I Am Legend

Steven Dutch, Natural and Applied Sciences, University of Wisconsin - Green Bay
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In a daring departure from type, Will Smith plays Will Smith, the sole surviving normal human in New York City after a plague has killed 90% of the human race and turned almost all the rest into rabid zombies. One reviewer dubbed this film 28 Days Later meets Cast Away.

It starts out so promising. Genetic engineering has created a virus that attacks cancer. It has been tried in 10,000 patients. And worked in 10,000 patients. Three years later, New York (and the rest of the world) is a wasteland. The virus mutated, infecting the cancer patients with something akin to rabies. It spreads both by contact and through the air.

Smith is an Army doctor, in New York with his family at the start of the outbreak. Pretty wife, cute child (his own, by the way), cute puppy. Are we all clear the rest of the family will die? As the disease spreads, panicked hordes attempt to flee Manhattan. The Army has some sort of retinal scanner that can detect infection and screens the refugees, and it's a mob scene at the checkpoints. Smith gets his wife, child and puppy onto a helicopter, but the deadline for sealing off Manhattan arrives, and jets swoop in to blow the bridges. Another helicopter, attempting to flee panicked refugees, spins out of control and, with all that empty sky, plows into the chopper with Smith's family. Wife dead, check. Kid dead, check. Puppy? Not dead. Yet. She jumped into Smith's arms just as the doors closed.

So three years later Smith spends his days researching a cure, barricading himself against zombies at night, and waiting at South Street Seaport every day at noon in case anyone responds to the radio messages he's broadcasting. He's growing corn in a park and indulging in occasional deer hunting among the herds of deer that prowl Manhattan. Along with lions, presumably escaped from zoos. Presumably Alec has given in to his wild instincts by now and eaten Marty, Melman and Gloria. He (Smith, not Alec, although for all I know maybe Alec has, too) has converted a townhouse into a fortress, hooked up a generator, and rigged up a really spiffy basement lab where he conducts his research. We also see in one scene that gas was going for nearly seven dollars a gallon. Well if that doesn't make you rabid, nothing will.

And just like in 28 Days Later, the end of the world is so cotton pickin' neat. We do see buildings draped in plastic, presumably in a futile attempt to block contagion. But for the most part New Yorkers faced death by parking more neatly than they do in real life. Nobody set fire to skyscrapers just to see them burn. We don't see bullet riddled buildings or looted store windows. Mobs didn't storm police stations.

He's also going a little loopy. His only companion is his dog. Part of his daily routine is going to a local video store and selecting a video, and chatting with the mannequins he's placed strategically around the store. But he also is still searching for a cure, and in addition to the rats he's testing, he needs humans, or at least what used to be humans. During one of his forays, his dog chases a deer into a dark building and you just know the zombies will get the dog. Well, not yet. But he discovers a zombie "hive" and comes back to rig a snare trap. He baits it with blood and uses a falling van to yank the zombie into the air. Despite their aversion to light, another zombie comes to the door but can go no farther.

Back in the lab, Smith goes to work on the zombie after first sedating her with enough sedatives to stop a charging moose. One of his trial vaccines seemed to be working, so he injects her. Meanwhile he dictates notes, saying that all traces of human behavior seem to have disappeared and noting with puzzlement that one of the zombies actually exposed himself to daylight. The disease causes victims to lose all their hair and become ultra-sensitive to ultraviolet light.

Next day on his rounds, Smith spots one of his mannequin "friends" in an unfamiliar spot, and when he goes over to investigate, he's caught in exactly the same kind of snare he had set the day before. But the zombies can't come out and get him until dark, giving Smith time to cut himself free. Unfortunately in the fall he injures his leg and is crawling back to his van when the zombie dogs appear. They're held in check by a fast dwindling ribbon of sunlight, and when it vanishes, they come charging. Smith kills them, but not before his loyal dog gets into a fight with one and gets infected. Dog dead, check.

Smith goes out at night with vengeance on his mind and waits for the zombies. He tears his van through them repeatedly but eventually wrecks. Just as the zombies close in, a dazzling flare of light chases them away. Smith comes to in his apartment, to find his rescuers were a woman and a young boy. The woman, Anna, is from Brazil. She had been on a ship full of refugees, but when the ship put into port to gather supplies, the plague infected the ship and she was the only survivor. She heard his radio signals and found him, but said her plan was to go up to Vermont where "God told her" there was a colony of survivors. We never find out much about the kid. Apart from not trying to eat the other two and being able to tolerate daylight, he might as well be a zombie himself.

We fill in much of the story from occasional videotapes Smith plays plus the dialogue with Anna. The plague killed 90% of its victims outright and turned 98% of the rest into zombies. And despite Smith's remark about the zombies having lost all traces of humanity, they keep dogs, can set a snare trap, and are now obsessed with him (was the captured zombie the mate of the one who risked daylight? Do zombies have babies?). And thanks to Anna taking him home, now they know where he lives. And they are willing to rip through roofs and walls to get him. The three humans finally take refuge in the lab, and even the lab's sturdy door isn't enough to stop them. Finally Smith hides Anna and the boy in a cubbyhole and uses a hand grenade (he was in the Army, remember?) to kill the zombies along with himself. Anna and the boy finally reach the survivor enclave in Vermont.

The problem with post-apocalyptic films is they're post, when the really interesting story is the apocalypse itself. I don't want three Matrix movies padded with twenty minute orgies to make up for the fact that there is only enough plot for two movies. I want to see the prequel. I don't want to see people struggling to hide from dragons in Reign of Fire - I want to see how we lost the war. 28 Days Later was an interesting film, but instead of rehashing it in 28 Weeks Later (apparently so bad none of the original cast was in it), let's see what happened during the 28 days the hero was unconscious. The Terminator franchise finally figured it out. We got to see it in Independence Day (also starring Will Smith as Will Smith.)

In this movie, 0.2% of the population were immune, meaning about 12 million people globally. In the United States, that would be 600,000 people. Assuming 2 million people in Manhattan, that would mean 4000 survivors. Supposedly the zombies killed almost all of them. How? Couldn't a few hundred Manhattanites contrive an impregnable refuge? Oh, if only there were a small island nearby that could provide protection. We could even put a big statue with an upraised arm on top of it so people would know where it was. The interesting story would be the survivors trying but failing to defend themselves.

So Smith is a bit loopy, and obsessed with staying in New York because that's Ground Zero and it's his post. The NSA and CIA in their underground centers, the disease researchers at Fort Detrick, NORAD at Cheyenne Mountain, or the guys at Area 51 couldn't seal themselves off and do even more effective research? We couldn't clear and fortify Bermuda, some of the Bahamas, the Channel Islands, Hawaii, Midway, Guam? And if Vermont were safer because the virus can't tolerate cold, wouldn't much of Canada, Scandinavia or Russia be safe? We couldn't round up survivors and send them to Thule? And the survivors are immune. They've already been exposed. They can't catch the virus. As long as they stick to daylight and avoid doing dumb things, they should be able to go collect supplies.

The zombies apparently have enough reason to prepare a complex trap. So why can't they find protective clothing and sunglasses to protect them in daylight? What do they eat when they're not eating normal survivors? If 98% of the survivors are zombies, that doesn't leave a lot to go around. Why don't they eat each other? Don't zombies taste good? If animals can catch the plague, nocturnal animals should be heavily infected. Where are all the rabid zombie cats and skunks and raccoons? Rabid zombie cats. That would be different from regular cats how? What about mice? We know rats can get it because Smith was experimenting on them. Do bats get it?

Night of the Living Dead, 28 Days Later, now this. The rabid zombie thing has been done. Mined out. Time to move on.


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Created 12 March 2007;  Last Update 02 June, 2010

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