Imagine New York City without the crowds. No queues for Broadway shows. No sardine-packed subways. No hustle and bustle in Times Square—except, of course, for the occasional herd of deer.
It’s not as great as it sounds. Trust Robert Neville on that point.
The year is 2012, and Robert is the last fully human resident in New York—perhaps in the world. Nearly everyone else was killed three years earlier by a horrific mutation of what was supposed to be a cure for cancer. Those who didn’t die outright turned into hairless, hungry monsters—light-loathing, zombified, vampiric creatures that hunt anything that moves.
Robert, a military scientist, is immune to the disease, and he spends much of his time developing vaccines—using his own blood as the core ingredient—that he hopes will cure his sunlight-phobic neighbors. He’s not had much luck: All of his less-than-willing subjects have died.
In his spare time, Robert whiles away the daylight by cooking, washing his dog, Sam, and going on inner-city hunting expeditions. He watches DVDs, too—regularly trekking down to the local rental store and chatting with the mannequins he’s placed there. Every day, he broadcasts that he’ll spend high noon at the seaport off East River Drive, where he desperately hopes another living soul will find him.
[It’s impossible to discuss this film’s content without spoiling certain plot twists. So this review occasionally does so.]
They say man’s best friend is his dog. This is particularly true in Robert’s case, because his only companion is his German shepherd. He gently scolds Sam when she doesn’t eat her veggies. And he sometimes sleeps with her in the bathtub when the vampirish racket outside gets too frightening. He’s completely committed to her safety and well-being.
When Sam runs into a dark warehouse, Robert follows—even though he knows that vampires congregate in dark places like this, and his chances of surviving go down with each passing minute. “I gotta go, Sam,” he hisses in the darkness. “I gotta go.” But he doesn’t—not until he finds the dog and battles a beastie or two.
Robert shows the same dedication and tenacity in his work. In flashback mode, we learn that Robert had a chance to escape the city to “safety,” but instead sent his wife and daughter away while he stayed behind. “I can still fix this,” he tells his wife. Three years later, he’s still trying to fix things.
Robert eventually encounters other survivors and finds his cure—though only after he’s hopelessly cornered by a horde of vampires. He gives the vaccine to one of the survivors, tells her to hide in a secure shaft until daylight and then faces the vampires.
I Am Legend is, at its core, a surprisingly sophisticated—but grim—rumination on faith and sacrifice. Robert is something of a Christ-like figure, whose work to “save” the city’s mutants lasts three years and requires, literally, an outpouring of his own blood and the sacrifice of his own life. The comparison is made more explicit by a magazine cover, hung on Robert’s refrigerator with a magnet, that depicts Robert in full military garb and the word “Savior” written beside him. Someone—most likely Robert—apparently added a chalky question mark beside the word.
Robert is also a doubting everyman whose life is filled with pain and his world with creatures that want to eat him. His Job-like trials bring him to the breaking point when he finally encounters another survivor, Anna. She tells Robert that it was God’s will they should meet. “If we listen, you can hear God’s plan,” she says.
“There is no God!” he shouts. “There is no God!”
Then, when things are at their darkest, Robert seems to change his mind—and proceeds to make the ultimate sacrifice.
Telltale spiritual touchstones are scattered throughout the film. The shape of a butterfly is used to hint at the fact that even the most ugly things—the vampires—can be made whole and beautiful again. Posters pasted onto now-vacant buildings read, “God still loves us.” Before Robert’s family separates, they pray. When Anna rescues Robert from the vampires, we see a cross dangling from her rearview mirror. A bucolic colony of survivors looks almost Amish, and an old-fashioned whitewashed church is the colony’s most notable landmark. When Anna looks at the photos of Robert’s experimental subjects—all of whom died—she exclaims, “My God!” “God didn’t do this, Anna,” Robert says. “We did.”
The film casts the late reggae artist Bob Marley as something of a spiritual sage, with Robert quoting him as saying, among other things, “Light up the darkness.” It’s Marley’s “Redemption Song” that plays as the credits roll.
One vacant house has a pair of artsy, black-and-white ink drawings of nude females. The last subject Robert “collects” is—or was—obviously female; it wears a revealing tank top over its grey, almost transparent skin. Robert shows off his built physique by exercising without a shirt.
After he places his wife and daughter on a rescue helicopter, Robert helplessly watches them crash into another out-of-control chopper. (The scene cuts before the actual collision, but not before we see one body fall to the river below.) Robert shoots down a misplaced mannequin and, in a panic, pours bullets into several nearby windows. He then gets snared by a sophisticated trap that leaves him hanging upside down several feet above the ground. When he saws through the cord holding him, he falls—his knife blade embedding itself into his thigh. A lion kills a deer in Times Square.
As for the vampires themselves, they’re limber and fast, and they strike with lethal, animalistic quickness. One sinks its teeth into Robert’s neck and shoulder and shakes him around like a dog with a sofa cushion. Horrific mutated dogs attack Robert and Sam with wicked zeal. And a vampire begins to crawl into Robert’s car window with the intention of eating him. A mass of vampires crash repeatedly into a barrier of Plexiglas.
More often than not, though, the creatures get worse than they give. Robert shoots several, firing five or six times into their bodies. When Robert lunges out a window with a vampire on his back, the thing—now exposed to sunlight—flops about on the ground in agony before it dies. Robert captures a vampire to experiment on by knocking it out with his gun. Furious, frantic and at the end of his rope (possibly attempting suicide), he mows down dozens with his SUV. And, when the vampires attack his residence, we discover that he’s ringed his home with explosives, which he detonates—thereby killing several more. He blows up another batch with a grenade.
The hardest bit of violence to watch comes after Sam is mauled by an infected dog. Robert carries his bloodied companion to his car and takes her to the lab, where he injects her with the newest trial vaccine. He then sits on the floor and holds the dog on his lap, singing to her—until her hair starts to come off in clumps and she begins to breathe heavily, a sign she’s about to turn very bad. When Sam lunges for Robert’s face, Robert holds her by her neck and strangles her. The camera focuses on Robert’s anguished, tear-streaked face as we hear the dog gasp and scratch and struggle for life.
A couple of misuses of both Jesus’ and God’s names. Robert says “h—” and “d–n” about three times apiece.
Robert takes a handful of unidentified (presumably pain) pills the morning after he accidentally stabs himself.
Robert pilfers pretty much anything he needs or wants. But everyone he’s “stealing” from is either dead or not in need of canned tomato paste. This raises a dilemma that goes something like this: “If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” Or, more precisely in this case, “If you’re the only human left on Earth, is it wrong to eat food from the grocery store without paying?” Interestingly, Robert actually makes a point of returning the movies he “checks out” from the video store. (Probably so he can hang out with those cute mannequins.)
I Am Legend is based on a 1954 Richard Matheson sci-fi novel of the same name. The book has inspired at least two other films, The Last Man on Earth starring Vincent Price and The Omega Man starring Charlton Heston.
Despite the book’s popularity in Hollywood, neither those first two adaptations nor this most recent one have been completely faithful to Matheson’s novel. That story forces readers to mull, at least for a bit, whether Robert might be as monstrous as his enemies—the new race of vampires to whom the day-walking human is their version of the bogeyman.
This Will Smith-fronted tale is all about heroism, selfless sacrifice and final redemption. An enterprising movie buff might even be able to craft an I Am Legend devotional from it.
And such a tome might even sell reasonably well. Assuming, that is, its intended audience doesn’t flee in terror. Because I Am Legend is both stark and disturbing. Robert’s sense of isolation and loneliness is painfully palpable. And on top of the loads of violence, the film’s scariest moments take place when audiences can’t see anything at all. It’s heartbreaking and horrible and very, very creepy.
So, on second thought, forget about that devotional. This film has a few things going for it, spiritually speaking, but when folks make their way to the exits afterwards, they’re not going to be pondering the nature of redemption: They’ll be thinking about poor ol’ Sam, checking their rearview mirrors for vampires and locking their doors extra tight when they get home.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.