I Am Legend: Richard Matheson
The Last Man on Earth – Vincent Price
Omega Man – Charlton Heston
I Am Legend – Will Smith
This week, after watching Last Man on Earth, Omega Man, and I Am Legend, I decided we have really come a long way in cinema (which I will probably take back 20 years from now), and that I have very little appreciation of Vincent Price (creepiest man).
I want to get something straight to begin with – I do not consider I am Legend a zombie movie. I did before doing this course, but after reading the book and seeing the movies, I can still see more vampire aspects to zombie aspects, and I think that plays a role in what we perceive as monsters. It also shows a lot with respect to our heroes.
The Progression of the Hero
Will Smith is awesome. With Smith is the hero of our time, even when he wore tacky sweaters and lived in Bellaire. It’s only fitting that he play the last man on earth, fighting dark seekers and finding a cure to save humanity. He’s a caring father, husband, scientist, corporal, and dog-lover. He is the perfect last man on earth.
Or is he?
The Robert Neville from the book is not a Will Smith. He is not a scientist. He is a caring father and husband. He is experiencing trauma due to his state of being the last man on earth. He is an alcoholic, violent, angry, thinks sexually explicit thoughts, mocks himself for praying, and is constantly agitated by the vampires that he will go on routine explosions of fury. When he decides to start experimenting and figure out what’s causing the disease, he must learn from scratch. He lives out his days killing vampires while they sleep. He does not find a cure.
Robert Neville is not a hero. In the end, he is killed by the vampires who are free thinking, independent and intelligent. He is being executed for the deaths he caused to the vampire race. This situation that was unforeseen by Neville. He thought he was doing good. He thought he was surviving by killing the evil creatures, and experimenting on them to solve the problem. It turned out it was he who was evil.
They are two almost completely different protagonists.
This story was originally based around the idea that everyone has the potential to be evil, that every action has a reaction. How did this story about a regular man experiencing the turmoil of apocalypse turn into a more-than-perfect superman? Neville is held in the highest respect in this film. He is a man who promised to fix a problem and is still fighting. He can do no wrong. You feel bad for him the whole time. I cried almost 2 minutes in.
This is the progression we see of the hero. We see it in a lot of films as well – the man who has no vices, or does and overcomes them. The man who is essentially a super man, who challenges all odds and defeats the antagonists. The hero we see now is the Hercules of our time. He is troubled by his situation, but he rises above it.
With respect to I am Legend, why did this change? Robert Neville turned from being all of us, to becoming an idol. Someone who gave their lives to do something. It’s like the movie industry has discovered that we react well to inspirational, unbelievable characters, Christ like figures, not ourselves. Not only do we want to see the last man on earth, but we want to see the greatest man on earth.
These things are very interesting when tied together with what happened to the shape of our enemies. Something happened not only to our heroes, but to our monsters.
The Regression of the Enemy
The enemy is a strange being. It can take many forms. In I Am Legend, Neville sees them as lacking his intelligence. They are tormenting him, but they don’t seem to have the same mental capacity that they used to. However, these enemies are closer to him than he thought. They are very intelligent; they seem to have created a super race. They effectively come up with a ‘cure’, while he did not. In the end, it is he is the enemy, unintelligent, and an animal.
This is a very interesting ending. This book does not have the same stark divide between protagonist and antagonist. The enemies can very well be good, as well as evil. They can be Ruth, the vampire with the capability to love and feel compassion. They can be Neville, who we rooted for and turned out to be evil in the eyes of the evil. The characters are ambiguous, but also realistic.
Then the enemy begins regressing. They become more animal as the times move on. In the book and movie, the enemies are close to us as humans. In I Am Legend, the 2007 remake (without the director’s cut), they begin as cannibalistic. They are not intelligent. They are hungry and coming for Will Smith. However, it is soon shown they do learn and can create a trap, but in the end all they do is attack him. They do not even listen when he yells that he can save them with his rational cure.
The enemy regressed.
The enemy is an animal.
This is shown as well in real zombie films. The zombie used to be a person created to be a slave. Their soul was gone, and they were to spend the rest of their deaths in servitude. However, they were still people. They were still intelligent enough to perform tasks and problem solve. As we continue on, zombies in Romero’s dead series knew how to use guns and break windows with rocks, open car doors and go to the mall. There was some cognition.
Now, there is nothing. Look at the walking dead. They are constantly trying to find something that proves the unconscious mind and memories still exist, but there is no direct answer. There is no Bub from Day. There is only constant biting and attacking and decomposing. Even the vampire became a zombie, the lowest form of brain activity out of any monster.
The enemy has regressed. Why would this happen? Why wouldn’t we want hyper intelligent zombies or vampires or other enemies?
Perhaps the regression of the enemy, paired with the progression of the hero, is to show dehumanize our enemy. If we give them a face and give them feelings, we start to think they are not our enemies after all. Look at Bub in Day. He was intelligent. He was human. He put a human face on the zombies. Ruth in the original I Am Legend expressed empathy for the vampires Neville kills, not just because she is one, but to make us feel for them too. These are the types we do not see any more. The more you cannot relate to your enemy, the easier it is to kill them and the better the hero looks. If the enemies have no face, and he is the only one, that is who we will feel for. The faceless horde means nothing to us.
If enemies are shown as human, we begin to question whether or not they are enemies at all. This has been done all throughout history – the creation of a scapegoat, dehumanizing them, and creating an enemy. Creating an archetype figure to worship in the face of this enemy. It is straight up Good vs. Evil.
What is this saying to us?
How can the two I am Legends be so different? Why are they so different? The films we are consuming display Will Smith as the poster boy against the evil. He is moral and right (Will Smith stayed back when New York was quarantined). He is the hero against the ruthless, evil enemy. They say the righteous will survive (Will Smith, hero, is immune. Anna and Ethan are righteous, moral and immune).
As for our enemies, they say killing them is alright because they are not intelligent, they kill our family and friends, they are murderers and we need to find a way to stop them. The hero is outnumbered, and we must root for the altruistic underdog.
What Aren’t they saying?
There was an alternate ending to I Am Legend. Rather than explain it, you should watch it. It’s a lot closer to the book and a much better ending. Like Neville from the book, he was killing loved ones. The vampires were chasing him, and what he first saw as a murderous takeover he soon discovers that it was a rescue mission. He was killing vampires, but he became a kidnapper when he stole the mate of one of the infected. Key word: Mate. The vampires were capable of love.
The enemy is given a face, and that face is crying with the tragedies that Neville put upon them. And then, the vampires spared his life just to get their love back. He ends up giving up the fight, going to the survivor colony, and being okay with not solving the problem. Shockingly enough, the human race is seen in this version as similar to the violent monsters, and vice versa.
Movies are not telling us to sympathize with our enemy. To see them as humans. To think about our actions and evaluate them before just simply shooting a zombie in the head. It doesn’t tell us that our enemies also love, laugh, and live like we do. It does not tell us to appreciate the human connection. They do not tell us that appreciating this also gives us the upper hand (the vampires leave without hurting Neville in the movie, therefore showing they are morally better and he cannot retaliate. He decides to leave them alone).
I am Legend is great, especially with the director’s cut. It shows us we are all capable of evil, and to think of our surroundings and the people we will hurt. It is a story of a group of people terrorized by a man killing their people, and the man who just didn’t know.
While I am Legend is just about a regular guy, I am Legend movie is about a Christ-like figure none of us can live up to. We did not have the connection to the enemy that we should have. In the end, we are consuming a culture of the violence of heroes to the faceless crowd of degraded enemies. I’m not saying to love your enemy, unless you want to. Just know who the enemy really is. Who knows – Maybe the Walking dead will change the trend with a zombie who remembers.
That’s all for this week, I recommend reading the book!
Tune this week for The Walking Dead week (the new episode just aired yesterday! Amazing)
After that, reading week…REST AND RELAXATION…and reading.