In 1954 Richard Matheson published I Am Legend, and since its original run it has been adapted for film a total of four times; The Last Man on Earth (1964), The Omega Man (1971), I Am Legend (2007) and the unofficial fourth I Am Omega (also released in 2007).
In this article I will look at probably the two most notable and my favoured adaptations; the 1971 film starring Charlton Heston and the 2007 version starring Will Smith.
There are a number of critical differences between these two adaptations, most notably the critical and financial reactions to each film. 1971’s The Omega Man was almost universally panned by critics and currently holds a 59% rotten rating on rotten tomatoes, despite eventually turning a profit.
The 2007 version I Am Legend proved to be a lot more successful, both financially and critically, winning numerous awards. I had always wondered why the more recent adaptation had proved more successful than the Charlton Heston entry, and today I will decide for myself.
The Omega Man
Set in 1977, The Omega Man depicts the story of Robert Neville (the same character used in both the original book and I Am Legend) living in a very eerie Los Angeles after a nuclear war between the People’s Republic of China and the Soviet Union has decimated life on earth.
He is opposed by a group of fellow survivors, who, rather than retain their normal state, have drastically mutated into pale skinned creatures who prefer to be referred to as “the family”. In the book, these characters were basically vampires, whereas in the film they merely can’t see in the light due to their poor eyesight.
Neville spends his days collecting useful items, and hunting down The Family. The first 45 minutes of the film alone are dedicated to going into detail about his daily routine and the things he does to stop himself from going mad, one of which is watching Woodstock again and again, much like Will Smith does with Shrek, in the later adaptation. Other things are done to put emphasis on Neville’s inevitable madness, such as phones ringing even though they can’t possibly be.
Heston portrays the role brilliantly, and although it’s nothing too different from what we’ve seen him do in previous science fiction films of the late 60s and early 70s (such as Planet of the Apes and Soylent Green) it’s definitely Heston at the height of his career.
It isn’t long before Neville is captured by the Family (led by a former news caster named Matthias, who is portrayed by Anthony Zerbe), and he is put on a very unusual trial which begins with him being tied to a bed, and ends with him being carried away in a cart, and being strung to a pile of wood in order to be burnt (very Wicker Man-esque).
It becomes clear that The Family want him dead because the religion their society follows deems Neville to be evil. This has strong social ideologies, very notable in the original book, but later discarded in the Will Smith edition.
Neville is soon rescued by a woman named Lisa, who lives just outside the city with a group of children who were young enough to build up an immunity to the infection that killed the rest of civilisation. It quickly becomes clear however, that Lisa’s brother Richie is contracting the virus, and Neville is quick to whisk him to his apartment in order to perform numerous exams and tests on him in the hope of finding a cure.
Neville begins administering a cure to Richie, and becomes involved in a relationship with Lisa, however, his hope is soon shattered when Richie goes to Matthias in order to propose that the family take the serum so they can be “normal”, which to say the least, doesn’t go down particularly well.
Neville goes searching for Richie, and eventually finds his corpse hanging from a rope. This sends Neville into a blind rage, and he pursues the family in order to kill every last one of them. This results in a moment where I truly feared for Neville’s – life when he crashes his jeep and encounters The Family, firing his gun wildly and killing as many as possible.
A hollow victory – when he is finally reunited with Lisa, he sadly discovers that she has joined The Family. This really made my jaw drop after my first viewing; I had my suspicions that they would do this, but I really was surprised when Lisa unravelled her head dress and sunglasses to reveal white hair and scarred skin.
As the film draws to a close, Matthias takes over Neville’s apartment, and as he attempts to escape, Matthias hurls a spear which pierces Neville’s chest, sending him plunging into a fountain (it was the kind of dramatic moment every film should have). The family leave Neville for dead.
When the children from Lisa’s old house show up, they find Neville clinging to life and he gives them the vaccine before collapsing into a Christ-like position, and dying. This seemed like a noble sacrifice to me, and more justified than Will Smith’s death…but more on that shortly!
I like this film. It’s nothing too original or different from other science-fiction films of the 70s, and it does have a cringe-inducing soundtrack, but it definitely retains a place in my list of favourites.
I Am Legend
I won’t lie, being such a committed Charlton Heston fan, I was instantly hesitant about seeing I Am Legend the first time round, but I gave it a chance. My doubts were ultimately confirmed about this piece, and in the two years since its release I have actually stated on a number of occasions that I “despise” this film. This may seem harsh, and a little extreme, but hear me out!
Among I Am Legend‘s many differences to The Omega Man, the most obvious is the fact that the illness that wiped out the human race was created in a completely different way. Rather than biological warfare, teh apocalypse was brought on by the creation of the cure for cancer, which sadly went a little awry.
Robert Neville (this time portrayed by Will Smith) is the last known survivor, living in an abandoned and desolate New York City.
Smith faces a similar nemesis to Heston in the original, only this time, rather than being referred to as “The Family”; they are referred to as “Dark seekers”… (A name which quite honestly, makes me roll my eyes). The Family were an intelligent bunch capable of outsmarting Heston at any moment, but these so called Dark seekers possess no superior intelligence, and are reduced to screaming, kicking, biting animals.
This is one of my major issues with the film: rather than keep the fear-factor about what the enemy might do to outsmart Neville, they turned it into how much they can chase him around before they run out of breath (or night), diminishing the social ideas raised in the original, and turning I Am Legend into a run-of-the-mill zombie movie.
The story is nothing original, and if anything lacks the explanation and direction the original had. It seems to rely on fleshing out characters, and showing their development, now although I like my characters in films to show development, in this case it was not enough by itself to carry a film of this scale.
Anyway, back to the plot. Smith eventually manages to capture a Dark Seeker, and keeps her tied in his basement so he can perform mysterious experiments on her in the hope of discovering a cure for the virus which has wrought so much death (including that of his wife and daughter). But his experiments fail.
Later that day Neville heads to grand central station after discovering a mannequin of his laying outside (These had been placed around the city to give him a sense of security). Neville is however captured in one of his own traps, and passes out, when he awakens, he cuts himself loose, only to be chased by infected dogs. The whole infected dogs thing was a little to reminiscent of the Resident Evil films, and so far this film was failing to show any originality.
Neville kills the dogs after they bite his German Sheppard; Sam. You all know what happens next, Neville is forced to strangle the dog in order to stop it from turning, and we are left with a rather emotional scene. Anyone familiar with the Vincent Price version, The Last Man on Earth, will not be surprised by the death of his dog, and it was really beginning to seem like I Am Legend was stealing ideas left right and centre by this point.
Both adaptations before this point have been completely different from each other, and this is I Am Legend’s downfall. Rather than doing something new with the idea, this film merely combines what we have already seen, and really lacks that special spark one looks for in a movie.
What happens next pretty much follows the Charlton Heston version, Neville encounters a brother and sister named Anna and Ethan. They tell Neville that they are planning on heading to a survivor’s camp in Vermont.
The Alpha male of the Dark seekers has however followed Anna and Neville back to his apartment, and they break in, forcing the three of them to retreat to Neville’s basement. What happened next just confused me; I was forced to rewind the disc back in order to understand what had happened.
Neville and the others are forced behind a large sheet of reinforced glass. Neville then shows the others a secret exit, which they quickly scurry through after Neville gives her a vial of blood which apparently has the cure in it. The two of them escape, and Neville blows himself and the Dark seekers to pieces by letting off a hand grenade, I was left shouting “WHAT!? WHY DIDN’T YOU JUST GET IN THE HATCH, THROW THE GRENADE OUT, AND QUICKLY SCURRY AWAY?”… overall it seemed like a pretty hollow sacrifice, and failed to shock me, upset me, or do anything else to me.
This film just has predictable stamped all over it, it fails to ignite any emotion, other than that of severe depression, and quite honestly, it feels like one giant build-up to nothing.
Although I stated before that The Omega Man is not particularly original either, the truth is, it’ in nonetheless typically enjoyable seventies science fiction. Nowadays, however, a lack of originality really cannot be excused and is ultimately what kills a lot of the films we get forced down our throats these days.
So maybe the rumoured prequel will show more promise?
No points for guessing which one I prefer…