I am not Legend

December 7th, 2007

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 …


3/10. I would give it 2, but Will Smith is just so damn buff.

Posted in film and tv by Joe Abercrombie on December 7th, 2007.

22 comments so far

  • Darren T says:

    Thank you, Mr Abercrombie, for saving me from trekking into town this weekend. Think I’ll watch Shaun of the Dead again instead… ๐Ÿ™‚

  • David says:

    Ah well… it’s a Will Smith movie; what did you expect?

  • Anonymous says:

    Bob Lock,

    It’s not that Americans can’t handle those types of endings. It’s that Hollywood-types don’t think Americans can handle those types of endings. They’re wrong.

  • Bob Lock says:


    Aren’t Hollywood-types usually Americans anyway? They must know the market they are aiming to please and adjust to the demands accordingly.

    Take for instance ‘The Descent’ a fairly decent British Horror Movie directed by a British Director, Neil Marshall, wasn’t the ending cut by about a minute for the American market because, and I quote Entertainment Weekly:
    The ending was trimmed because viewers didn’t like its “รผberhopeless finale”. Lionsgate marketing chief Tim Palen said, “It’s a visceral ride, and by the time you get to the ending you’re drained

    Umm… well, yeah right, don’t you go to the cinema to have your socks blown off anyway? Ok, you’ll feel drained… so what?

  • Malene says:

    I havent’t seen the film, and not likely to see it now… What you describe rings so true, and could apply to so many american movies which seem to be made with always the same ingredients… It is even worse when they do a movie from a book. As of they could not write a story themselves… errr, well OK, no, they can’t.
    But I digress, what I mean to write, is that there was a movie made from this book which I think is a strong as the book. That’s the one with Charlton Heston. I watched it a long long time ago and it still haunts me. Talk about endings…

  • David,
    I guess I thought that, since they used the original title, there was a good case for sticking to the book, at least to some degree. Hubris springs eternal and all that…

    I don’t think it’s an American thing per se at all – in my experience America is just as broad a church as the UK or anywhere else in terms of reading and viewing tastes, if not more so. Matheson himself is American after all, and so are pretty much all the makers of the great tv I talked about above. It’s more of a big studio, Hollywood sort of problem. I’d guess that partly it’s about the huge amount of money that’s required to make a film of this type – you’re almost sure to end up with a bit of a watered down committee-led approach. And then, because there’s so much money to recoup, there’s a feeling you need to appeal to the broadest possible base, and that tends to be a mistake. I will misquote the great Bill Cosby – “I don’t know the secret of success, but I know the secret of failure – trying to please everyone.”

    Ah, yes, the Chuck Heston version you refer to is The Omega Man. Ages since I’ve seen it, so I can’t really remember how it goes, but back in the 70s you could make stuff that genuinely was hard-bitten, that’s for sure.

  • SQT says:

    Aren’t Hollywood-types usually Americans anyway? They must know the market they are aiming to please and adjust to the demands accordingly.

    I’ve worked in Hollywood, and sadly, taste isn’t a factor. It’s about money (ratings) and that’s about it. Slick, big budget looking stuff sells most of the time so that’s what gets made. The viewing public has a lot to do with what’s put out there and maybe reviews like this will help improve the quality of what is being made– seriously. I’ve noticed that big-budget-Hollywood-crap hasn’t been doing all that well in recent years so maybe (a faint hope I know…) movies will get better as audiences demand it.

    Excellent post btw.

  • isis says:

    Sadly, this does not surprise me. We saw the trailer at a recent BwB cinema outing and we were all laughing our heads off because we could see just how it was going to turn out.

    Shame though.

    I disagree that being a Will Smith film automatically means that it will be of no consequence. The guy can act perfectly well in certain roles. And I have a feeling it isn’t his performance that causes this film to be less than awesome.

  • SQT,
    I think the only thing that’s going to make Hollywood up its game is the continued failure of the stuff it puts out. Unfortunately, like the French relying on the Maginot line after World War I, when tank warfare had made the whole concept of fixed fortifications obsolete, Hollywood seems fixated on the tactics of the past (namely lowest common denominator schmaltz and cheese). I wonder whether the whole concept of cinema might just be steadily eroded by the better-written and more immersive long-form of TV series, and by the ever greater quality and flexibility of home cinema. I reckon people will increasingly rent/buy/download quality tv shows and watch them in their home how they want, when they want, and cinemas will start to be consigned to the dustbin of the past. Rather than audiences demanding better movies, they’ll just stop demanding movies at all.

    Yeah, I don’t think Will Smith’s the problem either, except in so far as he’s a big star, and big star=big budget=bland please everyone approaches, perhaps. Having said that I’m struggling to think of an edgy, unpredictable Will Smith film. Perhaps you’ve got to go back to his hardcore Fresh Prince days…

    Interestingly enough I’ve been talking to a friend who happened to see the script of I Am Legend back in the 90s, when it was still being mooted as a Schwarzenegger movie. In that version, apparently, he saved a tribe of feral children being kept by vampires for food, then sailed off into the sunset to find an island where mankind could restart.

    So, hey, I guess it could’ve been worse.

    Not much worse, admittedly.

  • “Having said that I’m struggling to think of an edgy, unpredictable Will Smith film”

    Probably the closest is Enemy of the State which isn’t really that edgy or unpredictable. I actually think he’s a credible actor who could probably tackle it if someone gave him a challenging, role but that hasn’t happened yet (well, Ali is closest, I suppose).

  • I’ll probably get bitten for this, but let me play devil’s advocate for a while. ๐Ÿ™‚

    I actually quite like happy endings in a movie. Movies for mee are a way to relax and spend a fun 2-3 hours away from all the day to day stress. And i prefer to leave the cinema in an upbeat mood rather than all gloom and doom because i saw Bruce Willis fall in to a nest of rattle snakes and die a horrible death whilst desperately trying to help his daughter who’s head was turned in to pulp when she was kicked by the stumbling horse. We’ve got those people with fake German accents to suffer that for us. ๐Ÿ™‚

    So yes, mindless entertainment does work for me when it comes to movies.

    With books i prefer a more (yes, here’s that word again) ‘gritty’ reality. This helps make them less predictable and more fun.

    Not that i won’t curse Joe’s name for a week if he decides to kill off one or two of my favourite characters in Last Argument Of Kings. But after that i’ll probably appreciate the series even more than if they all would live happily ever after.

    Of course should something happen to Inquisitor Glokta i will have to rent Misery again and book me a flight to the UK.

  • Wilfred,
    Oh I’ve got nothing against happy endings. Show me so much as the title sequence of It’s A Wonderful Life and I’ll cry you a river. But that’s a brilliantly made film with some superb scripting and performances and some genuine, life-affirming points to make.

    I Am Legend the book has some fascinating points to make about monsters in stories and society. I am Legend the film has nothing to say about anything, except that Will Smith is buff.

    That much I knew already.

    And yeah, I can dig a bit of mindless entertainment, but I don’t see why you shouldn’t hope a film will make you think, and I don’t see why a film can’t entertain and make you think at once, especially when it’s adapted from a book that does both brilliantly.

  • Studio powers-that-be in Hollywood really do not care whether a movie has a good script, acting, or plot. Their goal is to make money from the largest number of people possible, and they regard the marketing campaign as the #1 factor in a film’s success, which is why it does not matter if, say, the ending is trite.

    Perverse as it may sound, the success or failure of a film has nothing to do with its actual quality, according to studio decision-makers. No, if it makes $400 million, that’s b/c the marketing campaign (fast-food tie-ins, talk show appearances by the stars, print, TV and radio ads, etc.) was successful. The script, acting, special effects – whatever – have NOTHING to do with it, so in a way, those things do not matter except as elements to use in marketing the film.

    Conversely, if the movie earns less than it cost to make or underperforms against financial expectations, the fault lies with bad marketing.

    Studios do not know how to market films that depart from the happy ending formula, except for Grand Sweeping Dramas at Oscar time. Since they don’t know how to market such films (Fight Club is a good example), they will not bother, nor do they seem to feel much of an impetus to bother with trying to make better movies.

    You’d think they would notice that a lot the crap with crappy, happy endings hasn’t done so well lately, earnings-wise.

  • Ady Hall says:

    Whoo hoo!

    Loved the book. I am Legend is one of those rare ‘come full circle’ kinda reads that makes an impression on you like an elephant tapdancing on your head. Obviously, gonna hate the film if it wimps out of the books wonderful premise.

    But no surprise there – when Hollywood has to cater to the largest common denominator.

    Perhaps you may have some artistic control if (nay WHEN!) the First Law trilogy is made into either a film or a decent budget TV series (perhaps by a young and hungry UK production team?)

    But – loved the review! Move over Johnny Woss – there’s a new hombre in town . . .

  • Stormy70 says:

    I am finding TV series much more compelling than movies lately.
    Joe, I think you would enjoy Showtime’s Dexter, a series about a serial killer, who happens to be a forensics specialist for the Miami PD.
    Dark and witty.

    Netflix has become my new best friend.

  • I guess you’re right Joe. I think it has to do with the expectations you have when going to a movie.

    My expectations are so low that it’s hard for any movie to disappoint me.

    Actually the last big disappointment for me was ‘The Return of the King’ as i had hyped it so much in my own head, that it could do nothing but disappoint. Even though it was a great conclusion to the trilogy.

    Anyway, i’ve order Matheson’s ‘I Am Legend’ which i will read after watching the movie so i can use the movie as a build up to the book.

  • eccentric libertarian,
    Interesting points about the importance of marketing. I’m sure you’re very right It’ll be interesting to see how I Am Legend performs at the box office. I guess the thing about the focus on marketing is that it might well work for individual films, but steadily erodes confidence in the industry as a whole…

    Few writers indeed are they who get to have creative control over a movie. Nine times out of ten, if you’re lucky enough to sell the rights, that’s what you do, sell them. And I’m not sure I’d want to be involved, in a way. A film should be the vision of the director. Those get watered down enough as it is…

    Likewise with the TV. I’m on the amazon thingy now where they send you a DVD, you watch it and send it back and they send you another. Working my way slowly through BSG, but Dexter is one I definitely mean to check out.

    I watched the Lord of the Rings trilogy again recently, and what came home to me was just how much better the first film is than the other two. Fellowship of the Ring is a fricking masterpiece, the other two are still good and have some fantastic sequences, but nowhere near the first. They seem to lack the visual inventiveness, and also deviate from the books more than the first – not that that would necessarily be an issue, except when they do deviate I can never really see the reason. Why have that immensely long and self-indulgent ending if you’re NOT going to do the scourging of the shire? It would have been so much better with that included.

  • Bob Lock says:

    Hey Joe,
    Will Smith is a guest on this Friday 14th’s Jonathon Ross Show and will be at his uber-buffness whilst he brags up his new film ๐Ÿ˜›

  • isis says:

    Oh noes, Lucius Shepard nicked your idea. Kick his arse.


    And should you wish to metaphorically bash people who don’t know if balrogs have wings or not, there is a nice thread in the entertainment forum on Westeros. See, back at TheOneRing.net you got deleted for saying stuff like, ‘but Gandalf’s a fucking maia!’ but this is perfectly acceptable at Ran’s. ๐Ÿ™‚

    And finally, the BwB is having a drink Friday night (14th) in the Soho area if you fancy it.

  • Bob,
    I wonder if he’ll agree with me that the ending is very disappointing?

    Genre is all about nicking other people’s ideas. I couldn’t get upset about this.

    And unfortunately my actual genetic brother’s birthday is on the 14th, so the metaphorical brotherhood will have to get by without me. Next time, though…

  • Annie says:

    Joe linked me to your blog. Thanks for that Joe M. Hello Joe A, thanks for the tip.. I’ll read the book and forget the movie. ๐Ÿ™‚

    Trust Hollywood to kill a good story. Were they the same people who took Stephen King’s books and movie-nized them to pieces of crap? I’m curious.

  • Anonymous says:

    Has anyone seen the alternate ending? As far as I know it’s only in the special edition dvd, but it’s a damn site better than the one they put in theaters(no stupid hollywood explosions. Not that I’m saying it’s worth spending $30 for an immensely improved ending to a movie that you already hate, but it’s better by a degree that makes it worth defending.
    In my opinion.

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