The streets of New York are empty — the city has become Ground Zero for a deadly disease. Ravaged by a plague, society is on the brink of collapse. This might sound like an apt description for the early days of the Covid-19 crisis in the U.S., but it’s also the gripping premise of the 2007 sci-fi thriller blockbuster, I am Legend.
Most of the movie takes place three years after the onset of the virus into human civilization. It centers on Dr. Robert Neville, a virologist and military officer who is hell-bent on finding a cure for the virus. Neville is immune, but he seeks a cure for the so-called “Darkseekers” — the remnants of humanity whose rabies-ridden brains have turned them into flesh-eating zombies.
As far as pandemic movies go, I Am Legend is at the top of the list along with Contagion, and with good reason. Will Smith plays a convincing scientist who speaks with a strong command of virology and dedication to saving his people, and his emotional arc in the movie beautifully pays off.
But more than two years into the pandemic, it’s become clear that for as many things as the film gets right about the aftermath of a pandemic, it gets nearly as many things wrong. In fact, the movie’s flawed depiction of a pandemic response can pretty well explain our collective failure in combating Covid-19 here in the U.S. Let’s get into it.
Reel Science is an Inverse series that reveals the real (and fake) science behind your favorite movies and TV.
What the movie gets right about a pandemic
Considering that the movie debuted more than 10 years before the SARS-CoV-2 virus began circulating the globe, it’s almost eerie how well the film showcases the intense loneliness — and mental health repercussions — of surviving a global pandemic during isolation.
Neville, who appears to be the lone survivor in New York City, has one-way conversations with department store mannequins to maintain some semblance of “human” interaction. Yet, we painfully see how profoundly lonely Neville has become as he sends out a daily call for survivors, only to be met with radio silence.
Similarly, as people quarantined during the Covid-19 lockdown, loneliness became a pervasive part of life. It contributed to severe mental health declines, especially among children in developed nations and medically vulnerable people who have remained isolated. Just as people did in real life, our fictional hero watches old TV newscasts and comforting movies like Shrek, which serve as a coping mechanism to keep his spirits up. And just as many people’s pets kept them company during Covid-19, Neville’s pet dog, Sam, also serves as his emotional anchor during his darkest hours.
Finally, the film also brilliantly shows Neville's difficulty in reintegrating into human society after years of isolation, bringing to mind our awkward encounters of meeting up with friends after a long period of limiting social interactions. When he meets two other survivors later on in the movie, he clearly struggles with normal human social interactions.
“I need a minute,” Neville says to his new houseguests, overwhelmed in the face of human company for the first time in several years. It’s a very relatable moment, especially after all the loneliness we’ve endured during our pandemic.
What the movie gets wrong about a pandemic
The trailer for I Am Legend.
The movie becomes more problematic when we look at its science, but not for the reasons you might think (the film fell under controversy last year when anti-vaxxers seized its fictional plot as an excuse to dismiss the real-life Covid-19 vaccine).
Neville has spent the past few years working to cure the disease known as Krippin virus, which causes humans to revert developmentally to zombie-like figures known as Darkseekers who fear the sun. For years, the virologist conducts clinical trials on mice and even captured Darkseekers with the goal of using blood from his immune body to develop a cure.
When we meet him, Neville is on the verge of his first medical breakthrough in developing a vaccine that could save the Darkseekers from their zombie fate and restore human civilization.
“I can fix this. I can save everybody,” Neville says with heroic confidence bordering on desperation. The movie both explicitly and implicitly positions Neville as the sole savior of humanity — his inoculation is their only hope for escaping this pandemic.
Why is this depiction of Neville such a problem when considering our pandemic? For two reasons. First, the movie positions Neville as a Dr. Fauci-like figure who can single-handedly lead us out of the pandemic, but the truth is that no single individual can save us from a deadly disease. Second, it suggests that all we need to end a pandemic is a vaccine, when Covid-19 has shown that’s far from the case.
To be clear: the Covid-19 vaccines have been a vital, life-saving tool in our pandemic response toolkit. Recent research shows that nearly 20 million deaths globally were averted due to the vaccines. That’s 20 million more people with us today who wouldn’t be here if it were not for the vaccine.
Further, the vaccines remain effective at preventing severe disease, which reduced the strain on overwhelmed hospital systems that we saw in the early waves of the pandemic. Getting vaccinated is the single best thing an individual can do to protect themselves from a deadly disease.
But the problem is that the overall trajectory of the Covid-19 pandemic isn’t just dependent on individual actions but also on our collective societal response, which goes beyond a single solution like a vaccine. In the wake of the vaccine, states have effectively ended nearly all public health mitigation measures like mask-wearing, limiting the size of events and gatherings, and encouraging social distancing.
“It’s not vaccines instead of masks. It’s not vaccines instead of distancing. It’s not vaccines instead of ventilation or hand hygiene. Do it all. Do it consistently. Do it well,” tweeted Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of the World Health Organization, in December 2021.
It’s clear that the vaccine alone won’t stop the spread of Covid-19 without such mitigation measures Mutations of the SARS-CoV-2 virus continue to occur on an alarming scale. The Omicron wave, which caused cases to surge in the U.S and around the globe, occurred after vaccines had been available for several months. Various mutations — known as subvariants — of Omicron continue to fuel cases across the country this summer.
Research shows that mask-wearing can reduce daily growth in Covid-19 cases by more than 40 percent, yet most Americans no longer feel obligated to protect our community by wearing masks. Collective public health mitigation measures are a crucial part of any pandemic response. Yet, both our fictional counterpart, Robert Neville, and our real-life leaders have ignored or given up on these commonsense practices. According to other research published in November 2021 in Frontiers in Psychology, countries with more individualistic cultural practices had higher mortality and transmission rates from Covid-19 compared to nations with a more collective-oriented approach.
Finally, unlike in movies like I Am Legend or Contagion, which end on a happy note with a vaccine — suggesting the imminent end of the pandemic — it’s been much harder in real life to innoculate the world due to global inequality and vaccine hoarding by more affluent nations. According to data compiled by The New York Times, only 21 percent of people in lower-income countries have received the vaccine as of early July. Our lack of collective responsibility for Covid-19 extends to not just our immediate neighbors and friends but the rest of the world.
How Hollywood can impact a real-life pandemic
It’s easy to dismiss these concerns over I Am Legend because it’s just a science fiction movie. But experts say people have turned to film and TV to make sense of our pandemic ever since the first wave hit New York in the spring of 2020.
“I'm consumed with this topic, and why wouldn't a theme from a movie or TV series also pique my interest?” Anthony Tobia, a professor of psychiatry at Rutgers’ Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital, told Inverse in an interview last year about why people watch pandemic-related content.
Psychiatrist David M. Reiss also told Inverse that people may watch pandemic content to bring “a sense of catharsis” from our fear during unprecedented times.
But now that we’ve all been through a pandemic, I hope that Hollywood will take a different tack to these movies in the future. Instead of simply ending the third act with a hopeful note of a moonshot vaccine on the horizon, filmmakers should lean into the many other ways we can collectively protect each other. It’s not as neat an ending, but it’s truer to real life.
I Am Legend is streaming now on Netflix and HBO Max.