The loneliness of the last man on Earth

2007-12-31 00:00

FILM: I Am Legend


Richard Matheson’s 1954 novel, on which this film is based, has become a cult classic, a succinct slice of sci-fi horror and worthy companion piece to his other parable of paranoia, The Shrinking Man. In common with many other ’50s sci-fi novels and films written under the shadow of “The Bomb”, in I Am Legend a disaster has struck humanity, here leaving one man untainted. Robert Neville is the last person in New York; well, not quite, there are others, but they have been turned into vampires. And they are after his blood.

This is the third time Matheson’s novel has been filmed. First time round was Last Man on Earth in 1964, starring Vincent Price, an Italian attempt to cash in on the vampire craze kickstarted by Hammer; then in 1971 came The Omega Man with Charlton Heston. Despite his star presence, this was determinedly a B-movie, though not without its grace notes, among them Heston projecting Woodstock for himself in an empty cinema, laconically commenting at the end: “they don’t make movies like that anymore”.

This latest version not only retains the title of the novel, but is also more faithful to the spirit of the book, throwing the emphasis on to the resilience of the main character as much as his predicament. The latter comes courtesy of a viral cure for cancer: a seeming boon that goes pear-shaped when the virus mutates and turns the bulk of the human population into flesh-eating zombies — barring Will Smith as Neville, an army scientist who has natural immunity.

The film has two major strengths: Smith’s performance — one that stands comparison to Tom Hanks in Castaway and equally deserving of a nod from Oscar — and its haunting evocation of a stricken, deserted New York with its vast canyons of glass and concrete populated by gridlocks of empty, rusting cars while the all-conquering grass pushes up through the cracks. Here Smith battles for survival along with other predators and the film concentrates on his day-to-day life in the once teeming city where he is now a lonely hunter-gatherer, stalking deer down Manhattan boulevards and growing mealies in Central Park. But that all changes come sundown when he heads for home, locks down the shutters to keep the forces of night at bay and spends his time trying to find a cure for the disease that has crushed humanity.

The forces of the night, the zombies, are wisely kept at the edge of the frame for most of the film, allowing Smith to occupy centre stage — to say anything more would spoil the fun. This is an impressive, handsome-to-look-at, elegiac piece of science fiction and Smith makes for a compelling latter-day Robinson Crusoe.


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