Friday, August 14, 2009

Fool's Views: LAST MAN ON EARTH, OMEGA MAN, I AM LEGEND

This week, our resident Fool (for Blood), Dr. AC, takes a look at three different screen versions of Richard Matheson's classic apocalyptic novel, I AM LEGEND. Be interested to hear your thoughts as well, true believers...


Last Man on Earth, The (1964)
“Another day to live through. Better get started.” From its opening shots of barren city landscapes littered with lifeless corpses to its bleak conclusion, the first screen version of Richard Matheson’s novel I am Legend is a downer all the way. But considering the subject matter, this is no surprise, and directors Sidney Salkow and Ubaldo Ragona are to be lauded for remaining true to Matheson’s apocalyptic spirit. Following a worldwide plague that transforms the living into vampiric undead, lone survivor Vincent Price spends his days dispatching his former friends and neighbors with wooden stakes and his nights tearfully watching home movies while the infected batter away at his barricaded home. The stark black-and-white scenes of shambling undead, some of which are former loved ones, cannot help but conjure images of George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (still four years away). Through haunting voice-over, Price projects the appropriately weary tone of a man isolated for nearly three years, torn between apathy and a base animalistic desire to survive. However, his less-than-athletic screen presence here makes him an unlikely and/or unconvincing hero at times. In the face of Uncle Vincent’s limp-wristed stake-pounding, one cannot help but imagine what Peter Cushing (once considered for the role) might have done with it. The flashback sequences of the plague’s early days never quite pack the punch they should, due to the cast’s oddly mannered acting. But with the help of a strong third-act twist, the film musters an ending both tragic and satisfying. An admirable effort overall.


Omega Man, The (1971)
A knuckleheaded blight to serious fans of the source material, a camptastic treat for others, screenwriters John William and Joyce H. Corrington turn Richard Matheson’s brilliant post-apocalypse vampire novel into a ham-fisted allegory for the societal conflicts of the late 1960s. After germ warfare starts a plague that wipes out the world populous, Charlton Heston finds himself the only “normal” human in a Los Angeles overrun by an insane cult of albino neo-Luddite barbarians (as opposed the zombie-like blood drinkers of the previous screen version, 1964’s The Last Man on Earth). To director Boris Sagal’s credit, the early scenes of Heston alternating his time between tracking the “monsters” down during the daylight hours and taking refuge in his barricaded home at night work fine. Unfortunately, the movie takes a series of wrongheaded turns after he discovers another tribe of full-on “urban flower power” survivors, led by Rosiland Cash, leading to an array of moralizing speeches, interracial makeout sessions, head scratching fashion choices and rampant Christian symbolism. Matheson’s subversive message of his protagonist having become the monster in this new world order is completely discarded, with Heston presented (as he was in 1968's Planet of the Apes) as humanity’s last best hope for survival.


I am Legend (2007)
The third screen version of Matheson’s novel is the first true “Hollywood” take on the story and the end results are thoroughly confounding. While the backstory for the plague that wipes out the world’s population is inspired (a mutated cancer cure gone terribly wrong), one wonders how and why the virus had to turn the source material’s “vampires” into hopped up, steroid-sucking CGI monsters straight out of a Stephen Sommers Mummy movie. Director Francis Lawrence and screenwriters Mark Protosevich and Akiva Goldsman pitch Matheson’s themes of hauntingly quiet desperation and “who is the monster now,” replacing them lots of whiz and bang. Taken on its own uber-Hollywood blockbuster terms, Legend delivers several mainstream crowd-pleasing set pieces (provided the crowd is not composed of fans of the book), tons of action, and oodles of shamelessly transparent manipulative screenwriting devices. However – even though he never gets dirty enough, emotionally speaking, for my tastes – Will Smith does a commendable job in a difficult role and there are several unconventional surprises (i.e. the bacon scene) that are pleasant enough in their offbeat nature to offset the gloss. The ending is too optimistic, and could have (read as: should have) gone darker, but since the whole movie maintains an element of optimism throughout, I suppose we shouldn't be surprised. Ultimately, it comes down to viewers’ individual expectations and sensibilities: Is it a satisfyingly jazzed-up action/horror offering or simply a goddawful bastardization of a terrific story, one whose faithful adaptation still awaits the light of a projector? Personally, I was and remain disappointed, but have not yet settled on the degree of my chagrin.

2 comments:

Jude W Mire said...

Interesting take on the three AC! I personally think that the first comes the closest, thematically, to the conceptually creepy points the book was trying to make. The second and third don't even attempt to become intellectually scary. The two primary ideas (1. Having to kill someone you love and 2. The whole "he is the monster" reversal thing) hasn't been done very well in many movies at all. In fact, considering the glut of zombie movies, it's surprising that in the majority, people get over killing wives, children, parents, whatever, in a completely blithe "oh well, do what you gotta" fashion. I have to give the first one serious props for trying. Oh well, maybe, just maybe, they'll get it right with a fourth attempt!

ksoli said...

Agreed - the first one is the winner as far as movies go. It gets much of the sad and most of the creepy correct. The third one wasn't very close to the story at all, though it was very sad. Specifically, though, the focus of the most recent movie suddenly became faith. In the book, the focus was on science, as a point. They pegged that in the Price movie. And poor Chuck Heston - once again, Omega Man was not very close to the Matheson story, but a fun movie nonetheless. Though I think the fun factor of Omega Man was derived almost exclusively from Heston himself, as opposed to a good story.

Now as far as the three actors (which is what I thought the question was originally, as read from Facebook :)), I'd have to say Heston could take them all. I would WANT Price to win, but I think he's just too foppish. And Smith would have youth on his side (ahem) but he's just too much of a good guy.