Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Vamp or Not? I am Legend

I Am Legend is, of course, the Will Smith vehicle and film of the Richard Matheson novel of the same name. When in production I worried about this; could Smith carry the role of Robert Neville, what would they do with the story and would it contain vampires? There has been much debate as to whether the infected “Dark Seekers” are actually vampires and I decided to look at the film as a ‘Vamp or Not?’. That said I will also be offering some critique of the movie and looking at its novel inaccuracies. There will be heavy spoilers.

The fact that it might stray from Matheson’s story was not unexpected. After all the novel has been filmed before. the Last Man on Earth was fairly novel accurate. The Omega Man did not feature vampires and we should remember that the book also inspired the Night of the Living Dead, the Romero movie that spawned the modern zombie genre.

The story takes place, in this, in the near future. In 2009 Dr Alice Krippen (Emma Thompson) – a wholly obvious name – develops the Krippen virus, a genetically engineered form of the measles virus. With it she cures cancer. The Krippen virus mutates, however, becomes airborne and decimates humanity. Later we hear that there were 6 billion people on Earth when the virus hit. KV, as it is known, had a 99% kill rate, there was a less than 1% immune (12 million) and the other 588 million turned into dark seekers.

Neville is a virologist who was working at ground zero (Manhattan). He is immune and the rest of the city survivors are dark seekers. Smith, it has to be said, does a tremendous job as the lone survivor, trying to keep his sanity after three years alone and still trying to find a cure, with only his dog Sam for company. Sam is not only his last handhold on sanity but also his weakness. KV can jump species. This is something I did not like. Other species are immune to airborne KV but Neville uses infected rats and we see infected dogs. To be honest, if the rats could be infected then that would be the end of everything - infected creatures would be everywhere.

Are the infected vampires? Let us look at the evidence. They are very violent and have mutated into a form that is not exactly human normal. They certainly are attracted to blood, and Neville uses this to capture a female for his human trials of possible cures. When he captures the female a male pushes his head into the sun. This shows us that sunlight (or specifically UV) burns them. I immediately took this to be a sign of concern, Neville does not. “an infected male exposed himself to sunlight today. Now it's possible decreased brain function or growing scarcity of food is causing them to... ignore their basic survival instincts. Social de-evolution appears complete. Typical human behavior is now entirely absent.”

The dark seekers then try to hunt Neville and the first thing they do is set up a rather elaborate trap. Neville uses a DVD hire shop and has populated it with mannequins. Outside is one called Fred. They move Fred and use its movement to confuse Neville – they use his loneliness and his thin grasp on reality. They hide a snare in water and copy his exact trapping method. This shows forethought and planning. They then release infected dogs after him. Note that the dogs can only attack when the sun has moved and the infected do not, themselves, attack at this point.

As a result of this Sam is infected and Neville has to kill her, loosing his minimal grip on sanity he becomes suicidal, with a desire to take as many of them out as he possibly can when he dies. The dark seekers know to look for him at the pier and Neville almost dies (or perhaps that might be almost gets captured) before being rescued by Anna (Alice Braga) and Ethan (Charlie Tahan), two survivors who have heard Neville’s message that he broadcasts daily. It is here that, for me, the film started to fall apart and we shall look at that shortly.

Anna gets him home before the sun has fully risen and the dark seekers attack as night falls. It is clear that the male is commanding his troops, they act cooperatively (trying to rip open the ceiling to allow access from the roof). The male dodges bullets, he knows danger. We also see a bite to the neck, but this is less vampire and more a mirror of a lion with a gazelle from the start of the movie.

The DVD carries an alternate ending and I will flick to that for a moment. In the alternate ending Neville realises (through means almost mystical, which I will look into later when I see why the film failed towards the end) that the dark seekers have humanity. The male is trying to get his mate, whom Neville has succeeded in partially curing. Neville wheels her out and the male ensures the others do not attack. He carries her away and Neville survives - driving off in a faux-'original cut of Bladerunner' ending.

This social intelligence says vamp, rather than zombie or infected killing machine. However the alternate ending strayed from the book because Neville survived. In the theatrical ending Neville dies, but it is an act of self sacrifice to save the other non-infected and the cure. This is out with the book.

Todd Rundgren suggested, when it came to covering songs, that you should make the cover identical to the original or make the song your own. When it comes to movies and I am Legend specifically it is not identical to the original (book) and fails to make it its own. The film owes too much to previous films, be it Omega Man or the legacy of Romero and that genre development (28 Days Later). In the book Neville dies (off page through execution, though there is intimation of suicide) because he is the bogeyman, he is the monster killing the innocent, he is the old order. This film does allude to this subtly with the wall of shame – past attempts to cure the infected that led to the death of the patient – but pulls from the brink.

With I am Legend Matheson wrote a scientifically grounded book, it is actually sci-fi and one might even dare to say secular. There is no mystical element, everything happens because of science based reasons. When Anna appears and starts spouting on that God is speaking to her, telling her about a survivor colony and revealing his plan to her, I lost hope. There was no need to add pseudo-religious mysticism. This is in place from the head of the film, the film establishes the butterfly as the icon of God and, at the very beginning of the movie, we see a sign “God still loves us” and a butterfly shape is ripped into it.

Before I make a judgement on the vamp aspect I must also mention the animated comics that are on the DVD. These are, in many respects, more interesting than the film and beautifully drawn. “Death as a Gift” is set in Hong Kong and is the poignant suicide of a lone survivor. “Isolation” sees the closing off of Colorado and the coming of the infection through the eyes of a convict still classed as public enemy number one as he was a domestic terrorist. Central America is the location for “Sacrificing the Few for the Many” a coldly, brutally poetic film about the attack on an isolation hospital in the jungle.

It is the final comic “Shelter”, set in New Dehli, which I wish to concentrate on. A girl is locked out of a safe, by her hiding family, as she insisted on seeing her love before hiding. She is infected. Interestingly when she gets into the safe she sees monsters – as the thing progresses the idea is given to us that the infected see the non-infected as something evil. She needs blood specifically to relieve her hunger, giving us a vampire aspect, and she and her infected lover recognise each other and still have feelings for each other.

The social groupings, the communication (albeit in an animalistic, non-human vocalisation), the use of traps, the need for blood, the display of emotion and the burning in sunlight. All this says to me that I Am Legend is most definitely a vampire flick.

The imdb page is here.


Unknown said...

Great Review!

What do u make of this?
History has shown that some sort of plague has followed every release of “I Am Legend,” both the book, and all film adaptations.

“I Am Legend” (1954 book) Setting: 1976-1979.
Outbreak: 1957: Flu pandemic (and Polio vaccine introduced)

“The Last Man on Earth” (1964 film) – Setting: 1968.
Outbreak: 1967: flu pandemic

“The Omega Man” (1971 film) – Setting: 1977
Outbreak: 1976 – swine flu scare

“I Am Legend” (2007 film) – Setting 2009-2012
Outbreak: ???

Taliesin_ttlg said...

Thanks for the praise...

what do I think, to be honest I think you can tie any set of disasters (as there are so many) into any trigger...

For instance did you know that the stats around global warming mirror exactly the decrease in piracy... thus increase pirates preclude climate change:

hbrennan said...

An excellent, high-quality review. That goes for the entire site, as well. I'm seriously glad that I "stumbled" onto it. It's now providing me with a huge amount of reading enjoyment and handing me suggestions of films that I want to watch, in the future. As a professional writer, it truly pleases me to see the work of another talented wordsmith. Thanks!

Taliesin_ttlg said...

Hi hbrennan, thank you so much for the very kind words. Glad you are enjoying the site - excuse my tardiness in releasing your comment - I was away with work for a couple of days - I greatly value comments so please tell me what you think of any film that I might guide you towards.