A smug doctor, played by Emma Thompson, gives a TV interview about how she has adapted viral bacteria to, in effect, cure cancer. Then, behind the words “Three years later”, we see the sunlit cityscape of New York — but a New York totally abandoned, no people, no traffic, its buildings falling into disrepair and vegetation sprouting up from the concrete.
This is the incredibly effective opening of I Am Legend, the new sci fi/horror film starring Will Smith which is the third adaptation of the 1954 novel of the same name, the other two being The Last Man on Earth (1964) and The Omega Man (1971). In this version, which moves the action from mid-70s California to NY 2012, we learn from flashbacks that the cancer cure virus mutated, killing 90% of the human population; most of those who survived became infected with a disease that made them something like vampires: feeding on the blood of the uninfected, very difficult to kill but unable to live in sunlight.
The result was the collapse of civilisation; by the time the film opens, the protagonist, Robert Neville, believes that he is the only healthy human left alive, though he sends out increasingly desperate broadcasts in the hope that someone will find him. (If a lot of this sounds cliched: the novel was extremely influential in terms of the zombie genre, the idea of a world-wide apocalypse due to disease and explorations of vampirism.)
The film’s first hour hits hard because, against the lush computer-generated background of the decaying city, it focuses on the monotony and horror of Neville’s daily life. Every day is a struggle: he must get up at sunrise to maximise the time available to him, check and fix the defences of his house, conduct experiments in search of a cure, care for the dog who is his only companion, hunt and scavenge for food and equipment, make sure he is home well before sunset, stay fit — and, most difficult of all, stay sane. The logistical holes in the plot — okay, so he generates his own electricity, but how come the water’s still running? — don’t really matter. It is the question of how, and whether, a human being can maintain themselves in such a grim and prolonged struggle that is interesting.
Unfortunately, about an hour in, the film begins to succumb to a number of Hollywood viruses: action movie shoot ’em up battles, mawkish sentimentalism, religion (I can’t really expand on this without giving too much away). These problems are, moreover, implied in the changes that have been made from the book.
I’ve only just started reading I Am Legend, so I’m not sure, but it seems that there the “legend” referred to is how the infected think of Neville; here, predictably, it is about his legacy to human civilisation, his desire to save the world (while the infected are changed from rational but amoral beings to snarling CGI beasties).
This is not by any means a stupid film, and I’d highly recommend it, but it has been subject to the dumbing-down treatment.
Incidentally, part of what keeps Robert Neville going is the philosophy he sums up in a quote from Bob Marley: “The people that are trying to make the world worse never take a day off, so why should I?”