Look, I get it. We are near the “end” of a very real, very hard, and very long pandemic. The last thing any of us need to see is a movie about society in decline and ravaged by disease, and the ways a man continues life as “normal” in a quarantine zone.
Yet, there is something comforting, maybe even enlightening in a blustering Hollywood studio adaptation of an influential and, however subtly, political science-fiction text that inadvertently created the zombie genre as we know it. While this third adaptation is debatably the weakest effort at telling the story, it is nonetheless a good time — and a fitting adieu to the Lockdown Era by we the vaccinated to go outside once again.
Here’s why you need to watch this 2007 post-apocalypse sci-fi movie, before it leaves Netflix on April 30.
Directed by Francis Lawrence (whose 2005 gothic superhero film Constantine is undergoing reevaluation), I Am Legend stars the enviously charismatic Will Smith as Robert Neville, a U.S. Army virologist who lives alone in an abandoned New York City. As the movie’s exposition maps out, a cure for cancer ends up lethal for 99% of the world’s survivors. For whoever it doesn’t kill, it transforms them into pale, rabid cannibalistic mutants — “Darkseekers” in the film, “vampires” in the original book by Richard Matheson from 1957.
Left behind on Manhattan Island, Neville works to find a cure whilst evading the wrath of the Darkseekers, who come out to rampage at full force through the empty streets at night.
An archetypical high-concept Hollywood blockbuster, there’s enough meat and vegetables in I Am Legend to feel insightful, poignant, and not a waste of time. But it’s still coated in plenty of sugar, in its video game set pieces and a sentimental ending that is regressive of the story’s themes (and pales in comparison to the alternate ending released as a DVD bonus feature).
Structurally, I Am Legend has a solid and feel-good Hollywood ending. Which is why it kind of sucks. In Matheson’s book, the title I Am Legend refers to the protagonist becoming an extinct myth, a “legend” in the eyes of the vampires who now rule the planet. In the 2007 film, the “legend” is (spoilers?) Neville’s cure, an endorsement that Neville’s efforts weren’t for naught.
It’s an ending that sounds like a winner to movie executives and test screening audiences. It’s also an ending that Marxist philosopher Slavoj Žižek hated for “being the most regressive adaptation” of Matheson’s story. In his 2011 book Living in the End Times, Žižek criticizes the movie’s “religious fundamentalism” in that Neville is a pseudo-Messianic figure who puts blind faith in another survivor, Anna (Alice Braga) to ensure the survival of the human race. That the film’s final visual is of Anna and a child, Ethan (Charlie Tahan) entering a gated, garden-like Vermont community surrounded by guns and soldiers was a touch too much, at least for Žižek.
I think it’s fine.
Even if I Am Legend trips on its face at the finish line, it’s still loaded with tiny, unforgettable moments. It’s the little things: That Neville has a system of generators to watch reruns of The Today Show. That Neville “rents” his movies, with fully-clothed mannequins populating a DVD store. (I relish the implication that Neville set the whole place up himself.) After Anna and Ethan make themselves at home, Neville — a decorated soldier-scientist profiled by Time, remember — quotes Shrek. Will Smith’s simple, deadpan “I like Shrek” is as stuck in my head as Smash Mouth’s “All-Star.”
I Am Legend is the safest, most reassuring way for 21st century audiences to grasp Matheson’s tale, a novella that’s still provocative and bleak nearly 65 years later. But its arrival in the late-aughts — during the dead heat of the relentless Iraq War, a year prior to the financial crisis, and 15 years before a pandemic made its premise uncomfortably relatable — allows its optimistic, if lunkheaded narrative to feel fresher than ever.
Eerily, in a 2007 interview with Collider, Francis Lawrence described his research into the movie that sounded just a bit like circa April 2020, when people stopped going outside — and nature briefly, just briefly, reclaimed itself.
“We didn’t want to do the same grim world we see in movie after movie,” Lawrence said. “We talked to scientists and ecologists ... and really started looking into what would happen to a city once the population disappeared ... animals that would start to repopulate, the types of plant life that would start to repopulate. How, you know, the air would start to get cleaner.”
No longer is I Am Legend a dark thriller about a world we’ll thankfully never see; it’s a tale of how to survive a world we very well might.
I Am Legend is streaming now on Netflix until April 30.