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"I Am Legend" Falls Short of Expectations

A lot of folks will be singing the praises of Hollywood's latest attempt to adapt Richard Matheson's "I Am Legend" for the big screen. I'm not one of them. The thing I just can't get around, no matter how hard I try, is that the filmmakers have done a major disservice to the source material by disregarding it almost entirely. The only thing I really ended up liking about the movie was Will Smith's performance. Charlton Heston in the dreadful "Omega Man" remains the best casting choice so far for the role of Robert Neville, the last man on earth, besieged by hordes of vampire-like creatures. But Smith is a close second. (Vincent Price was one of the greats, but Neville he wasn't.)

I'm not surprised by the numerous misfirings in "I Am Legend" (IMDb listing). Filmmakers often tend to think they can improve on the mechanics of time-tested novels, and they're almost always wrong. The thing is, this is the first of the three "Legend" adaptations to take the name of the novel, so was it unreasonable to expect it to be true to the spirit of the book, if not to the plot? Reasonable or not, I'm afraid, such expections are sure to be met with resounding disappointment. And I saw this thing at an IMAX theater, so the presentation wasn't to blame.

Let's start with the monsters. They're a little silly looking, frankly, resembling nothing as much as video-game enemies. Don't get me wrong, this doesn't bring the film down to the level of an Uwe Boll crap drop, but it is distracting. And what the hell have they done to the Ben Cortman character in this film? One of the creatures is ostensibly modeled after the neighborly bloodsucker from the book, but it's a pale imitation.

Next up, plausibility. Director Francis Lawrence and company seem to have approached the subject matter with the attitude that a post-apocalyptic story about vampires is inherently implausible, so why not pile on the unbelievable, the incredible, the unlikely! But even a casual familiarity with Matheson's fiction reveals him to be especially skilled, and subtle, in making the most fantastic ideas read like realism. For a film adaptation to depart from this aspect of his fiction seems negligent.

To be fair, a dog and a woman do figure into the movie, so it has that much in common with the book. But the similarities end right around there. And to be honest, maybe it would have been better to omit them than change their roles so drastically. I really should have been more skeptical about the decision to transplant the tale from sunny Los Angeles to brooding Manhattan, but I was suckered into thinking maybe they had their reasons. Neville's use, on a couple of occasions, of the term "ground zero" had me thinking perhaps the screenwriters wanted to connect the film to Sept. 11 in some incomprehensible way. Other than that, nothing is gained by the transposition, and much is lost.

"I Am Legend" is a book that deserves a film version as true in tone as "Rosemary's Baby." Whether it will ever get it is still up in the air.—Pete Mesling


Posted by Pete on December 14, 2007 11:43 PM
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