Monday, January 26, 2015

What I'm Watching: I Am Legend

What I'm Watching: I Am Legend
Have you ever seen a movie that was kind of uneven, yet at the same time, you can't help but watch it from time to time? I definitely have that relationship with "I Am Legend." The version starring Will Smith.


That's right, I Am Legend was a book written by Richard Matheson in 1954. Since it has been published, the book has been adapted into a movie three times, that's right people THREE times. The first was "The Last Man on Earth" in 1964 with Vincent Price. The second was "The Omega Man" in 1971 with Charlton Heston and in 2007 was the Will Smith version which bore the original book's name. Matheson's book, and the movies of course, revolve around a man named Robert Neville, who is seemingly the last man on Earth after a pandemic swept it. Now everyone who is left on Earth suffers from symptoms of vampirism. The book details each day of Neville's life, as he prepares for each vampire attack during the day, and fights off the vampires at night. The book also explores the scientific foundations of being a vampire. Now, I always hate giving away a book, but in order to explain these movies, I have to. See, by the end of the book, Neville gets captured by a group of what look like healthy humans. Except they are not, they are vampires. Vampires who have taught themselves to keep their thirst for blood at bay and also trained themselves to be outside in the daylight for a couple hours. They explain to Neville that he has become a myth, something that strikes fear in this new civilization. Neville then realizes that humanity is no longer the dominant species, its time has paced, and he realizes that he is a legend, a kind of mirror of the old tales of "Dracula" or "Frankenstein." He has become the monster, the spook the haunts dreams, instead of the vampires themselves.

It was a long road to get to the 2007 version with Will Smith, as Warner Brothers had tried to remake this story since 1991. There was a script written by Mark Protosevich in 1995, which was created for Ridley Scott to direct. Tom Cruise, Michael Douglas and Mel Gibson were considered for Robert Neville, but Warner Brothers really wanted Arnold Schwarzenegger for the role, that's right Arnold Freaking Schwarzenegger, imagine him going toe-to-toe with vampires. By 1997, Ridley Scott replaced Protosevich with John Logan, who wrote a very different version of the script compared to Protosevich. The film stayed in development hell for the rest of the 1990's and most of the 2000's. Directors Michael Bay and Guillermo Del Toro were attached to direct, and finally when Warner Brothers got Francise Lawrence to direct, Akiva Goldsman and Protosevich returning to rewrite the script, and Will Smith to star, they were set to make the movie. If you read the credits for the 2007 film, you will see a "Based on a Screenplay by John William & Joyce H. Corrington," it frustrates me that I can't find that script anywhere.

Being the film nerd that I am, I love reading about what it took to get a movie off the ground. I love reading what came before and what could have been. I have read both the Mark Protosevich solo script from 1995 as well as the Logan script from 1997. The final script used for "I Am Legend" used several ideas and even pieces of dialogue from both the Protosevich and Logan script, and it was cool to see how the scripts compared to the final product. I have to say, that even though I like "I Am Legend" with Will Smith, I would have preferred the use of Protosevich's original script. It's the only script that I have read that really embraced what made Matheson's book so original. It embraced the idea of humanity sinking into myth, it embraced a new civilization rising from the ashes of humanity and it embraced what made the vampires tick. Sure, lots of it was still very different from the book and a lot of the film was very action-oriented, but it was the closest we ever got to seeing Matheson's vision realized, and I feel sorry that we never experienced that.

I revisited "I Am Legend" last night. I find it an interesting movie. I may not love everything about it, but its an interesting dose of mediocrity. One of the best moments in the film is the film's opening. We hear news castors discuss sports as the studio credits roll. Then we are view a realistic news story. Doctor Alice Krippen (a brief appearance by Emma Thompson) explaining her miracle cure for cancer. She discusses how she recreated a virus to work for the body rather than against it, and now over a thousand people are cancer free. It's a quick discussion, but its effective, and I find it especially creepy that the scenes ends with Krippen pausing before taking credit for curing cancer. Is she hiding something? Was there going to be a "but" at the end of that sentence? Did we miss something? The screen suddenly goes dark, and then we see a necropolis-version of New York City telling us we are seven years into the future.

I have visited New York City before, and it really is the city that never sleeps. No matter what time at night my family and I were out in the city, the sidewalks were packed with people. So actually seeing a version of the city with no people was enormously effective. I love the very small, very subtle details of how the world plummeted to chaos in the wake of catastrophe and that a lot of it is never explained. Some people hate this, but I love it when a movie shows us a pieces of something, then the audience has to fill in the blanks of how those pieces got there. Its a marvel to take in and I think Francis Lawrence really opened his film with style.

Okay, now let's talk Will Smith. If you have read this blog, you know I have some ill-feelings towards the former Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. I think Smith has become so captured by his own ego that he has become someone I don't recognize now. His company produce the film, and I can bet good money that Smith had a lot of input on the final product. I can tell some of the dialogue is only stuff Will Smith would say in the movie, I think the Bob Marley focus (while I love this musician) was Smith's idea and I think how Robert Neville was handled in the script could have only come from Smith. He has a particular image that he likes to sell, and I figured he would never allow  himself to die at the hands of vampires, claiming himself a "legend." Nope, this Robert Neville had to be some kind of life-altering hero, someone who creates a cure to stop the spread of the vampire virus. While that maybe a nice ending to this "Will Smith Movie," it completely undercuts the ideas Matheson created in his book. With that said, I like the work Smith does in the movie. I think there are very few movie stars working today who can do the "Castaway" style movie. "I Am Legend" is a brilliant watch of how entire stretches of film can behold tension and action with little-to-no dialogue or character interaction. While I may not like Smith personally, he is easily one of the most reliable movie stars we have left in Hollywood, and he gives a dedicated, and often captivating performance. He has to, he's nearly the only eyes we view through to see this empty world of overgrown weeds, and buildings mangled in plastic leftover from a failed quarantine.  It really is good work, and I think Smith sells it well.

The vampires are called Darkseekers in this movie. But really, I should not call them vampires, these are essentially monsters who lust after blood and are sensitive toward sunlight. There are no other major characteristics that make them vampires. In the book, Neville used crucifixes, garlic, mirrors and stakes to fight off the vampires. Even in Protosevich's early script, the "Hemocytes" as they were called, didn't go down after five or six bullets to the chest, those creatures felt more like vampires than the Darkseekers in this movie. But I will say that I dug the design of them. They were barbaric and monstrous and they worked for the film. I also wished they had a bigger presence in the film and that we learned more about them.

I find a movie like "I Am Legend" interesting because of how close it comes to completing its goals. While there is some stuff that bothers me, there so much going for the film in equal measure  that its hard not to watch. This is a movie I present for family and friends, just to see what they take away from it. I still hope that someday we get a better glimpse of the ideas that Matheson conveyed in his classic novel, but I am sure I will be dissecting this 2007 version for many years to come.

You may notice that I didn't write my weekly "Overlooked Film of the Week" nor my "Essentials" reviews this week. I greatly apologize for that, its not that I had nothing to say, it was just a long, fun weekend and I really just wanted to relax. I will have fresh reviews up this week. But me brainstorming on "I Am Legend" had me thinking, and I want to start a new column on this blog.  I want to call it "What I'm Watching" and I want to use this as a platform to discuss movies of all types that had an effect on me in some way. This will give me chance to discuss the more current films I like. "Overlooked Film of the Week" is dedicated to discussing current films that slipped under the radar. I love living in a world where more movies are being released now than ever before, but that also means that sometimes some go almost unheard of. Not here. The Essentials is dedicated to the classics, and why I believe those older movies should be hailed as such. But "What I'm Watching" will allow a venue to dig into the current stuff that we have all heard of, and give me a chance to defend why I think it matters. I believe that all film is important, not how much money it makes at the box office, not which new films are opening next weekend. I think it all counts, the new, the old, the now and I want to create as many venues as possible to discuss the entire pantheon of film. So begin to look for these "What I'm Watching" reviews in the future.

Check out Mark Protosevich's 1995 script here:

Check out John Logan's 1997 script here:

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