I have never read Richard Matheson’s novel I Am Legend, but I have seen all three of the films that have been based on it. It is probably safe to say the newest version, starring Will Smith, is the most obvious in its use of religious themes – but also the shallowest. In other words, it’s all there on the surface, but no deeper.
The first film, The Last Man on Earth (1964), was written by Matheson himself under a pseudonym, and starred Vincent Price as the only man in North America who is immune to a plague which has turned everyone else into vampires. It climaxed with a scene in a church that suggested one man’s hero could be another man’s villain.
The second film, The Omega Man (1971), starred Charlton Heston as a military man whose efforts to find a cure for the plague begin to look successful, once he develops a serum based on his own blood. One famous shot shows Heston in a pose that is very reminiscent of Christ on the cross, shedding his blood to save the world.
The third film, directed by Francis Lawrence (Constantine) from a screenplay by Mark Protosevich (Poseidon) and Akiva Goldsman (The Da Vinci Code) – and the first to share the title of the original novel – is nowhere near that subtle.
It begins with Smith as Robert Neville, the sole survivor of yet another plague, as he drives through a deserted New York City in which abandoned military vehicles are covered in posters that say ‘God Still Loves Us … But Do We Still Love God?’
Flashbacks gradually reveal that Neville was a family man who prayed with his wife and child, at least when disaster seemed imminent. But ever since a man-made virus wiped out the planet, he has lost his faith; and since he has no companion other than his dog Sam, he doesn’t have much opportunity to discuss religious matters.
That all changes in the film’s third act, though, as Neville encounters a couple of other survivors under wildly coincidental circumstances.
Then one of the other survivors declares that their meeting was no mere coincidence – and presumably no mere cheat by insufficiently imaginative screenwriters – but an act of God.
Crucifixes and church bells ensue. But instead of embedding the religious themes in the subtext, as previous films did, and thereby engaging the audience’s religious imagination, the new film has the characters spell it all out for us; consequently, there is no mystery or intrigue left to the story. There is no subtext, only text – and poorly written text at that.
The film does have its merits. For one thing, the early scenes create a palpable sense of isolation and apocalyptic dread. But just when you think this might be the most daring and unusual film of Will Smith’s career, he goes and does something – showing off his muscles, making pop-culture references, injecting the script with a bit of crowd-pleasing humour – which breaks the spell, and makes you more aware of the movie star and his persona than the character he is supposed to be playing.
Similarly, whenever the zombies attack Neville, you are all too aware of the fact that they are computer-animated and not actual people. As a result, you are too busy thinking about the filmmakers to buy into the reality they’re trying to depict.
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In an editorial in the last issue, I said I hoped The Golden Compass would be a great movie, and that it would flop. Well, it looks like I got one of my two wishes.
Chris Weitz’s adaptation of Philip Pullman’s novel is a grand spectacle, full of dazzling effects and the like; but it zips through the plot points at such a fast clip that you never have time to immerse yourself in the story’s world. The resulting film is somewhat clumsy and never quite as engaging as it could have been.
Audiences seem to agree, and are staying away from the movie in droves. The film – which reportedly cost as much as $250 million to produce, and who knows how much more to market – grossed ‘only’ $25.8 million in its first weekend. This puts it well, well behind the Narnia, Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings movies, all of which had earned at least $65 million by their their own first Sundays.
At press time, the film’s box-office performance seemed to be plummeting fast, so the word-of-mouth on this movie can’t be very good.
So unless the film is really, truly, phenomenally popular overseas, it does not look like the novel’s increasingly anti-theistic sequels will ever see the silver screen. Thank goodness for that.
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Judd Apatow, director and/or producer of such raunchy R-rated flicks as Knocked Up and The 40-Year-Old Virgin, is going biblical.
The Hollywood Reporter says he is producing Year One, ‘a comedy set in biblical times’ – starring Jack Black (King Kong) and Michael Cera (Superbad) and directed by Harold Ramis (Groundhog Day).
Everything’s very hush-hush, so we’ll just have to wait and see whether it’s a classic like Monty Python’s Life of Brian or a flop like Dudley Moore’s Wholly Moses!