When Will Smith’s I Am Legend came out in 2007, I remember the reviews and general feeling being kind of apathetic. No one calling it outright bad, but no one jumping to its defence either. I finally caught it on DVD a few months later and thought it was pretty good for what it was. I totally capable actioner with a strong Will Smith performance, which was pretty handy since a fair whack of the movie is just the Fresh Prince and his dog with the odd burst of action and monster fighting (much like The Queen starring Helen Mirren*).
Before 2007’s I Am Legend, there was the book I Am Legend, then The Omega Man starring Charlton Heston in 1971. But in between the book and the Heston joint was the first film adaptation, 1964’s I Am Legend, starring Vincent Price. Having now seen this version, I see a lot more flaws in the Smith vehicle. 2007’s version came with the kind of budget, slick effects and intense action sequences you’d expect from a Will Smith blockbuster. Whereas The Last Man on Earth looks like it was made for about $7.50 and stars an old man in a cardigan who can’t run. Yet, for all that, the older version is the most effective of the two in telling the story.
For the most part, the stories are the same. Vincent Price, the titular last man, is a scientist who has somehow proved immune to an airborne virus that has turned the rest of the world into vampires (although, they’re more zombie like… If zombies could half-talk). He lives a miserable life of monotony, sneaking about killing vampires by day, bunkering down in his home at night while they try to gullumph their way in.
Also similar to the Smith version, Price’s Robert Morgan meets another survivor, but here’s why they diverge. In 2007, Smith just meets a couple of survivors and that’s about as deep as their characters go. In The Last Man on Earth, the new woman in Price’s life actually comes with a back story that is intrinsically linked to Price and his story. It also makes the title I Am Legend mean so much more. Which is ironic since this version ditched the title while embracing the book’s twisty payoff, while 2007’s kept the title while losing all relevance to it.
The Last Man on Earth accomplishes all this despite what looks like a non-existent budget and even less knowledge from anyone involved on how to make a movie. Actually, that’s being a little harsh. The shot composition, editing and most other technical aspects aren’t terrible, but the fight scenes and stunts undeniably are. I wasn’t exaggerating earlier when I said Vincent Price can’t run. In a sequence where he chases the other survivor on foot, you can see her trying to run slower to avoid leaving Price in the dust. And the stunt work is even worse. Every altercation with the vampires, and the climactic set piece, look like rehearsals for a bad school play, roughly blocking the scene, but never bothering to figure out the specifics of how it will play out on show night. If only 1964’s The Last Man on Earth had 2007’s I Am Legend budget.
*I never got around to actually seeing The Queen, but I think I got the gist of it from the trailers.
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