“I Am Legend” had the opportunity to be excellent science fiction. That’s the best I can say for it. Will Smith has established himself as a surprisingly good sci-fi actor, and he does a good job as Dr. Robert Neville in this movie, without much dialogue to work with. And the budget and use of real-life locations allow for some stunning visuals. But many of the plot and direction choices were disappointing. For instance, director Francis Lawrence certainly managed to create mood, if not too much else, in “Constantine”, and he pulls off a good number of beautiful and melancholy scenes in “Legend”. So why spoil the sci-fi spookiness by packing the scary scenes with nothing but “fright” moments, where things loudly jump out at the audience? Expecting to be blasted with deafening sound around every corner makes good sci-fi seem like cheap horror.
More than that, the plot represents a significant rewriting of Richard Matheson’s 1954 novel (above left — which I admittedly have not read). The movie retains the scientific rationale for the monsters’ paleness, aggression and aversion to light while tiptoeing around actually labeling them ‘vampires’; they’re ‘Dark Seekers’ instead. The writers seem less interested in linking the scientific and the supernatural, with the result that neither aspect is as compelling. Vampires have human qualities, which is what makes them so terrifying, and in the book, almost sympathetic; these movie monsters are one-dimensional rage machines, much like the MLB. If we’re to buy into the scientific side, the ‘Dark Seekers’ seem stupidly fast and strong, and yet deterred by the smallest amount of UV radiation.
The rewrite of the ending, based on what I have read about the original, tries to make the movie’s outcome more palatable for a mass audience. I suspect this change is what makes the movie feel more like horror and less like science-fiction; Neville is now fighting a virus and virus-controlled creatures, rather than anything with a vestige of humanity. One of science fiction’s virtues is the ability to take the story into very dark places thematically and examine the lessons therein, so the absence of any such themes (apart from, “Beware of miracle cures” and, I suppose, “Perseverance in the face of adversity is a good thing”) is disappointing. The movie, unfortunately, doesn’t live up to its potential.