Erik Jaccard considers the end of the world, examining the tropes and lessons of catastrophe narratives, in his brand-new look at I Am Legend.
I initially had a very difficult time figuring out how to start this review. After a few dead end attempts at creating an engaging hook, I was reminded by fellow 10YA writer Stevi Costa that I Am Legend is really just a story about a man and his dog. This isn’t totally true, as I explain in more detail below, but it’s pretty accurate. In fact, before my most recent viewing, most of what I could remember had to do with the relationship between Will Smith and his German shepherd. Mixed in there among the mental rubble were a few impressions about CGI vampire monsters, which I remember thinking seemed very fake, and something about a quasi-happy ending. But really, everything I could remember had to do with the dog. I recalled their playful banter, wherein the dog played a variety of cutesy roles: wingman-bro, misbehaving child, and loyal and loving companion. I recalled how they would cruise around the city doing errands and fighting monsters, almost as though someone had replaced Martin Lawrence with a dog and filmed Bad Boys 3: Bad Dog! Of course, I also remembered the dog’s death: Smith looking up and away to his right while the camera stays glued to his face and he slowly strangles his erstwhile best friend to keep her from turning into a monster. I’m pretty sure I choked up at this scene in 2007 and I definitely choked up this time around—it’s by far the most affecting moment in the film, and possibly the only moment that really carries emotional weight.
But is that all there is to I Am Legend? A man and his dog? Ten years later, it’s hard to say there is a whole lot else going on. I chose it primarily because I am interested in analyzing representations of catastrophe, and then spent far too long trying to figure out why I was so disappointed with that dimension of the film. I definitely think there could, and possibly should, be more done with the catastrophe angle, but it also seems like the filmmakers were content to make this a story about one solitary survivor carrying on as best he can in the absence of genuine human connection. Conceived this way, then yeah, it’s kind of just a sad tale of canine companionship set against a broader narrative of civilizational collapse. I don’t know whether this realization makes the film better or worse ten years later. Maybe it just means that we oughtn’t to hold it to high standards when thinking of it as a post-catastrophe story, and that, instead, we should mentally re-shelve it with Old Yeller, Marley and Me, Turner & Hooch, Where the Red Fern Grows, and Dances with Wolves. Aaaaand I’m crying. I suppose that’s as good a place as any to begin talking about a man and his dog at the end of the world. You’ll forgive me if, by the end, I’ve moved on to other subjects entirely.
The film’s self-contained plot and setting make it blissfully simple to summarize. A brilliant scientist (an uncredited Emma Thompson), genetically engineers a cure for cancer which then mutates into a horrific global pandemic. Those who aren’t immediately killed transform into nocturnal, rabid creatures driven by a hyper-aggressive need to kill and destroy. Robert Neville (Will Smith), an Army Lieutenant and medical researcher, is seemingly the last man standing. Holed up in his New York City house, Neville combats solitude by living a life of clockwork precision. He spends his days attempting to find a cure for the disease, accompanied only by his loyal German shepherd, Sam, and a carefully arranged host of mannequins who serve as sad and inevitably silent stand-ins for the missing human connection that might validate his existence. At night, however, Neville must hunker down and hide from the mutated humans which roam the deserted streets. Stranded, alone, and increasingly unstable, Neville’s dedication to finding a cure is matched only by a tortured compulsion to relive the deaths of his wife and daughter, killed during the city’s evacuation. Driven to despair after his dog is infected and must be put down, Neville recklessly attempts to confront the creatures after dark and nearly succumbs, but is serendipitously rescued by another survivor, Anna (Alice Braga), and a young boy named Ethan (Charlie Tahan). The new arrivals inform Neville of a survivor colony in rural Vermont, about which the solitary Neville is skeptical. Before Neville can even overcome his doubt, the creatures, having followed the trio home the previous night, attack en masse. Driven into his basement laboratory, Neville discovers that his most recent attempt at a cure has succeeded. However, unable to escape, he sacrifices himself to save Anna and Ethan, who are shown at film’s end having made it to the survivor colony with the cure.
As you should be able to tell from this precis, the film is largely about Neville’s experience as a kind of 21st century castaway, ironically marooned in one of the former world’s most populous urban centers. The larger social dimensions to the story are, as in my summary, relegated to the margins, where they provide the thematic backdrop underscoring Neville’s isolation. This is not to say that one couldn’t comment on the specific form the film’s catastrophe takes, or on the visual methods used to communicate the sublimity of its destruction. It would be easy, for example, to see a familiar argument about human arrogance, myopia, or hubris in the scientific community’s quest to overcome disease and death by meddling with biological processes they don’t fully understand. The film also seems to take a certain satisfaction, at least at first, in the visual representation of a demolished and ecologically reclaimed New York City. The opening shot of Neville racing down an abandoned avenue to the eerily silent scenes which follow—of Neville hunting, ‘shopping,’ or hitting golf balls off an aircraft carrier—all seem designed to highlight the unstable compound of terror and fascination produced by social collapse. The point is that in I Am Legend these elements are not, themselves, the point, but rather the sociohistorical texture against which the film embeds Neville’s tale of survival.
If I’m being honest, I remember being underwhelmed by the film’s generic survival-hero plot in 2007. This was partly due to my own prejudices and predilections. I’m not a detail-oriented person and I consistently trade—both personally and academically—in bigger-picture concepts and historical currents. That just seems to be the way my brain works. So in 2007 I naturally wanted more of the backstory, more history and society, and less Will Smith surviving against all odds. However, I also think that I was just bored with a story I’d seen so many times before. Stripped of its fairly flimsy catastrophic background, I Am Legend is really just Cast Away (or, if we’re being accurate, Robinson Crusoe) set in NYC, and it does very little to set itself apart in relation to either the castaway or catastrophe genres it draws on. The mannequins Neville arranges around town are a mute chorus of Wilson volleyballs and the dog his loyal manservant Friday. Furthermore, instead of allowing the dramatic potential of the post-catastrophe setting—an urban landscape being slowly reclaimed by nature—to assume a character all its own, the film frames it as a typical generic topos. The same could be said for the virus which decimates the human population and the sub-human monsters to which that population is reduced. The one is treated only summarily, in flashback sequences of frenzied mobs dotted here and there with bloodshot, feverish eyes; the other seems one of the worst examples of digital effects excess, all cartoonish demons disfigured by the performances of rage I’d expect to see in a contemporary horror video game.
In 2007 I didn’t realize that this reduction of narrative space—from a whole world to one man’s struggle to find meaning—is precisely the point. It’s not Neville vs. the virus or Neville vs. the monsters, but rather Neville vs. himself. Or, as the film’s Bob Marley-inspired refrain—“Light up the Darkness”—would have it, Neville against the slowly encroaching nothingness to which he has been reduced in the absence of others. This is where the dog comes into play most forcefully; Sam isn’t just Neville’s most favorite doggie friend because she’s also an anthropomorphized cipher for humanity, a weak, flickering connection to a sense of self Neville feels slowly slipping away. So, it’s doubly traumatic when Sam dies because, well, she’s cute and a character in her own right, but also because her role in the story is probably more significant than the dog itself. As I discuss below, there’s a wearying and fairly common human arrogance to this pose which goes some way toward fleshing out the meaning of the film’s catastrophe if we let it. But before that, let’s talk about catastrophe and gender for a bit.
There is little point in wondering what might have been, but re-watching I Am Legend in 2017 nonetheless got me thinking about the catastrophe narrative’s reliance on masculine heroism. Catastrophe narratives—or, at least, the British ones the American tradition derives from—emerge at the confluence of other popular genres—the scientific romance, the imperial romance, and the boy’s adventure story—in the late nineteenth century era of High Imperialism. The imperial romance, best exemplified by the novels of H. Rider Haggard, tends to depict traditional heroic quests for fame and wealth set against the backdrop of colonial expansion. Here, the hero leaves the decadent imperial metropolis and ventures to the wilds of some colonial locale where, in the process of finding the gold or what have you, they reassert a lost masculine virility by rescuing heroines and reestablishing their superiority over the local native population. Victorian boy’s adventure stories, often associated with the work of John David Wyss, Frederick Marryat and R.L. Ballantyne, translate the ‘adult’ adventure genre into literature designed primarily to be consumed by children, most often depicting groups of young boys battling pirates and ‘savages’ in the colonial wild, reasserting a similar masculine dominance in both figurative and literal miniature. These genres are products of their time, to be sure, but their ideological priorities—the way they structure power relations between peoples and genders—leech into and inform similar priorities in the twentieth century catastrophe narrative.
For instance, masculine catastrophes more often than not assume that a primary condition of post-catastrophic life will be the violent struggle for survival, which in turn is often analogized as a struggle to remain civilized or human. Yet, more often than not, catastrophes unconsciously naturalize a masculine reading of the civilized or human by conflating conventionally masculine constructs with human ones. This is an assumption I Am Legend reproduces in its depiction of Neville’s conflict with the monsters, who he sees as a symbolic collective adversary he must will himself to defeat, and also with the greater natural world that no longer recognizes his implicit superiority. We might also see it in his fear that he has abandoned the family for whom he was meant to provide, and in film’s predictable act of narrative closure, when he is allowed to sacrifice his life and therefore absolve himself of his wife and daughter’s deaths. It is perhaps most obvious in the closing resolution, where we are told via Anna’s voiceover that all we have seen is prequel to the founding of a new human world, and that Neville’s story will be its titular “legend.” This last gesture in particular demands that we see Neville’s story as foundational, in terms of the ideological markers it reproduces from the former world, as well as in the ‘new’ conditions it establishes for the world to come.
One might realistically object that there is little point in criticizing a film for what it isn’t trying to do. In 2007 I didn’t pick up on I Am Legend’s implicit acceptance of masculine heroism. Even if I had, I probably would have put it down to the fact that the film is adapting a mid-20th century American novella whose hero is also male. But in 2017, in the midst of a great awakening of female power and influence in Hollywood and beyond, I couldn’t help but wonder what the story might be like were there to be a female lead. I don’t know whether reworking an established story with a female lead or cast (a lá Ghostbusters (2016) or the upcoming Ocean’s 8 (2018)) actually lends itself to fresh perspectives. But I’ve read a couple of female-authored catastrophe novels recently—Alexandra Oliva’s The Last One (2016) and Jo Furniss’s All the Little Children (2017)—which suggest at least the possibility of fresh perspectives, even if only because the texts bring a new constellation of gendered social constructs into play on old terrain. At the more obvious levels, both reframe women as powerful survivors, which is important in a world which too often ideologically constructs them as naturally weak and therefore incapable of conventional heroism. But more than just saying ‘women can be heroes, too,’ they also ask us to reconsider what we mean by that word, what acts are ultimately heroic and, at times, how gendered perceptions of self and others lead us to exclude or marginalize forms of heroism which fall outside our received understanding.
There’s this fascinating bit in Alasdair Gray’s Lanark: A Life in Four Books (1981), where one of the text’s two main protagonists, an adolescent artist named Duncan Thaw, dreams longingly of a life in a deserted post-catastrophic lowland Scotland. He watches the vines creep over Glasgow landmarks with a detached glee and goes running about doing all of the things he could never do as part of an actually existing human society. One day, while painting a landscape of the Crags from Edinburgh’s Holyrood Palace courtyard, a figure appears on the horizon and approaches him, filling him with a sour dread. As she approaches, Thaw takes out a gun and shoots her, restoring an ironic equanimity to his solitary world. The scene underscores two important points. First, it illuminates the perverse pleasure we often take in depictions of post-catastrophic isolation, where disaster allows us to imagine a life free of the constraints social contracts put on our liberty. It frames freedom as freedom from other people and individual consciousness as the primary basis for existence and meaning. However, the novel’s broader social critique forces us to examine Thaw’s joyous solitude skeptically, as instead representing a defensive posture which denies the fundamental truth that our existence and meaning derives from relations with others. This is why he must shoot the woman who approaches him; to admit her into his world is to allow her to lay claim to his recognition and, in doing so, to acknowledge that she, too, must recognize him if he is to meaningfully exist.
One of the more interesting social dimensions catastrophe narratives enable us to examine is who we really are when we strip away the material foundation propping up our existence. This can work on a national or communal level—as in the English catastrophe stories I wrote about in my PhD thesis—or it can work on an individual level, as with Robert Neville’s tortured, lonely existence in I Am Legend. What the latter goes to pains to communicate is that we are nothing when removed from the mutual back and forth that comes of needing to exist in the same psychosomatic space as others. For much of the film—at least until Anna and Ethan arrive—Neville tries desperately to maintain a sense of self without anyone else there to verify that he exists. He taped television broadcasts and music from before, both of which lend his world a comforting white noise of human activity. He’s got the dog, who I’ve already mentioned he tends to humanize in order to make her presence more effective for his needs. And he’s got his mannequin friends. In fact, Smith’s interpersonal isolation is probably easiest to see in the scene immediately following Sam’s death, where Neville implores one of the mannequins—a woman he’d promised Sam he would ‘ask out’—to talk to him. For a lot of the film, Smith is mostly playing a muted version of his stock film persona, but in these back-to-back scenes he manages to fully and memorably inhabit Neville’s desperate grief without falling prey to the maudlin or melodramatic. But socially speaking, Neville exists, like Duncan Thaw in Gray’s Lanark, sickeningly out of relation. Everything in the world is him and he is everything in the world.
One might counter that the film’s mutant villains serve to reestablish some sense of the Other for Neville, but I don’t think so. In Richard Matheson’s original 1954 novella, this is true, as a post-human race of beings that are partly immune to the virus emerge as a biological competitor and actually usurp Neville’s—and, thus, humanity’s—dominance. There is a case to be made, however, that in the film the monsters are nothing more than an inverted humanity, a somewhat simple, vulgar representation of a destructive and repressed darkness which must be externalized and conquered. There are a couple of possible reference points for such a reading. For instance, we could see Neville’s dedication to scientific rationalism as expressing the darkness at the heart of Adorno and Horkheimer’s Dialectic of Enlightenment, where the drive to enlighten through the pursuit of knowledge and power indicates an ironically barbaric will to myth. We are treated to a number of scenes where Neville, obsessed with finding a cure for the disease, experiments on rats in cages and, then, on one of the dark seekers, attempting to ‘know’ the disease and thus defeat it. Reading in this vein transforms the disease into a symptom of a larger malady affecting the modern industrial capitalist world: In our attempt to know and innovate and expand and conquer darkness, we put the world in a cage so that we can study it, know it, and conquer it. Given that we are part of the natural world, this means that when we think we’re taming the world ‘out there,’ we’re actually only disfiguring ourselves. This leaves the monsters signifying that which we cannot admit: there is only one world and we are only a small, highly destructive fraction of it. In our attempts to ‘light up the darkness,’ we ironically dampen the flame. Thus, when Neville dourly admits that “Social de-evolution appears complete. Typical human behavior is now entirely absent. They have become truly monstrous—they no longer care about their own survival,” we must wonder whether he’s actually talking about some silly CGI monsters, or whether the real object of this criticism is ourselves.