Directed by Francis Lawrence, this film is (very loosely) based on the brilliant 1954 horror novel of the same name by Richard Matheson. (The novel was also the inspiration for 1964’s The Last Man on Earth starring Vincent Price and 1971’s The Omega Man, starring Charlton Heston. I may also do a double-review of these films in the future, if I’m feeling sassy.) Both the film and the novel follow the plight of Robert Neville, the possible sole survivor of a terrible pandemic that turns its victims into vampire-like monsters. In the novel, the plague is tied to dust storms and swarms of mosquitoes that wreak havoc across America after a war in Panama. In the film, the pandemic is caused by a measles virus that has been genetically re-engineered to fight cancer and soon mutates into a contact- and airborne virus which rapidly overwhelms the country, killing 90% of the population and turning 9% of those who survived into vampiric predators that mostly come out at night … mostly. 1% of the population turns out to be immune to the virus, including Dr. Robert Neville (Will Smith), U.S. Army virologist and former Fresh Prince. Neville spends his time in an abandoned and desolate New York City bathing his dog in his heavily locked-down Washington Square home and experimenting on live subjects (of the rat and vampire variety) in a desperate search for the cure. His backstory is gradually unveiled via flashbacks throughout the film, and we learn that the epidemic spread quickly, resulting in the military quarantine of New York City from which his family fled.
The film opens with footage from a news report filmed pre-apocalypse, which gives us the necessary background on the re-engineered virus without having to awkwardly shoehorn in it during expository dialogue, an approach that I appreciated. The film also uses the device of having Neville record his experimental findings in order to tell us more about the virus and his findings – with Neville being the lone human throughout the vast majority of the film, it saves us from having to deal with voiceover. Through his vlogs, we learn that Neville is immune to both airborne and contact strains, while canines are immune to airborne only. As Neville’s best and only friend is his German Shepherd, Sam, this doesn’t bode well.
The film is about loneliness more than it is about vampires. For the first two acts, the real horror of the story is Neville’s palpable isolation – the vampires only come out at night (which is, incidentally, the same time that self-doubt and existential fears tend to appear) and are rarely seen. He is hugely dependent on Sam for companionship, keeping up a continuous one-sided conversation with him. His bond with Sam is intense; in one scene, he lovingly shampoos the dog while chiding him for not finishing his vegetables at dinner, and ordering him to eat a double portion the next day. To further combat his isolation, Neville populates his neighbourhood with a series of mannequins posed as though they live and work in the area, and greets them by name. He humanizes them to the point where he has an ongoing “conversation” with Sam about when he will work up the courage to say hello to a specific female mannequin he has placed in a video store. When he hallucinates that a mysteriously misplaced mannequin has turned its head to look at him, he becomes frantic, pleading with it to speak to him before spraying it with bullets. At his lowest and most desperate point, he returns to the video store and begs the female mannequin return his hello, weeping when she does not respond. Will Smith’s performance is strong throughout the film but is at its best in the moments of quiet, broken desperation and hopelessness.
Apart from the woeful CGI (oh, 2007. You tried so hard), the film looks good. The abandoned streets of Manhattan are beginning to be overtaken by foliage, and there are some very nice helicopter shots of the empty city streets. The vital importance of sunlight to the story means that we get some beautiful, light-drenched shots of the setting sun, as well as a nail-bitingly tense sequence in a very dark building. It is in this building that we get our first terrible, harrowing glimpse of the monsters. Although later shots in brighter light reveal the shortcomings of the period’s CGI technology, this initial view of the vampires is perfect – it looks good, it’s perfectly timed and executed, and it’s a fantastic pay-off. Apart from this scene, the vampires are the least interesting part of the film. One particular vampire (known as Alpha Male) emerges to take on the role of primary antagonist to Neville, a sort of analogue to the character of Ben Cortman in the novel. However, as Ben Cortman was acquainted with Neville prior to his transformation, his role as nemesis carries far more emotional weight than that of the random Alpha Male in the film.
Neville’s search for the cure is an urgent quest to create meaning in the senseless destruction wrought by the virus. “I’m not leaving. This is Ground Zero. This is my site. I’m not going to let this happen” he says, as though the “this” to which he refers hasn’t already happened. He clings resolutely to his identity as the famed military doctor who is meant to save the world; a cure means hope and a future, while the continued reign of the vampires is viewed as a nihilistic defeat. This is a very interesting idea that the book explores but the film does not: if the world now belongs to the vampires, does that not make Neville himself the interloper? Apparently, an alternate ending of the film touched on this idea but was nixed for a more straightforward denouement that didn’t address these ethical concerns, which is a true pity. As it stands, the film really does sidestep the final message of Matheson’s text. Perhaps the rumoured reboot will be a little more faithful to the themes of the novel?
Score: 6 out of 10 badly rendered CGI lions.
- Oh god, the adorable matching treadmills for Neville and Sam. I die.
- The diegetic Bob Marley soundtrack actually works really well with the tone of the film.
- The Shrek scene. The brilliant, brilliant Shrek scene where he handily disarms the wary Anna as she attempts to gauge his emotional state. A great, light moment in an often very heavy film.
- I love that the scene explaining the anti-racist philosophy of Bob Marley as a virologist one made the cut. Such a small moment, but one that felt really organic, nuanced, and real.