I hope this is the last incarnation of Richard Mathesons's brilliant classic. Why does Hollywood have to mess with perfection? I was anxious to see it, having read the book several times, and I'm a fan of Hollywood's first impression of the original tale, The Omega Man (1971). I've also seen 28 Days Later; On The Beach; The Stand; Fail Safe; Threads; and The Day After several times each. I guess you could say I love the Apocalypse as a theme.
I've been a fan of Richard Matheson almost since I learned how to read. Besides Rod Serling, he is the man behind many of the classic Twilight Zone stories (second only to Serling himself), and has penned other novel-to-film classics like What Dreams May Come; A Stir of Echoes; The Legend of Hell House (paralleled, if not plagiarized, by Stephen King with his Rose Red); and countless screenplays. Where American Sci-Fi fiction is concerned, he is right up there with Isaac Asimov, Michael Crichton and Ray Bradbury. Stephen King and Dean Koontz are great too and I enjoy their work, but they write pulp. Unlike Matheson, Crichton, Bradbury and Asimov, there are no lessons or morals from King and Koontz. It's just entertainment.
This brings me around to my critique of the movie I am Legend. As entertainment, it works just fine. Will Smith is just okay, like the Chevrolet of Acting. He's predictable, and does what you want him to do. He brings no depth or personality to the protagonist at all. He's just a body. As for the other actors.......well, they are mostly CGI or creatures. Oh, yeah....there's a dog too.
For the second time in film (The Omega Man being the first), Robert Neville is portrayed as US Army medical officer who is intimately familiar with and is partially the cause of the virulent disease that has turned the world into bloodthirsty homicidal maniacs. In Matheson's book, as well as in The Omega Man, there is a biological warfare element. In the current film, the virus has more benign origins, but that's all I'll say. Matheson's literary Neville is just a blue-collar guy who is smart enough to try and find an answer to the catastrophe. That theme is what made the book so compelling. No state of the art laboratory, no heavy credentials. Neville was an ordinary guy who was caught up in extraordinary circumstances. By night, he holes up in his modest but heavily fortified LA home, blasting Beethoven and getting drunk to drown out the howling hordes of quasi intelligent vampires who want to kill him. By day, he hunts them down in their lairs and kills them in their sleep. He is actually the bogeyman....the terror by day, a daymare. "Brush your fangs, junior, or Neville will come and get you in your sleep!" Think about it. What does the title I am Legend really mean? Apparently, Akiva Goldsman has a very different opinion.
Obviously, Hollywood decided long ago that CGI and special effects will trump a good story every time. Like a child's video game, imagery has become the stimulus. It was briefly interesting to see Manhattan as deserted and overgrown, but the special effects seemed to be what the movie was relying on. Take them away, and there was nothing left. Was the movie bad? Not at at all, but it would have been more accurate to title it as Home Alone 4: WTF am I doing here?. Matheson's tale was botched again. So badly in fact, it bears no resemblance to the original book. That's ashame. Call me a purist, but why does Hollywood have to rework a classic, or inject so much "artistic license" into a plot that it becomes something utterly different than what was originally created? M. Night Shamalayan showed us what is still possible with superior writing, directing, and minimal special effects. Just watch The Sixth Sense. Here we have a film that had huge potential, given over to a mediocre screenwriter/producer and a relatively unknown director whose only experience was with music videos and the forgettable bomb, "Constantine." I think that the egos, greed, and arrogant laziness of the producers and screenwriters have a lot to do with the dumbing down of great original fiction.
There are a number of key elements from the book that this film virtually ignores: The overall vampire legend itself, Neville's personal struggle to save his little family from the dust-borne plague; his undead wife returning to him; the daily vampire hunt; his former carpool buddy and neighbor, Ben Cortman, who has become his nightly nemesis; and most importantly, the near fatal "stopped watch" incident, which even The Omega Man indirectly paid homage to. All of these items would have required the screenwriter and producer to do some actual writing, rather than letting the CGI guys take over the production.
Some ironies to consider: The book itself was only about one hundred and forty-odd pages long. Three movie attempts essentially blew it. The Omega Man wasn't close either, but was far more original in execution than the current version, in my opinion. The Spaghetti thriller, The Last Man on Earth(1964) with Vincent Price, was almost perfect where the story was concerned. Unfortunately, it was so low budget that the production quality made it almost unwatchable.
Matheson spun an enduring classic in less than two hundred pages. It was the quality of the material rather than "pictures;" or special effects, that made the story. What ashame that this movie couldn't have done the same. If you're into apocalyptic Sci-Fi, you'll probably enjoy this film. But don't expect too much.