they haven’t done the bloody book! Come one, please….

That said the film, although different from the book – relocated to New York, which actually works well during the scene of Will Smith hunting wild game in an overgrown Times Square, main character Robert Neville is now an army doctor working on a cure, the scientifically created vampires are now fast, aggressive zombies (although still photophobic) – it actually works very well in creating a sense of isolation and terror as the last man in the world tries to hold it together in a Manhattan populated only by him, his dog and a legion of the infected.

Instead of an unspecified biological agent from a war (as in the book) the cause here is genetic engineering in an attempt to beat cancer, although even if you knew nothing about the story going in you could guess nothing good would come of a medical breakthrough by a character with a name like Doctor Crippen (a cameo by Emma Thompson). Scenes where Neville heads to the DVD store during daylight to withdraw films and return old ones illustrate how he is trying to use routine to keep himself together, rather than simply grabbing whatever he wants from the store. Populating the shop with store window dummies so it looks occupied and he has someone to ‘talk’ to adds to that feeling, being both slightly amusing and disturbing at the same time, stirring sympathy for Neville.

(SPOILER WARNING: don’t read on if you are going to see it, I won’t describe the whole finale, but it might spoil it for you if you are planning to see it)

Which makes it all the more annoying when the final section totally destroys what had been so carefully built up earlier, opting for the big fights with masses of CGI infected, big bangs and adding a redemption arc which clashes with the themes established earlier in the same way the original ‘happy ending’ forced on Blade Runner on its original release, really annoying the hell out of me, Hollywood managing an interesting, bleak, disturbing film then getting cold feet and going for SF CGI action fest at the end. And the CGI is annoying because the infected are hyped up creatures (why? they are diseased, why do they have amazing superhuman abilities now???), leaping up high buildings and their leader’s jaws opening preternaturally wide as he yells – yes, they come right out of the Mummy (except some infected dogs which was copied shamelessly from Resident Evil), which was fine for the Mummy which was daft but fun and knew it, this was serious and bleak and psychological then went all cartoony and bollocksed it up.

And if they had stuck to the bloody book in the first place they might have avoided it. The book is far more effective – each night Neville has to be home and barricaded in his home before sunset. Outside his home many of the infected who have become vampire-like creatures due to the virus are people he knows, friends, neighbours (his next door neighbour bellowing ‘Neville!’ each night seems worse than simple roaring fiends in the movie, more personal) and in a harrowing flashback we see Neville in the book burying his wife then finding her resurrected by the virus and coming back to try and kill him and feed on him. In the book there are live and dead vampires as the virus mutates living victims but also resurrects the dead, who act differently. None of this comes in the film. In the book Neville hunts them by day as they lie in their comas, staking them and wondering why it is that this method of killing from myths works, all the time becoming more paranoid, more bloody and violent himself, staring into the Neitzchen abyss and having it stare back into him, becoming a monster as he fights monsters.

I won’t spoil the ending of the book here, but suffice to say Matheson maintains the bleak atmosphere he established effectively with such commendable economy (the book is very short), a skill he used also as a screenwriter (he would work on many of the Vincent Price-Roger Corman Edgar Allan Poe movies), in contrast to the movie which ruins itself at that point. And the title I Am Legend has a very different, darker explanation at the end of Matheson’s powerful novel than the film. Film – watchable but be prepared to be suddenly let down at the clunking gear change towards the end (and what a shame, the earlier bits as I said are effective and Smith is allowed to act for once). Book – bloody brilliant, one of my personal top books of the last century, a real insight into the paranoia and fear of the Cold War era which still works perfectly in today’s troubled world. You should read it.