Wednesday, January 2, 2008

I Am Legend

Richard Matheson's book of the same title was published in 1954. Ten years later, the first cinematic version hit the screens--a low-budget film called The Last Man on Earth, starring Vincent Price. In 1971 came Charlton Heston's movie, The Omega Man, the second adaptation of Matheson's book. The third is Will Smith's new film, the only one sharing the novel's original title.

None of these attempts follow the book in every detail, but the closest match is the first entry, if memory serves (I read the book about fifteen years ago). The Omega Man is a better movie, technically speaking, but diverges from the novel even further. Smith's film departs as much or more, and this is the main problem with it.

I've never understood the attitude behind tinkering with good storylines. It's as if screenwriters/producers/directors have an innate need to mold something into their own creation, even if the outcome is foreign or even anathema to the source material. With rare exceptions, stories are not improved when this mindset prevails. It's bizarre that filmmakers believe that certain novels and shorter works need screen treatments, but do not deserve to make the transition intact. With I Am Legend, whole segments of the story--particularly the ending--veer away from Matheson's novel, with no legitimate reason for doing so. Nor am I talking about condensing for screen-time considerations, but alteration of the plot itself. I believe I would have enjoyed the movie far more, had I not read the novel, first.

Unjustified nonadherence to the book aside, this film has a lot to offer. Will Smith carries the movie singlehandedly; his acting is right on the button. I think he demonstrates with each film project his considerable acting skill, and justly deserved fame. Another high point is the visual effects, especially the set pieces and atmosphere. I was amazed at how the filmmakers made a large city look deserted, with nature reclaiming a once-thriving metropolis. Little details throughout lent hints of realism to an otherwise fantastic subject matter, as well. I also enjoyed the intense feelings of dread and suspense elicited in some scenes.

If you're looking for a faithful rendition of the novel to the big screen, don't bother with this one. It takes one too many liberties with the original story. On the other hand, if you're on the lookout for a good science fiction/horror movie that rises above the typical dreck found in your local theater (think Saw LX, or whatever), I recommend I Am Legend.

No comments: