Sunday, November 11, 2012

The Last Man on Earth - Omega Man - I Am Legend

Three movies have been made based on Richard Matheson’s 1954 novel “I Am Legend.”
Watching all three is an interesting study in contrasts and I would suggest watching them in chronological order, starting with the first, “The Last Man on Earth” from 1964, starring a somewhat miscast Vincent Price as Dr. Robert Morgan.
A plague has wiped out most of the world’s population, and bodies not burned morph into zombie-like vampires. They’re slow and dull, and speak just a little when calling out to Morgan at night: “Morgan, come o--u--t. Come out of the h--o--use.” In a flashback we that Morgan/Price doesn't believe the proposed theory of metamorphosis until his recently buried dead wife turns up at his door.
Mirrors, garlic, and a flimsily boarded up home keep the vampires at bay at night. By day, Morgan drags dead bodies to a huge burning pit and searches for vampire lairs to drive stakes through their hearts. He’s been at it three years. “Another day to live through. Better get started.”
Almost all of his story is told through voice-overs and flashbacks but when he suddenly encounters a woman during the day, we find out why the plague didn’t take him.  He was bitten long ago by a bat in Panama. The bat had a vampire germ but by the time it entered Morgan’s blood, it has been strained and weakened by the bat system and he now has immunity. Plausible.

The woman is from a group, who exist somewhere between human and vampire (“we’re infected but alive”). They’ve found their own solution to the situation and they take umbrage at Morgan’s activities, in spite of the too late revealed fact that Morgan’s blood can permanently prevent them from going vampire. Although there’s too much sacrificial lamb in it, this movie ending is my favorite of the three films. 

The 1971 Omega Man stars an over-the-top Charlton Heston as scientist Robert Neville, and he’s holed up in a penthouse in Los Angeles, complete with a wine cellar and is well-stocked with Scotch. The movie opens stylishly with Heston driving around an abandoned LA with the theme from “A Summer Place” playing.

Instead of vampires, Heston has to contend with hooded mutants that cannot tolerate light, speak just fine, although a little archaically, and have retained more brain power than the previous vampires. They also move faster. Their goal seems to be destroying any remnants of the previous civilization, which includes Heston, “that creature of the wheel.” And we can understand their anger. It was civilization’s actions that made them what they are today. 
The mutant-causing fault this time lies with biological warfare between China and Russia. Symptom are as follows: choking, unconsciousness, death, mutant. Fortunately for Heston, he developed a trial vaccine that he administered to himself in the nick of time. Too late for the rest of the world, however.

Heston’s place is the Taj Mahal compared to Price’s abode. He has outdoor cameras and is comfortable enough with his handling and knowledge of the mutants to watch them at night through an open window. He plays chess with a bust of Caesar.

His days are spent “shopping”, and searching for the mutants and their leader, Mathias.  Like Price, he suddenly encounters a woman, whom he chases after to catch (Heston performing a little more effectively than Price). The “others” inevitably surface, dramatically saving Heston from a burning crucifixion death and rescue him via a crazy motorcycle chase/escape scene.
Again, Heston/Robert Neville’s blood holds the key to humanity’s survival and instead of the sacrificial lamb we get an actual crucifixion pose. Hokey. 

Will Smith’s “I Am Legend” modernizes the story which is now set in New York City. The scenes are great and include a from-the-top view ala “Side Street.” The cheesy 1970s music is gone and replaced by a mostly Bob Marley soundtrack. Smith doesn’t take his shirt off as much as Heston and does quote movie lines better (Heston - Woodstock; Smith - Shrek). 

His residence, again as scientist Robert Neville, is a veritable fortress and his “dark-seekers” are much more formidable. They do not speak, but only roar or scream. They cannot tolerate light of any kind, they climb and jump like monkeys, and move at lightning speed. You won’t see one until about 30 minutes into the movie, and they are angry and smart enough to strategize.
Flashbacks help to fill in the story and the movie opens with Dr. Alice Krippen (Emma Thompson) announcing a cure for cancer that was created with a genetically modified measles virus. Naturally, things go horribly wrong and the virus mutates. These creatures are the result. Smith spends his time working on a cure and testing it on infected animals and dark-seekers but so far to no avail. “The Krippen virus is ... elegant.”

Like Heston, Smith has conversations with mannequins as both men attempt to retain sanity. Also like Heston, Smith charts out the city and where he’s been.  

This version offers some visual strokes of genius: the evacuation of Manhattan; Smith sitting alone at South Street Seaport looking at the destroyed bridges; Smith hitting golf balls into NYC off an aircraft carrier; and stunning images of an abandoned, post-apocalyptic Manhattan. 
The bridges are destroyed but a woman and child show up and save Smith in his moment of distress. No reason is given to explain the immunity of Smith and the others to the virus. At one point Smith states that he is immune to both the airborne and contact strains, and canines are immune to airborne only. Reasons unknown. 

“I Am Legend” is much closer to “The Omega Man” than to “The Last Man on Earth.” In addition to the story line, both have great art on the walls of their homes. But both Smith and Price have to put down a dog that turns. Smith’s version is much more emotional and dramatic but the scene leading up to meeting the first dark-seeker is very long and drawn out. And although beautifully photographed, there’s a bit too much sentimentality thrown in.

And should I even talk about the alternate ending that completely ruins “I am Legend”? Moving from “typical human behavior is now entirely absent” to alpha male zombie exhibiting human characteristics by loving his zombie woman and the entire group sparing the lives of the humans when said woman is retrieved suspends zombie movie belief. Butterfly motif? Hugely expanded. Both endings result in people driving out of Manhattan (via what bridge?) so that logic stream is lost either way. 
Although all three movies are worth watching, “Legend” is the most visually satisfying, “Last Man” is the grittiest in black & white and interesting with its lame zombie-vampire combination, and “Omega” is notable for its intelligent and devious monkish-mutants. Enjoy!