I’ve been hyping I am Legend for some time now (here, and here). As you may have guessed, I’m a bit of a dystopian fantasy buff. Ever since I can remember, I’ve daydreamed about being the last human on the planet. I guess that speaks a lot of my introversion, huh? Well, the movie is everything I hoped it would be.
In I am Legend Will Smith is the prototypical Last Man on Earth. Both the film’s ominous title and Smith’s sullen performance remind me of Robert Oppenheimer’s infamous quote 1, “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” Like Oppenheimer, Smith’s Robert Neville has the weight of the Grim Reaper on his shoulders every day of his life, knowing that his virology experiments have ushered in the fall of humankind. His is a cursed existence, walking the streets of New York like some sort of Purgatory. He’s trapped between the living and the long dead.
It’s quite a thing to watch an actor carry a film for nearly its entirety by himself. But that’s just what Smith pulls off. He acts against his trusty dog Max and mannequins and far too often zombified survivors, most of which are digital creations. I appreciate how the film takes its time allowing us to get inside Neville’s head to see the slow erosion of his mind. Absolute isolation is the cruelest of punishments.
I am Legend boasts some of the usual staples of the post-apocalyptic genre. For instance, the creatures in the film are ex-humans, ravaged by a violent virus that was self-inflicted. All very similar to the excellent 28 (insert duration here) Later series. Where those humans were reinterpretations of the classic zombie (undead, flesh-eating monsters), the people in Legend are reinventions of the classic vampire (undead, photosensitive monsters). And there’s just enough pseudo-science involved to suspend the average geek’s disbelief.
The music too, borrows a note from a previous end-of-the-world flick. Remember that groovy odd tune called “It’s a Wonderful Life” by Sparklehorse on the soundtrack for the Dawn of the Dead remake? Remember how ironic it was in that trailer, evoking the calm before the storm? The same effect is used in Legend, as Neville and Max religiously listen to Bob Marley’s “Three Little Birds” (whose refrain reassures, “everything’s going to be ok”) every single day. There’s a quiet desperation about that act. The song is calming to Neville, but we sense that without that song, he just might fall off the edge of sanity.
Curiously, it’s with Marley that we find Neville’s true motivation. He tells us that Marley’s own determination to sing days after an assassination attempt was the only way he saw fit to bring light to the darkness. Not insignificantly, Marley’s posthumous compilation album (what Neville gushes as “the best album ever made”) is entitled “Legend” and it is the best-selling reggae album ever 2.
And finally, there are also similarities to Children of Men‘s mass quarantine environment. Where the former showed us how that looked in the moment, Legend shows us the aftermath of humanity’s last passing. What’s left is an endlessly fascinating picture of what that could look like. Vast New York streets both packed with vacant cars and empty of all life, save the occasional herd of deer. Random skyscraper buildings draped in billowing plastic as some sort of last-ditch quarantine effort by its sole survivors; streets taken over by shoulder-height weeds; the sounds of locusts and bird flocks replacing that of taxicab and tire. These moments in Legend are nothing short of breathtaking.
And yet, there is palpable dread in that quiet. Every dark shadow is weighty. There are bogeymen lurking in every corner. When Neville’s dog chases a deer into a building, we feel his fear as he frantically whispers for the dog to come back. This is the mouth of hell and there is rarely safe return passage.
Legend has many such moments of squirm-in-your-seat despair. I can’t remember the last time a film captured that dichotomy between the safety of light and the doom of dark so well. As the sun sets, so does the sense of hope. Neville’s role in the plague that killed 90% of humanity isn’t entirely clear. But in penance, he is compelled to work in his bunkered laboratory, trying to develop an antibody from his own immune blood.
The payoff for his labors are rewarded, but not in the way you would expect. In fact, I don’t see I am Legend as the typical blockbuster style “big” movie. Sure, it’s got the big budget, but it spends its money wisely in subtlety and nuance and mood. The patience that the film and Smith both take in building the story is perfectly realized.