Wednesday, June 3, 2015

I Am Legend Redux

“…He could still see them out there, the white-faced men prowling around his house, looking ceaselessly for a way to get in at him. Some of them, probably, crouching on their haunches, like dogs, eyes glittering at the house, teeth slowly grating together; back and forth, back and forth.” – from I Am Legend, by Richard Matheson

(Caution: Some spoilers lie ahead, so proceed with caution.)

Richard Matheson’s classic 1954 post-apocalyptic novel I Am Legend chronicles one man’s attempt to endure after a global plague has wiped out most of humanity, and turned the remaining population into vampires. While the humanoids roam the streets at night looking for blood, Robert Neville stays barricaded in his personal fortress, along with the last trappings of a dead civilization. During the day, Neville turns the tables on the nocturnal predators, by locating their hiding places and destroying them.  

Aside from the vampires, Neville’s biggest adversaries are isolation, depression and the hopelessness of being the last human (presumably) on the planet. He was powerless to save his family as they succumbed to the plague; now he labors to find a cure for what might remain of the human populace. But his efforts are too little, too late. The world has moved on, with a third human/vampire hybrid species poised to assume dominance. They represent the future – a future that has no use for Neville, or humankind as it once existed.

So far, three versions of the novel have been filmed, although we probably won’t have long to wait until another movie attempts to adapt the material for a new audience. How do the existing versions measure up?

The Last Man on Earth (aka: The Damned Walk at Midnight) (1964) Directed by Ubaldo Ragona; Written by William F. Leicester, Logan Swanson (aka: Richard Matheson), Ubaldo Ragona and Furio M. Monetti; Starring: Vincent Price, Franca Bettoia, Emma Danieli and Giacomo Rossi Stuart; Available on DVD

Rating: ****

This Italian-American co-production is the most faithful adaptation of Matheson’s novel to date. Vincent Price stars as Dr. Robert Morgan (for some reason, the writers decided to change his last name from Neville). He’s on a one-man crusade to rid the world of vampires created by a plague that devastated the human race. He ventures outside to scavenge for supplies and hunt the nocturnal creatures by day, and hides inside his fortified house at night. He spends his days creating wooden stakes, hanging garlic and mirrors, and searching for a cure for the disease.

Price captures the isolation and despair of Matheson’s protagonist. His tragic past is told in flashback, as he loses his wife and daughter to an unstoppable plague. His former friend and co-worker, turned walking dead, Ben Cortman (Giacomo Rossi Stuart) taunts him (“Come out, Morgan”), and remains a constant reminder of the world that vanished.

The filmmakers retain the simplicity of the original story, keeping the main character front and center, as our guide to a nightmarish landscape. The film retains the novel’s plot twist, as well as its bleak ending. We’re left with little solace for Morgan and his plight. Humanity, as it existed, is gone and a new species is about to take its place. Not only is The Last Man on Earth closest to the spirit of the source material, it sets the standard for subsequent remakes.

The Omega Man (1971) Directed by Boris Sagal; Written by Joyce Hooper Corrington and John William Corrington; Starring: Charlton Heston, Rosalind Cash, Anthony Zerbe and Paul Koslo; Available on Blu-ray and DVD

Rating: ***½

Charlton Heston stars as Dr. Robert Neville, one of the last individuals left alive after a world-wide plague. Thanks to a self-administered injection of serum, he’s immune to the disease. He continues his research in his personal fortress/arsenal, safe from the attacks of nocturnal mutants. Although The Omega Man was released seven years later, it seems more dated, compared to its predecessor, with its multiple late ‘60s/early ‘70s pop culture references. Also, we never learn about Neville’s past, and the mutants are portrayed in more black and white terms. But Heston creates a memorable performance, as Neville tries to maintain his sanity and decorum (watch him sporting some groovy threads that would make Austin Powers jealous). His dialogue with himself is funny and poignant. Rosalind Cash is also appealing as the plucky human survivor Lisa.

Co-writer Joyce Hooper Corrington stated she chose to stray from the original novel’s concept of vampires, instead, focusing on a man-made plague and the consequences of biological warfare. While most of the world’s population was killed outright, some humans remain, along with a horde of vengeful albino mutants. Led by the charismatic zealot Matthias (Anthony Zerbe), they vow to rid the world of the last vestiges of the old society, including technology, books and artwork.

The film’s ending, involving a blatant Christ-figure allegory, strays from the original’s conclusion, and provides a glimmer of hope for humanity. A serum derived from Neville’s blood holds the key to fighting the plague. The few human survivors leave for a mountain retreat, away from the mutant-infested city, and off to an uncertain future.

I Am Legend (2007) Directed by: Francis Lawrence; Written by: Mark Protosevich and Akiva Goldsman; Starring: Will Smith, Alice Braga, Charlie Tahan, Salli Richardson-Whitfield and Willow Smith; Available on Blu-ray and DVD

Rating: *** 

The third version of Richard Matheson’s novel experienced a long, torturous road to production. At one time Arnold Schwarzenegger was attached to star and produce, with Ridley Scott directing, but the project failed to materialize. Nearly 40 years after The Omega Man, a new version of the venerable novel finally surfaced, with Will Smith in the lead role as Robert Neville. While Smith might not have been an obvious choice, he does a commendable job inhabiting the role, as a man tortured over the loss of his family, and continuing his work to find a cure. The film includes some obvious nods to The Omega Man, with Neville carrying on conversations with mannequins and racing through abandoned city streets (in this instance, Los Angeles is replaced by New York) in a new Mustang.

As in The Omega Man, the plague was created by us. Instead of biological warfare, however, the plague was a byproduct of a virus intended to cure cancer. Most of the world’s remaining population consists of nocturnal sub-human creatures. Neville continues his experiments using the creatures as guinea pigs. The weakest aspect of the film is its treatment of Neville’s adversaries. Instead of an organized faction, they’re feral, barely intelligent, and loosely organized. In contrast to the other two films, the creatures are rendered in sub-standard CGI, and appear alike with no discernible personalities or distinguishing features to tell them apart. As a result, the audience has no sympathy for the creatures. We see little reason for their existence, except as video game monsters for the hero to destroy.

Although the finished product is clearly the result of Hollywood meddling and corporate interests (even though it’s after the apocalypse, product plugs still abound), there’s still room for some introspection. In one scene, Neville and another human survivor (Alice Braga) debate science versus faith, with both viewpoints receiving ample respect. Unfortunately, the filmmakers hedge their bets (and dilute Matheson’s novel in the process), with a forced hopeful ending, as if they feared the commercial ramifications of audiences leaving on a downbeat note.

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