In his 1954 novel I Am Legend, Richard Matheson conjured up a terrifying scenario: a man-made plague has killed most of humanity. Some of the infected have mutated into grotesque vampires. Only one man, Robert Neville, has escaped untainted. To protect himself against the diseased revenants seeking his blood, he has transformed an LA bungalow into a fortress, stocked with goods and amenities pillaged from the city’s unattended stores. By day he ventures forth, armed with wooden stakes (and, in subsequent movie adaptations, increasingly sophisticated weaponry), to wipe out whatever vampires he comes across. By night he drinks himself insensible.
DISMEMBERS ONLY: The zombies run amok in the 2004 remake of Dawn of the Dead by Zack Snyder.
Nightmare? Sounds more like a dream come true for the average fan of the mega-selling, zombie-blasting Resident Evil video game, as well as for a sizable part of the audience that will be frothing at the mouth for I Am Legend, the third movie adaptation of Matheson’s novel made to date. Directed by Francis Lawrence, with Will Smith as Neville, the film is expected to be one of the biggest grossers of the year. Bring on the plague and the mutants! The firepower and booze, the high-tech gizmos and free food!
Previous film versions of the book — The Last Man on Earth (1964) and The Omega Man (1971) — might have been intended, in part, as cautionary tales against human folly and hubris. But nowadays, audiences have been so insulated from the real world of consequences by video games, cable TV, iPods, and cell phones that they might as well be the last man or woman on Earth. (At the very least, it doesn’t seem as if they’d mind if they were.) So they probably won’t be lining up for the latest Legend to be dutifully reminded that AIDS, germ warfare, global terrorism, disastrous climactic change, unforeseen cosmic catastrophe, the Biblically predicted End of Days, Iranian nuclear development, an accidentally triggered atomic war, degenerate liberal intellectuals, or armies of cannibalistic undead are just waiting for a chance to drive the race to extinction. More likely, they’ll expect a graphic indulgence in these fantasies without any guilt or responsibility that would require them to worry too much. (And having just seen the film, which I liked, I can say they might be disappointed, as well.) Like a number of similar films released recently — including 28 Weeks Later, Children of Men, The Invasion, and The Mist — Legend, in part, reflects a culture both alienated from reality by media images and voyeuristically drawn to fantasies of death and destruction.
These sole-survivor-of-doom movies are a symptom of the times, as they were before when previous editions of Matheson’s story shared the screen with a host of other films about being the sole survivor of mass human extinction. Each of these films mirrors the subconscious of the audiences who watched them.
But the scenario transcends the preoccupations of any particular period. It touches on primal impulses: punishment of evildoers. Revenge against enemies. The fulfillment of infantile megalomania and narcissism. The longing for a fresh start, in which inveterate conflicts — racial, social, sexual, cultural — have been purged, or can be confronted in a pristine setting, and perhaps resolved. And perhaps mostly it evokes a spirit of adventure, the exuberance of discovery and creation, the prospect of a brave new world. It’s not just a high-concept movie pitch aimed at jaded 21st-century consumers, but an archetype that stretches back to antiquity. Although the theme resonates with the specific dreads and desires of today, its appeal is timeless.
When you come right down to it, the last man on Earth’s situation is the same fix as the first one’s. He has dominion over the Earth, but there’s no one to brag to about it. As God said in the Book of Genesis, “It is not good that man should be alone” — and that’s when all the trouble gets started.
By chapter five, He has to flush it all away again — all, that is, except for righteous Noah, the first last man. The Noah story appeals to a lot of passions: revenge, repentance, renewal. It expresses a wish for a clean slate from which a purer, more innocent world can spring. But it also is a parable of power, in which personal hegemony comes at the expense of everyone else.