For the second time in a few weeks I went to see a movie based on a book I like very much, and watched a film with a new ending, written to suit the conventions of Hollywood, that significantly changed the entire point of the book.
But whereas I left The Golden Compass commiserating with friends over how bad it was, none of us walking out of I Am Legend could say anything for a few minutes. It’s a terrifying and deeply disturbing film, with a brilliant performance by Will Smith, that does change the book significantly but does so thoughtfully, and in ways that sometimes actually improve on the original (which I wrote about a few posts ago).
First of all, the visuals are stunning. rosefox, I completely understand why you had to leave partway through. The abandoned, plastic-covered buildings, the advertisements and public service announcements, the sound and sight of nothing but birds and wildlife in Times Square, the sunken cars at the entrance to the Lincoln Tunnel, the shattered East River bridges, are carefully and thoughtfully constructed by people who must know and love New York. And as a result, they are deeply affecting, much more so than the CGI-blitz destruction of many let’s-destroy-New-York-City films. For the most part, you see none of the destruction, no big explosions, just empty streets with weeds growing in them, abandoned vehicles, and buildings covered in ripped plastic; a quiet, haunted city.
Will Smith’s performance is magnificent; he spends a great deal of the film entirely alone, or talking to his dog. Having a deeply emotional conversation with a mannequin sounds like an exercise from an acting class, but he does it here and does it well. His combination of practicality and semi-insanity is compelling (his careful experiments versus the scenes in the video store) and his reaction to Anna’s appearance completely believable.
The most disappointing aspect of the film was that it was content to leave the “dark seekers” as horrifying monsters, rather than starting them out as monsters and having us reconsider them as people and the one remaining human as the monster. There are hints that the creatures are more than monsters, particularly when he captures the woman under the High Line. Later, in his lab, he notes that a male creature stepped into the sunlight to come after him, and goes on to say that any shred of human behavior has left them. But of course, it could have been quite the opposite; the male could have been coming after his partner, kidnapped by what, to them, is a horrifying monster. And the fact that they laid a clever trap for him is a clear indication that they were, in fact, just as intelligent as he was; I was really hoping for some kind of communication at the end as the creatures break down the glass wall, but no such luck.
I also thought for a while that Anna would turn out to be from the “dark seekers,” just as Ruth in the book is actually one of the “vampires.” This was foreshadowed for a while, which along with the above makes me wonder about rewrites. When she and Neville discuss the woman he capture, she calls the creature “her” while his pronoun is “it.” And she looks at his wall of photos of his captured specimens, and expresses horror, which Neville takes to be horror at the scope of the problem, but could also have been horror at how many of her people he’d killed.
I don’t blame them for changing that aspect of the story, but I do wish they’d made the creatures more than just scary monsters. That central point of the book, the question of how you define “people” and “monsters,” is almost completely lost, and could have been retained within their vision of the story.
And yes, the ending is totally Hollywood, and wildly improbable (Neville could figure out how to broadcast AM and FM radio, but couldn’t find a shortwave or a ham radio set? The Vermonters didn’t try to contact anyone else?), but then, there were aspects of the book that were pretty improbable too. And if Neville turns out to be a good, self-sacrificing, legend, rather than a monstrous one, he’s still a legend. And it’s still a damned good film.
Side note to the filmmakers: Bob Marley made at least two (and maybe as many as five) albums that could arguably be considered the “greatest album ever made.” But Legend, a shallow greatest hits collection assembled by his U.S. record company years after he died, is not one of them.