Thursday, January 03, 2008

Legendary Storytelling

It was a grim entree into 2008, but I went to see “I Am Legend” on New Year’s Day.

Having read the novel by Richard Matheson several years ago, I didn't have high expectations for the movie. Hollywood often butchers good books as it translates them to the screen. But, in this case, I was pleasantly surprised. Will Smith, portraying the tortured hero Robert Neville, is a one-man show for much of the film, and he makes it work.

The inherent drama of the plotline—last man standing in a brutal, apocalyptic world—is further enhanced with personalized details. Rather than Matheson's random survivor, Neville is portrayed as a military scientist directly involved in the wild evolution of the killer plague, who is now a relentless crusader for its cure. The adopted stray dog of the novel has become the beloved pet Sam, which Neville cherishes as the surviving link to his doomed family. Flashbacks to the early days of the plague supply the horrifying back story of a world now ruled by “dark seekers,” the undead who survived only to mutate into human flesh-eating monsters, stalking the world at night.

The original story has been relocated from Los Angeles to New York City, providing a lavish canvas for vivid and imaginative special effects. From the ubiquitous weeds sprouting up through midtown pavements to the images of famous bridges blasted in half, sealing off Manhattan during the initial days of panic, there is an end-of-days feel to the deserted, ruined city.

There are a few “what-the?” moments. For example, Neville passes some time watching videos on television and has surrounded his home with a protective barrier of massive floodlights. That made me wonder, hmmmm….Did a few hidden Con Edison employees also survive the scourge, and do they still trek into work each day to keep the juice flowing? Disbelief lies in such details.

However, one mustn’t let mundane reality get in the way of a good horror story. “I Am Legend” will sweep you along for a nerve-wracking thrill ride if you allow it to, and I did. Those frightening vampires can really move, and if you ever had a childhood nightmare that involved terrifying monsters leaping out of the darkness and/or giving chase, prepare to have your blood pressure elevated.

I’m pleased to notice that the book “I Am Legend” is registering on bestseller charts since the film’s release. Richard Matheson is one of America’s best scary story tellers and deserves more recognition as such. I’ve heard some viewers registering complaints about the final scenes, but I found the film’s conclusion more uplifting than the novel’s last chapter. No spoilers here; for further information, go see the movie.

Or, better yet, first read the book.