Once upon a time there was a book called I am Legend, written by Richard Matheson. It was rather a good book. In fact it’s safe to say that it’s a masterpiece of sci-fi and horror both. Robert Neville is the last man alive, everyone else having become a vampire. By day he hunts the undead through the shattered remains of the US, by night he barricades himself in his suburban home while the vampires gather on his front lawn, mocking him, and looking for a way in…
I am Legend was first printed in 1954, but it’s every bit as edgy and effective now, perhaps because its influence is still keenly felt in every zombie and vampire film made, more or less. Matheson practically invented the whole concept of ‘survival horror’ with this one slim volume. The book also features one of the best endings ever put to paper. With the final words, “I am legend”, the story is brought full circle and placed suddenly in an entirely different light. Beautifully dark and pessimistic on one hand, but so incredibly neat and effective that you’re still left with a sense of wonder rather than sadness. It’s a brilliant book, as short and breathtaking as a kick in the bollocks.
Right. You need to forget about all that.
Will Smith is the last man alive. By day he hunts deer through the artfully empty streets of Manhattan (complete with amazing product placement opportunities) for no apparent reason, by night he barricades himself in his swanky uptown townhouse, complete with basement lab sponsored by Apple Computers, and seeks for a cure to the virus that has killed more or less everyone else, and turned the rest into really pale and aggressive CGIs.
He eats stuff from cans. He shops for DVDs. He has flashbacks to his attempts to get his wife and child evacuated to safety as civilisation collapses. He knocks golfballs off of a downed Blackbird on a ruined aircraft carrier. He’s very watchable and appealing while doing it, just like he always is. There’s also a scene of him doing chin-ups stripped to the waist, which would be gratuitous except that the guy is just so damn buff.
It’s nicely made, though I’m not sure when people are going to realise that CGI STILL DOESN’T LOOK AS GOOD AS LIVE ACTION FOR 90% OF STUFF. It has the old wobble-o-vision which everyone seems to shoot in since the first series of 24 was so successful. Ruined New York is beautifully realised. There’s a couple of laughs. There’s a genuinely scary bit early on in the dark, where I was still thinking this film might be really good. Some lip service is payed to the idea of making it cold and hard-bitten, like a fat kid dipping his toe in the water of the pool, then squealing and running back to the changing room. There’s even one moment, late on, where Will Smith’s mysterious visitor looks in horror at a wall full of polaroids of the vampires he’s killed in his efforts to find a ‘cure’ and you think – hold on, we could be going somewhere dark and dangerous here – are they really going to do it? Are they going to give us what we want? What we need? What we deserve?
But the vampires don’t really gather outside the house, so you don’t have that truly terrifying sense of claustrophobia which is so powerful in the book. There’s not much investigation of the main character’s state of mind – he’s not so much the last human, dehumanised as he is a basically nice bloke who’s had a couple of bad days and tends to flair his nostrils a lot. Oh, and the ending’s an utter piece of gutless dog shit.
Imagine you’re telling a story with a brilliantly dark, unpredictable, and satisfying ending. Now remove that ending, and replace it with the most rubbish, cowardly and predictable one you can think of. Now make it a bit more rubbish. Now more cowardly. Now a lot more cowardly and predictable. Now make it twice as rubbish, and you might have an ending as rubbish, cowardly and predictable as this one is. The fact that they used the original title gave me hope that they’d use the original ending, but I should have known better – they do refer to that stroke-of-genius final line, but in a way that makes it utterly cheesy, meaningless, and naff. It’s like a kick in the bollocks, alright, but not in a good way.
I wonder if this is a classic case of the existing ending being vetoed by a bunch of faceless producers referring to focus group figures on clipboards, or perhaps a flip-chart with a Venn Diagram on it (three circles labeled rubbish, cowardly and predictable, with the area of maximum profit where they all overlap). “Sorry, Will, the Venn Diagram says we need to re-shoot.” I’d like to think so, because the ending’s not just cowardly and rubbish, it’s rushed, small-scale, and dumb. It’s not really foreshadowed by what went before, which it quite easily could have been. It feels tacked on, like the voice-over bit in the original cut of Blade Runner. It gives me hope, in fact, that one day the real ending will be unearthed in the personal effects of the director and put back over the travesty I just watched to make a decent film.
Thing is, I see in all this a bit of a sad metaphor for the state of Hollywood. US TV has never been so strong and effective as it is now, filled with brilliantly dark, unpredictable, pessimistic and realistic shows like the Sopranos, Deadwood, the Wire, and many more. Even within the SF sphere things seem to have got real dark and interesting over the last few years, with good stuff like Heroes and Battlestar Galactica (which I’ve just started watching and am quite enjoying, thanks for asking). I realise not all of these shows are box office gold, but in general things are very much heading in the right direction.
Big Studio films are by contrast, apparently, in a parlous state, having lost (on aggregate) billions of dollars this year. Rather than growing up and getting with the program the studios seem intent on simplifying, schmaltzifying, and dumbing everything down more than ever. Even when handed on a plate one of the greatest, darkest, most effective endings of all-time, they manage to make it (with no exaggeration whatsoever) into a COWARDLY PIECE OF SHIT. I guess the one advantage is that seeing the film in no way spoilers the book. You can go away and enjoy it just the same as you ever could. I strongly recommend that you do so.
Perhaps I’m being unfair. There’s plenty about this film that’s not awful. If you’d never read the book you might enjoy it, but just think it had a rather disappointing ending. I have read the book though, so to me …
It’s a DISGRACE.
3/10. I would give it 2, but Will Smith is just so damn buff.