Yesterday I went to the movies to see “I am Legend”. I love Mathesons novel, so I knew I would be disappointed. But I had at least hoped for some kind of mindless action flick, a dumbed-down version of the original story with cool special effects. The movie was mindless, alright, but in a annoying rather than a fun way.
It was probably not the fault of the leading man. I had seen Will Smith first in Men in Black and had cast him down as a decent Eddy-Murphy stand-in, but had really come to like him after his performance in Ali. Smith makes an excellent Robert Neville; here he is very much a character actor, and at the end of the movie he looks exhausted and even old, an Robinson Crusoe without hope for rescue on his desert island of Manhattan. So, no objections here.
Nor was it the scenery, the desert Manhattan through which the Protagonist stumbles. Of course the movie is in large parts a Quiet Earth-ripoff, with much better production values and a lot less atmosphere. But plagiarism is a form of flattery, plus IaL had some potentially cool monsters thrown in so that was okay also.
(massive spoilers below the fold)
The Robert Neville of the novel is a ordinary Joe whose world is suddenly hit by a catastrophe, a naturally occuring airborne plague that killed most of the worlds population, including his own family, and turns the rest into savage creatures that resemble vampires from old folk tales. After an traumatizing experience – an encounter with his wife who has been transformed into a monster by the disease – he sets out to destroy the creatures. After years of gruesome manual killing he starts to experiment with more effective ways to dispose of them. He educates himself with books and resources from the derelict city library and finally ends up not with better murder techniques but with an understanding of the true nature of the plague and an insight into the physiological and psychological processes that affect the infected; for they are not monsters but human beings who, transformed by the disease and in some cases resurrected from the grave, have given in to insanity and reverted to archetypes from the collective subconscious.
The Neville from the movie is a military doctor who tries to find a cure to a disease caused by a genetically engineered virus – originally supposed to heal cancer – that wiped out most of the worlds population and transformed most of the survivors into bloodsucking monsters. With his education in medicine he experiments on the diseased, killing them by the dozens in the process; the rest of his time he spends playing golf and doing the Zac Hobson thing.
The plot change from natural disease to engineered virus looks at first glance pretty minor, as if the filmmakers merely had wanted to bring the story a little more up to date. In fact this is a rather disingenious alteration, since it completly twists the message of the story.
In the USA there is currently a culture war being fought, with religious fundamentalism and secular rationalism as the antagonists. While I have much more symphathy for the latter I do not think that religion is a problem per se; many people manage to put their faith in a mental compartment where it’s not allowed to interfere with real life, so it’s not a danger to anybody. It might be considered foolish to believe in non-existant beings but the point of a democracy is that being foolish is allowed.
However things are completely different when people try to turn their religious faith into a public policy. If you believe that the biblical Adam and Eve walked among peacefully grazing T-Rexes you are an idiot, but you hurt nobody except yourself; if you make other people believe that nonsense you are a menace to society that needs to be stopped. Movements like creationism and intelligent design run outright attacks on science, and try try to turn public services, most notably schools and educational institutions into a distribution mechanism for their religious views.
It sound strangely exaggerated to put it that way, but this struggle is actually a matter of life and death. Civilization as we know it is built on scientific progress and on a sense of pluralism that allows for many different ideas and lifestyles. It is in some respects woefully inadequate (war, poverty, climate change etc) and urgently in need of improvement – but those fundamentalist movements do not want to improve civilization, they want to abandon it. Their claims against evolution and other cornerstones of modern science would mean, if successful, an end to progress; their claim for an absolute truth would, if heard, lock mankind into a prison of faith. A movie like I am Legend does a lot of their work for them, because the movie takes a story about evolution and formation of human societies and turns it into a story about, of all things, ‘Gods plan’.
The vampires in the book are not monsters but pitiful, demolished man; raised from their graves by a the effects of the plague their already damaged brain can no longer cope and their only escape is into madness. They are easy an prey not only to the stake-wielding Neville but also to their more sentinent brethren; because risen from the destruction has the proverbial hopeful monster of evolutionary biology, the homo nocturnis who has adapted to the new world.
In contrast the monsters from the movie are intelligent, yet brutish creatures, without personalities and without motives or desires except to consume the surviving humans. They are not anymore product of a biological process; mankind tampered with gods creation to find a cure for cancer, but as a revenge for their hubris the testtube with the modified virus turns into the seven vials of gods wrath that are poured upon the earth and produce a hellspawn that purges the earth from the sins of man; this is armageddon. Salvation for a select few is brought forth through the unlikely vessel of mad-at-god-atheist Robert Neville who passes on a blood sample that supposedly contains antibodies to the plague to an uninfected woman before he blows himself up as he saves her from a vampire attack.
A man sacrificing himself to release mankind from sin – I think I’ve heard that story before, although Smith-Neville admittedly did not use his own blood for purposes of salvation (but then to spill other peoples blood always seems to be a decent second price for the devout).
This is the difference between the book and the movie: the book tells us that while we not always might like the things nature comes up with we can at least understand it if we apply reason to the world around us. The movie says that we should not have any progress because it will kill us. In the book we have the humble attitude of the rational mind who recognizes that we are mere mortals and that our lives and all of human history last for but a brief moment in time. On the screen we have the hubris of the faithfull who believe that some almighty being cares enough about their affairs to be bothered to contrive a plan for their eventual salvation.
At the end of the movie we see the woman as she arrives at a colony of none-infected humans, carrying the vial with the proto-vaccine, as she thinks it was gods plan for her to deliver it. A the door opens and the first things we see behind the menacing walls and the shoulders of the armed guards is a small village church. Then the camera perspective changes and we see an aerial shot of the compound: it’s the ultimate fundamenalists dream, with a look like a cross between concentration camp and rural village, design both to defend the pure-breed humans against the freaks from outside while at the same time maintaining social pressure among the population within. As a voiceover blathers away about Nevilles noble self-sacrifice we realize that we spent 100 minutes with some annoying reactionary nonsense. A more enlightend time will list this movie only as a footnote in an article of praise for Richard Mathesons novel .
If you don’t believe it then compare the end of the movie to the breathtaking conclusion of the book. Robert Neville is imprisoned by the vampires after the homo nocturnis have decided that, as they build their new society, they can no longer bear the abomination, the stalker that walks around during the day and kills the innocent as they lie helpless in their beds. To find rest they decide to publicly excorcise the evil, and it is only due to the kindness of a vampire lady that he get’s a means to kill himself more peacefully. As he slips away he thinks about how this new species of humans will remember him.
Full circle, he thought, while the final lethargy crept into his limbs. Full circle. A new terror born in death, a new superstition entering the unassailable fortress of forever.
I AM LEGEND