One of the oldest traditions in human culture is imagining the death and destruction of everyone around us. The Bible offers multiple cataclysms, from Noah’s flood to Sodom and Gomorrah. During the 19th century, fiction writers like Lord Byron, Edgar Allen Poe, Mary Shelley, and H.G. Wells started to wonder about what life would be like after the end of the world. But with the exception of Wells, these ideas made their way into smaller works. The end of the world wasn’t the biggest concern. All that changed after the United States dropped two atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Atomic Age writers were fascinated with the post-apocalypse, and one of the chief drivers of the trend was Richard Mattheson, whose 1954 book I Am Legend became one of the most influential of the 20th century. Everyone from Stephen King to George Romero to Tim Cain, the producer of the first Fallout game, have cited Matheson’s depiction of one man living in isolation among vampires as inspiration.
The book also spawned three direct recreations. One in 1964, The Last Man on Earth starred horror legend Vincent Price, another in 1971 starred Charlton Heston as The Omega Man, and the book’s name was taken for a very different movie in 2007 directed by Francis Lawrence and starring Will Smith: I Am Legend.
Alert: I Am Legend just returned to Netflix on July 1.
Lawrence, who would later direct three of the four Hunger Games movies, drew elements from each movie, especially The Omega Man. The plot has changed significantly, betting that Will Smith will be enough to carry the movie through. This was a smart bet.
A majority of I Am Legend (and its most compelling scenes) involve Neville wandering around Manhattan. There are flashbacks to when a cancer drug gone wrong forces Neville to separate from his wife Zoe (Salli Richardson) and daughter Marley (a seven-year-old Willow Smith), only to watch them die mid-evacuation.
But it's mostly Neville and his dog, Sam, trying to survive another day in the city. I Am Legend’s opening is exhilarating as the pair hunts for deer in a red-and-white Shelby Cobra. Shot on location, the sequence shows exactly where Neville is on the food chain of a newly emptied New York.
Having lost his family and every other person, Neville now spends some of his time trying to find a cure for the airborne disease using rodents and the newly monstrous, sorta zombified people called Darkseekers — named thusly because they burn up in sunlight. When he’s not in the lab, Neville living the life of any New Yorker, taking in sights like the USS Intrepid, which he’s turned into a driving range, and checking in with his best friends, the mannequins at the DVD store. (Remember DVDs?)
All of this works because Will Smith is one of the most charming actors on the planet. Neville’s relationship with his dog provides all the chances for dialogue that the character needs. Neville is a classic Smith character, equal parts caring and sarcastic. But no matter how much he jokes around with the mannequins, watches reruns of The Today Show, or plays Bob Marley for Sam, he can’t avoid what’s coming every night: Darkseekers.
The CGI for the Darkseekers isn’t as good as the CGI showing an abandoned New York, and the movie starts to lose a little momentum as its focus shifts. But even if the Darkseekers don’t look particularly scary or have a not-great name, they act in interesting ways. They begin to seek out the light, for one thing. Neville thinks this self-destructive tendency means that they’ve completely abandoned their humanity.
When Neville kidnaps a female Darkseeker, however, a male (Dash Mihok) seems determined to get her back and begins planting traps for Neville. They seem to be changing, evolving, and growing emotions. Not even a slap across the face from Will Smith can stop them.
I Am Legend shot for several days in Manhattan and Brooklyn, including around the Brooklyn Bridge. Even shooting at 5 a.m. om the weekend proved to be an “aggressive” experience, Smith told the LA Times. “I don't think anyone's going to be able to do that in New York again any time soon,” he said. “People were not happy. That's the most middle fingers I've ever gotten in my career.”
Getting the Bronx salute was worth it. I Am Legend feels like it's in a real place, especially because what makes New York so great and terrible is its people. There’s an eeriness to the empty streets, and watching Neville make landmarks like Grand Central Station his own feels a little like a grown-up version of Home Alone expanded to a whole city.
It could be goofier, or scarier, but I Am Legend’s plot takes a turn towards the religious in the third act. The last man on Earth is not alone, as the movie’s tagline promises. He soon finds Anna (Alice Braga) and Ethan (Charlie Tahan), survivors who quickly turn the movie towards discussions about the existence of God.
Even if the third act feels like a reach, I Am Legend is a smart summer thriller and a proto-Quiet Place. The movie feels overly concerned with having to make a statement when all the statement it needs is in Smith’s performance and an empty New York City.
I Am Legend is now on Netflix.