I Am Legend

The clash with Alpha Male upturns the film's preceding focus on a Neville-only present.

I Am Legend

Director: Francis Lawrence
Cast: Will Smith, Alice Braga, Salli Richardson-Whitfield, Willow Smith, Charlie Tahan
MPAA rating: PG-13
Studio: Warner Brothers
First date: 2007
UK Release Date: 2007-12-26 (General release)
US Release Date: 2007-12-14 (General release)

About halfway through I Am Legend, Will Smith is hanging upside down. The plot point that puts him there involves his designated enemy, a Gollumized "dark-seeker," a human made insane, very speedy, and cannibalistic by a supposed cancer vaccine. This monstrous "Alpha Male," embodied pre-digitization by Dash Mihok, has here evolved beyond mere grunting, hunting, and flesh-ripping, in order to rig a snare, complete with ingenious bait, to flip Smith's Robert Neville into the air by a rope around his ankle. As Neville gapes and writhes, the movie arrives at a turning point: now the human is not the only one devising traps and making plans.

Neville upside down serves as apt metaphor for his and the film's new situation. The clash with Alpha Male upturns the film's preceding focus on a Neville-only present. Until now, he's been the only sentient being in sight, accompanied everywhere by his faithful German shepherd Sam, keeping fit on his treadmill and keeping track of what he calls "his" site, the city left to him. He's developed a system for searching apartments and stores for supplies, then marking each off on a block-by-block map. Each morning he picks up and returns DVDs from a local shop he's populated with mannequins, each day he hauls out a super-scope rifle to hunt the deer running through debris-strewn city streets, and each evening he returns to his fortified townhouse on Washington Square before dark, because, of course, that's when the dark-seekers emerge, looking for him.

Identified by a Time magazine cover he conveniently keeps on his refrigerator door, Colonel Neville was once touted as a combination "soldier," "scientist," and potential "savior." He keeps up the potential by regularly descending into his lab top conduct experiments on rats, most showing signs of infection, red eyes and deadly aggression. Amid all his orderly records-keeping, Neville also hopes for change, sending out a radio signal each day in hopes of soliciting a fellow survivor to join him at long last.

As affecting as these scenes of Neville Alone may be -- and Smith appears suitably brawny and strained -- the film also cuts back and forth in time (much like Castaway did more than a decade ago), providing him with some human company as well as manifest motivation for his fierce research. In flashback, he sends his wife (Salli Richardson) and young daughter (Willow Smith) away on a helicopter just as New York City is "sealed off": the military blows up bridges and keeps armed guard on the raggedy, increasingly red-eyed population left behind. As his wife smiles bravely during lift-off, Neville insists that he remain at "Ground Zero" in order to "fix it," to make right what went wrong ("Daddy's gonna make the monsters go away," he promises his little girl, who may or may not believe him). It's never clear how Neville comes to feel such responsibility. The film begins with a 2009 TV "Health Desk" interview: Dr. Krippen (Emma Thompson), officious and optimistic, extols her cure for cancer. "Three years later," a caption reads, the cure has become a virus with either lethal or monster-making effects. The inexplicably immune Neville's devotion remains at his site, thus making him look like the Last Man on Earth (the title of the Vincent Price version of Richard Matheson's 1954 novel), or at least in New York. Its 2001 Ground Zero-ness is now expanded to take up the entire island: buildings covered in plastic make for an eerie effect as the camera passes overhead, the structures simultaneously unbending and undulating. Every morning, military virologist Neville watches recordings of the Today Show, Ann Curry and Matt (oddly, no Meredith) reporting trivia, reminding all of us of naïve olden days. If his ferocious optimism is marked by the song he plays again and again (Marley's "Three Little Birds"), Neville is, in effect, defeated, again and again, by the "elegant" Krippen virus.

As Alpha Male (who brings along his own pack o' dogs, vicious and inexorable) embodies that defeat, granting the film high-powered action sequences and leading his minions to smash windows and claw through rooftops. Here and elsewhere, the film pays appropriate homage to other post-apocalyptic flicks (including the obvious mimicking of 28 Days Later's infected and a shot of Neville and Sam roaring through town in a GT500, the dog's trusting glance over at his human lifted from an iconic image in Road Warrior), while also specifically locating this post-apocalyptic imagining now.

In part, this historical specificity has to do with fears of biological warfare and hordes of faceless Al-qaeda operatives in "file footage," scaling walls and conducting endless drills in the desert. But Neville's personal conflict with Alpha Male (who occasions I Am Legend's standard masculine action) is also more abstract and more interesting, in that the colonel's seeming selflessness, his self-deemed heroic efforts, are mostly ineffective: Alpha Male ascends, visibly and forever enraged, while Neville descends, hiding in the literal basement. Even when Neville believes he has found a way to "save" the mutants, they can no longer comprehend him, their descent into dreams of vengeance and violence irreversible, their previous selves lost, utterly.

Still, the film cannot brook such hopelessness. And so it introduces another term -- in addition to the masculine embodiments of raging physicality and raging intellect -- another unlikely survivor, Anna (Alice Braga, the perfect object Angélica in City of God), who brings with her a silent boy, Ethan (Charlie Tahan). She insists on the efficacy of faith, preaching that her answer to Neville's call is ordained, not to mention a last option following the catastrophic and complete failures of scientific, military, and civilian authorities.

Neville's resistance to such a "solution" has everything to do with his own faith -- in himself, in his training, in his mission to remain at the site. And this resistance is tied up with Smith, whether upside down and right side up. By now an established SF movie hero, he has helped to change the genre's conception of race and difference. Here the difference between hero and monster is broadly raced (human and other) but also specifically raced. If "Three Little Birds" is no longer a particular marker of Neville's blackness (what with reggae's renowned border-crossing), it does mark his difference from previous action and SF heroes (the Omega Man, for instance, would not select this track, and neither would Mad Max). Facing down a body-slamming, wholly inarticulate Alpha Male, Neville appeals to their shared humanity, even though it's obvious: the damage of difference has been done.


To be a migrant worker in America is to relearn the basic skills of living. Imagine doing that in your 60s and 70s, when you thought you'd be retired.

Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century

Publisher: W. W. Norton
Author: Jessica Bruder
Publication date: 2017-09

There's been much hand-wringing over the state of the American economy in recent years. After the 2008 financial crisis upended middle-class families, we now live with regular media reports of recovery and growth -- as well as rising inequality and decreased social mobility. We ponder what kind of future we're creating for our children, while generally failing to consider who has already fallen between the gaps.

Keep reading... Show less

The World of Captain Beefheart: An Interview with Gary Lucas and Nona Hendryx

Gary Lucas and Nona Hendryx (photo © Michael DelSol courtesy of Howlin' Wuelf Media)

Guitarist and band leader Gary Lucas and veteran vocalist Nona Hendryx pay tribute to one of rock's originals in this interview with PopMatters.

From the opening bars of "Suction Prints", we knew we had entered The World of Captain Beefheart and that was exactly where we wanted to be. There it was, that unmistakable fast 'n bulbous sound, the sudden shifts of meter and tempo, the slithery and stinging slide guitar in tandem with propulsive bass, the polyrhythmic drumming giving the music a swing unlike any other rock band.

Keep reading... Show less

From Haircut 100 to his own modern pop stylings, Nick Heyward is loving this new phase of his career, experimenting with genre with the giddy glee of a true pop music nerd.

In 1982, Nick Heyward was a major star in the UK.

As the leader of pop sensations Haircut 100, he found himself loved by every teenage girl in the land. It's easy to see why, as Haircut 100 were a group of chaps so wholesome, they could have stepped from the pages of Lisa Simpson's "Non-Threatening Boys" magazine. They resembled a Benetton knitwear advert and played a type of quirky, pop-funk that propelled them into every transistor radio in Great Britain.

Keep reading... Show less

Kehr was one of the best long-form essay writers people read for clear and sometimes brutally honest indictments of film.

It's perhaps too trite and rash to conclude that the age of good, cogent film criticism is over. They still exist out there, always at print publications such as The New Yorker and at major newspapers like The New York Times. An argument can be made that the late, legendary film critic Roger Ebert became a better writer when he departed from cinema and covered literature, book collecting, or even the simplest pleasures of life. If we look at the film criticism of James Agee from the '40s, or even the short but relevant stint of novelist and short story writer Graham Greene as a film critic, we come to understand that the greatest writing about film went beyond the spectrum of what they saw on the screen.
Keep reading... Show less

This book offers a poignant and jarring reminder not just of the resilience of the human spirit, but also of its ability to seek solace in the materiality of one's present.

Marcelino Truong launched his autobiographical account of growing up in Saigon during the Vietnam War with the acclaimed graphic novel Such a Lovely Little War: Saigon 1961-63, originally published in French in 2012 and in English translation in 2016. That book concluded with his family's permanent relocation to London, England, as the chaos and bloodshed back home intensified.

Now Truong continues the tale with Saigon Calling: London 1963-75 (originally published in French in 2015), which follows the experiences of his family after they seek refuge in Europe. It offers a poignant illustration of what life was like for a family of refugees from the war, and from the perspective of young children (granted, Truong's family were a privileged and upper class set of refugees, well-connected with South Vietnamese and European elites). While relatives and friends struggle to survive amid the bombs and street warfare of Vietnam, the displaced narrator and his siblings find their attention consumed by the latest fashion and music trends in London. The book offers a poignant and jarring reminder not just of the resilience of the human spirit, but also of its ability to seek solace in the materiality of one's present.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.