For those keeping score of the various film versions of Richard Matheson’s classic 1954 horror/sci-fi novel I Am Legend, the most faithful version remains the cheapjack 1964 one The Last Man on Earth, starring Vincent Price as the lone scientist left unaffected, when a weird plague turns the rest of humanity into night-dwelling, vampire-like mutants. And that thing was shot in Italy in B&W what looks like a few villa backyards, for very little lire.
The new I Am Legend really looks more like a remake of the big-budget second version, 1971’s The Omega Man, with Charlton Heston. With each iteration of this story the budget goes up and the style changes (Omega Man has some seriously funky blaxploitation trappings and polyester). I suppose in 2021 there will be an all-CGI musical version starring talking animals with wisecracking celebrity voices.
But not if events in the new I Am Legend comes to pass. Will Smith now stars as Dr. Robert Neville, an army scientist at “ground zero” when a genetically engineered virus plague breaks out in 2010 NYC, wiping out or mutating the population of Manhattan (9/11 meets AIDS zeitgeist abounds in the script). Now Neville is only untainted person in New York – and possibly the whole world. He and his German shepherd and his weapons arsenal maintain a daily routine of going around town, hunting deer herds through Central Park, visiting the South Street Seaport, and poignantly experimenting in a hidden lab setup for a vaccine cure, even though the fight seems long over, and the people who not killed outright by the dreaded KV virus (originally a cancer cure that went askew) have been turned into pale, frenzied goblin-like creatures who hid from the sun in the city’s concrete recesses.
The ads have not been showing you these “dark-seekers.” Audiences expecting real cool creature designs will be disappointed; the menaces are like digital versions of the bald vampires that Wesley Snipes regularly slices through in the Blade sequels. A female one Neville captures, though, has that much-coveted supermodel combination of full breasts, tiny waist and toned muscles. If the dreaded “KV” virus really did exist in real life, you can bet cosmetic surgery businesses would sell it to the ladies like Botox.
The movie is pretty sober-minded stuff and the scenes of Neville going about his business in a giant, dead metropolis that’s weed-overgrown and showing the early stages of timeless ruination, have a chilling grandeur and imagination (note the movie poster in Times Square for a Batman-vs.-Superman movie that the doomed world of tomorrow was going to enjoy), even though 28 Days Later and its sequel did this that for London, diluting some of the vibe. Smith is good in the lead role, but so was Heston. And Price, who, as a longtime screen bad guy, best embodied, in concept, Matheson’s bitter conclusion that when the monsters take over, the lone “normal” person will seem like the monster instead.
I Am Legend v.3.0 instead makes Robert Neville a tragically noble martyr-figure, one who gets solace from, of all places, the music of Bob Marley as giving him the strength to press forward and “fix things” despite the seemingly hopeless odds. Hey, the reggae samples save us from a gangsta rap/hip-hop medley over the closing credits (“Yo! I am legend/This is my gat!/You a vampire/It know where yo ass at!”). You want to hear something really scary? There was an attempt to do this movie in the late 1990s as an astronomically costly Arnold Scharzenegger actioner.