Last Friday night’s DVD treat was 'I Am Legend', directed by Francis Laurence and starring Will Smith and, well, hardly anybody else really.
I’d been looking forward to seeing this, even though I’d heard some rumblings of discontent from those people who still get out to the cinema from time-to-time.
It was the source material, you see.
The original novel has been a favourite of mine for some time. The author of the short novel ‘I am Legend’, Richard Matheson, was a hugely influential writer in the realms of science fiction and, indeed, other genres.
You might know some of his adapted work from movies such as The Incredible Shrinking Man’, ‘Somewhere in Time’, ‘The Legend of Hell House’ ‘Duel’ or ‘What Dreams May Come’. Stephen King name-checks him as a major influence (he dedicated his novel ‘Cell’ to him) and if George A Romero doesn’t cite him then he bloody-well should… I’m sure he does.
So, anyway, I loved this novel ‘I Am Legend’.
It spent a lot of time deriving scientific explanations for some of our wilder supernatural obsessions and succeeded quite well in carrying it all off, in a slightly-dated sort of way.
For me, the book really stood out in the way the writer evoked the relationship between the hero, Robert Neville and a stray dog he finds. I won’t spoil it but the oh-so-slow build up of trust and mutual-dependency is extremely well handled. I recommend you seek out those chapters dealing with the man-dog relationship and read them – even if you feel the whole novel is not your cup of Horlicks.
I also had some affection for the movie ‘The Omega Man’, an earlier adaptation of the novel which starred the late Charlton Heston. I also had a passing knowledge of ‘The Last Man on Earth’ which was the first movie adaptation of the book and which starred Vincent Price.
I had watched with interest while Ridley Scott and one Arnold Alois Schwarzenegger battled in vain to get their version made.
Anyway, you get it - I had some history with the subject-matter. And now here was a gleaming new version, with a personable actor in the central role and a budget which might do the project justice.
I didn’t like it.
I am not trying to be funny when I say that the dog does a very good job too (there was probably seventeen of them). Some part of the touching relationship from the book is recreated here and in one scene where the dog is hurt, the amount of man-handling which the animal permits is impressive.
There are good things in it, make no mistake. It’s a tall order for an actor to fill up the screen all on his own for most of the running time (ask Tom Hanks) and Will Smith carries it off very well, giving what is, in my opinion, a very fine acting performance.
Also good is the desolation evoked (by CGI mostly) in the empty city.
But the film suffers a third act collapse. Story, character, mood and emotion get chucked out the window into the vacant city beyond and the resolution just doesn’t cut the mustard.
Worst of all, the ‘CGI’ing of the 'infected' removes the lingering hint of humanity which was their most chilling feature in the original story. In this version, Neville is challenged by outlandish monsters rather than altered versions of himself and the drama is much the poorer for that.
If you’ve stayed with me so far, here’s a thing.
The original movie, the Vincent Price one, has now fallen out of copyright and thus can be viewed online without damaging anyone’s moral rights.
There are a number of sites which have it but most of the versions are cropped pan-and-scan jobs from TV. Here’s a link which offers the full movie in glorious widescreen. I haven’t watched it myself yet but I will and I fully expect it to be a bit silly. But the screenplay was written by Matheson (he later disassociated himself on account of script-changes) and the film is credited with influencing many Living Dead/zombie movies which came afterward.
And also... it’s free.