Saturday 29 December 2007

I Am Legend

Any resemblance between this film and the novel of the same name is entirely coincidental. Perhaps the blurb should be clear this is really a remake of 1971's The Omega Man. It means anyone hoping some of the beauty of Richard Matheson's original making its way into this is going to be disappointed. There's not even any vampires! The following does include some spoilers, so be warned.

This isn't to say I Am Legend is a bad film, taken on its own terms. The premise is simple. A new cancer treatment engineered by a Dr Krippin (ho, ho) is going through medical trials with a 100% cure rate. Unfortunately, the viral agent used mutates into a highly infectious pathogen that ends up killing 90% of those infected. It turns out only 1% of the human race is immune, but the other 9% have regressed to hyperactive flesh-eaters that hunt and feast on survivors. Enter Lt. Colonel Robert Neville (Will Smith), who elected to stay behind on Manhattan Island after it was quarantined, to try and find a cure using his own blood as a basis. By day he forages through the city for supplies while the infected sleep, and by night he withdraws to his fortified compound.

The result is a film that romps through its 100 minutes or so. Its not taxing on the brain as, with most big budget Hollywood productions, it allows the CGI and cinematography to create a real spectacle that dazzles rather than provoke deep thoughts. The scenes of Will Smith racing around a deserted and weed-strewn New York are breathtaking, though lacking the menace of the London of 28 Days Later. Generally speaking, the infected lack the horror of the aforementioned film too. Blood-lusting running zombies coming for you are scary, but not bald and grey men churned out of computers. Still, the pace of the film and the appeal of the plot make it entertaining enough, and it is a must for anyone who (like me) find last man on Earth-type scenarios compelling.

I Am Legend has been read as s War on Terror allegory. For instance, this reviewer notes
Western medicine takes a virus (a bad thing) and manipulates it so that it can fight cancer (a worse thing). Sort of like Western military forces arming jihadists (which they regard as a bad thing) so that they'll fight communists (which they regard as a worse thing). And then the built-up virus - the bad thing - mutates into something much worse than cancer, and it turns on its creators. And this starts where? That's right: In New York, which everyone in the movie keeps calling Ground Zero. And some poor schmoe who didn't start the problem has to try and fix it. But even if he comes up with a cure ... they [the infected] are just going to keep coming ... destroying the civilised world and - here's the kicker - either killing everyone they come into contact with or converting them into monsters just like themselves. And the only solution is to shoot them dead - or withdraw behind metal walls, into a fortress-like homeland.
There is something to this argument, but that is not all that can be said. I would suggest I Am Legend says deeply conservative things about gender relations. The originator of the virus, Dr Krippin, is a woman. And just look, when a woman assumes a position of responsibility she happens to bring the human race to the edge of extinction. She obviously didn't know her limits, so it falls to a man to clear up her mess. In the evacuation of Manhattan, it's a faulty scan of his wife that leads to their rescue helicopter taking off late, leading to a mid-air collision and the death of Neville's family. At one point his dog, Sam (later revealed to be short for Samantha), disappears into a dark building full of infected - Will Smith has to rescue her and escapes narrowly with his life. Of all the infected to rampage through the film, who does Will Smith capture for his medical experiments? You guessed it, the only discernible woman from among their anonymous grey mass. When a couple of other survivors turn up (Anna, and a young boy, Ethan), she confesses it was a message from the great patriarch in the sky that brought them to New York and was spurring her on to a survivor's colony in Vermont. And of course, the agency of one man delivers the human race from the grim fate awaiting it. The film has nothing positive to say about women at all: they have to be subject to supervision by men, otherwise harm comes to themselves and/or others.

I Am Legend is a stunning example of 21st century movie making. But as a piece of social commentary, its message is stuck in the 19th.


Anonymous said...

I gather from this that the philospophically subversive ending of the book is absent from the film then?

Phil said...

Yep. That ending is one of the best endings I've ever read anywhere, really elegant and incredibly clever. That's too much to expect from Hollywood!

Rob said...

I got the impression that they weren't sure whether to put the ending in or not. Every so often there was a pretty clear indication about the intellect of the vampires, but in the end they just seemed to ignore it.

I'm not sure how much I agree about the gender politics of it re the dog either. It struck me that the thing with Sam was precisely the opposite, it was a complete reversal of our gender expectations. I mean, I basically went through the film thinking the dog was male and she did sacrifice herself to save Will Smith's character. It was only after the quintessentially male act (in terms of films anyway) - throwing oneself on the proverbial grenade - that Sam was revealed as a female.

Phil said...

Sam was revealed as a female when she became infected, not later on. I still think it stands though. True she sacrificed herself, but her dashing into the dark led to the discovery of the nest, the encounter with the infected leader, setting up the trap for Will Smith and ultimately both their demises.

brother_f said...

Why did they have to change the story at all, that's what I want to know. It's not like the book as massive, and so had to be chopped and changed (it's only a couple of hundred pages long).

I felt the same when the golden compass came out. 2 of my fave books of all time, this year have been totally watered down for Hollywood this.

I feel a guest post coming on phil.

Jim Jepps said...

I thought your points on the gender politics of the film were perceptive and would have totally past me by if I hadn't read your review first.

But. I'm not sure this is entirely correct. "The film has nothing positive to say about women at all"

Smith's wife? Hardly a feeble character. The woman who saves Smith's life? She may be flawed but she is clearly a hero and a tough survivor. Also I'm not really sure what conclusions we can draw from the fact that the infected specimen was female - I agree there is something going on with gender, but you've been too quick to jump here I hink.

For example Anna is religious to the point of vacuous superstition and you've rightly found that to be a flaw in her character, but I suspect the film makers thought it was a positive virtue - and so it should not be judged as part of the films conservative attitude towards women.

She believes god brought her to Smith - he's actually persuaded by the end having started out an atheist. She thinks, on the basis of no evidence at all, that there are sirvivors in Vermont and admits the only reason she is going there is because "god told her to" What do you know - she's right! God knows his stuff after all

And what's the most prominent building in the settlement she finds? a church.

In Omega Man (I've not read the book) religious fanaticism and anti-science were seen as backward regressions, in this film science is the perpetrator of a terrible crime and it is only this woman of faith who truly represents goodness.

Anonymous said...

Firstly, it wasn't just ANY woman, it was Emma Thompson, so of course there was going to be trouble. would YOU put emma thompson in a position of power?

secondly, did you notice the film was set in "MAN"hattan? obviously another example of the seditious and sumbliminal patriarchal message of the film

Anonymous said...

Sam. Basic relationship is one of blind, unconditional love, and the dog is of course chattel.

It's a bit sick that the most admirable, heroic woman in the film was portrayed thus. I would not let my daughter watch it.

if i had a daughter

which i don't

although she probably wouldn't want to given that it'a a bit of a boy's film.

what happens at the end of the book? i haven't read it.

brother_f said...

what happens at the end of the book? i haven't read it.

he gets executed by intelligent vampires and says "I am Legend".

Phil said...

Jim, I think the female infected manages to fulfil the victim role in two ways. First, it's her capture that introduces the alpha male infected. That is the moment you know he is out to get Will Smith, spurring him to set up his own trap using the dummy as bait. Second, she fulfils the victim-to-be-pitied role for Smith too: she's infected, she doesn't know what she's doing, so it's up to him to restore her to normality and rescue her from the bestiality she's devolved into. Once she's under his power, she passively responds to the treatments he's administering (which, of course she didn't initially, waking up and trying to attack him shortly after her capture).

I take your point about 'having nothing positive to say about women'.

Btw, the religious stuff didn't show on my radar at all apart from God as the guiding patriarch. But I do like your nuanced argument, and the more I think about it the more it fits. Lol, it's even more of a conservative film than I imagined!

And no Rolf, there's no subliminal messages in the film. But like any other piece of entertainment its packed full of cultural codes that are formed in our rather strange and twisted society. The job of a review and discussion like this is to try and unravel them, not suggest it's an exercise in brain washing.

Big D - a rather elegant summation of the book's end methinks! ;)

Jim Jepps said...

I see what you're saying here. I think one of the nice touches was the way the film underplayed the relationship between the captured woman and the character I have mentally been calling "the zombie general".

It seems obligatory in US films for characters to be motivated primarily by family considerations, even the zombie flesh eaters it seems.

I mean why does Will Smith's family have to blow up before his eyes? I mean surely in a world devastated by plague he has reason enough to be deep, sad and motivated - i think it would have been more powerful if they had escaped the city and then later Smith refered to his daughter in the past tense.

Never mind.

Laura said...

Hi. I just wanted to let you know that I cited your post in my own review of the film. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

Would like to comment on the gender politics - it's not just the victim role that women get assigned too but being blamed for all the evil and bad things in the world. But I can't comment because I hate blood and I am pathologically frightened of zombies and just less so about vampires. Though I did manage to watch Shaun of the Dead.

I am glad I had read the reviews because I would have gone to see it and been horrified.

What is the obsession with zombies?

Phil said...

Thanks for the link, Laura. I also recommend the post Jim wrote on I Am Legend, where he elaborates on the comments he's made on here. You can view it here

Cat, the only blood in this film is contained in a syringe. It's not a zombie gore-fest like 28 Days or living dead movies. As for the recent popularity of zombies, I don't know. A wry comment on consumerism and apathy perhaps?