Monday, September 05, 2011

Debunking a Legend

With two (uncredited) adaptations already - The Last Man on Earth (1964) and The Omega Man (1971) - an uncharitable person might be tempted to ask, 'What is the point of yet another film based on Richard Mattheson's 1954 horror classic I am Legend?'

Let's examine the facts.

In 1997 Mark Protosevich's action-oriented script was slated to set the apocalyptic-future template for Ridley Scott's (Alien, Blade Runner, Gladiator) take on Mattheson's dark tale of loneliness, isolation and loss, with Arnold Schwarzenegger in the leading role. But with Scott and Schwarzenegger both coming off of big-budget flops - 1492: Conquest of Paradise and Last Action Hero respectively - the studio balked at the projected cost of US$100 million-plus and insisted Scott cut back.

After four months of pre-production - set designs, storyboards, CGI and make-up tests - Scott walked. A Jerry Bruckheimer/Michael Bay (Pearl Harbour, Transformers) helmed production, came and went in the early 2000s and Guillermo Del Toro passed up the opportunity to direct, just before going on to make Hellboy 2: The Golden Army. The film was eventually green lit with Francis Lawrence (Constantine) installed as director and Will Smith as its star.

Despite being the first film to carry the I am Legend moniker, what finally hobbled off the studio lot in late 2007 is a weird hybrid creature, bearing only a passing resemblance to the book. Yes, humans infected by a virulent strain of vampirism hunt the Last Man on Earth, but that is pretty much where the similarities end. The rest is based on Ridley Scott’s groundwork. But, with the best will in the world, Francis Lawrence is no Ridley Scott. Nor is he Richard Mattheson. And, without their vision, I am Legend is just another vampire film.

Will Smith tries hard to convince in what is ultimately a very silly role - both a pharmacological doctor, experimenting to find a cure for the virus that infected 99 percent of the world’s population; and a high-ranking military officer, more than capable of taking care of himself in a post-apocalyptic landscape inhabited by creatures that want nothing more than to eat him alive. Smith is certainly not the Robert Neville of the book: alcoholic, scared, brave, resourceful, lazy, disciplined and boderline insane. Indeed, there is little room for any of that kind of ambiguity in the film. Not to mention the confused feelings of sexual attraction and repulsion Mattheson’s Neville feels for the female vampires in the book. The films steers well clear of that kind of murky territory.

Ironically, if I had to choose a performer who might be able to support an entire feature film with only a dog as support, Will Smith might well be that actor. But here he is constrained by a script that leaves no room humour and forces Smith to play things entirely straight, leaving little room for his trademark charm. Not that this would be a problem if the film carried the psychological weight of the book. But it doesn’t. This is a problem given that it also lacks the light-touch of the best of mainstream entertainment.

Not to say that the film is dreadful. It is just dull, plodding, non-descript, which, with source material as good as this, might leave one wondering, ‘What is the point?’ US$585 million later, I think we have our - Upcoming Events - Keyword description


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