'I Am Legend' a One-Man American Metaphor

Actor Will Smith, with bloodied shoulder, looks nervously out window in "I Am Legend." i i

hide captionVirologist Robert Neville (Will Smith) is the last man standing in New York City after a virus modified to cure cancer mutates into a deadly strain that kills most victims — and turns the rest into zombies.

Warner Bros. Pictures
Actor Will Smith, with bloodied shoulder, looks nervously out window in "I Am Legend."

Virologist Robert Neville (Will Smith) is the last man standing in New York City after a virus modified to cure cancer mutates into a deadly strain that kills most victims — and turns the rest into zombies.

Warner Bros. Pictures

The Filmmakers Respond

NPR's Neda Ulaby talked with the creators of I Am Legend — and she asked them about Bob Mondello's movie-as-metaphor analysis.

Actor Will Smith looks out over destroyed New York City in "I Am Legend." i i

hide captionThe isle of Manhattan, Ground Zero for the plague, has been quarantined — stripped of its inhabitants by filmmaker Francis Lawrence and an army of digitizers — with all its bridges and tunnels dynamited.

Warner Bros. Pictures
Actor Will Smith looks out over destroyed New York City in "I Am Legend."

The isle of Manhattan, Ground Zero for the plague, has been quarantined — stripped of its inhabitants by filmmaker Francis Lawrence and an army of digitizers — with all its bridges and tunnels dynamited.

Warner Bros. Pictures
Actor Will Smith walks with gun in "I Am Legend." i i

hide captionSmith races around an eerily vacant N.Y.C., where he can hunt wild deer grazing on weeds growing in the middle of 5th Avenue.

Warner Bros. Pictures
Actor Will Smith walks with gun in "I Am Legend."

Smith races around an eerily vacant N.Y.C., where he can hunt wild deer grazing on weeds growing in the middle of 5th Avenue.

Warner Bros. Pictures

Tree roots have buckled the pavement; the weeds on 5th Avenue are plentiful enough to support whole herds of deer. Times Square is prowled by lions rather than tourists. There's not a person in sight anywhere — except Robert Neville, who travels, when the sun is highest in the sky, to the South Street Seaport, to broadcast the same message he's been broadcasting for almost three years: "If anyone is out there, I can provide food, shelter, security. If there's anybody out there ... you are not alone."

Manhattan, and indeed the world, has been emptied of humanity by a man-made virus that was supposed to cure cancer. Alas, viruses mutate, and this one developed a deadly strain, killing most humans outright and turning the rest into light-phobic zombies who only come out at night.

The island of Manhattan — Ground Zero for the epidemic — has long since been quarantined, all its bridges and tunnels dynamited. Three years later, Neville is the last uninfected resident, a virologist searching for a cure, talking mostly to his dog, and to his tape recorder.

"Day 1001," he murmurs. "Vaccine trials continue. I'm still unable to transfer my immunity to infected hosts. ...the cryptovirus is elegant."

For much of its length, so is I Am Legend. Hollywood's digitizers have outdone themselves, turning truncated bridges and rusting traffic jams apocalyptic, and Smith, who has to carry much of the film without dialogue, is persuasively stir-crazy and heroic. But sooner or later, of course, those zombies have to appear.

When they do, banging their heads against plate glass as movie zombies always do, I started needing something else to think about. And maybe it's just that unlike most of you, I've seen a whole fall's worth of War-on-Terrorism, Rendition-for-Lambs -In-the-Valley-of-Elah movies, but what I started thinking about was that I Am Legend fits right in with those pictures.

I mean, it's still a sci-fi blockbuster, but take a look at that plot: Western medicine takes a virus (a bad thing) and manipulates it so that it can fight cancer (a worse thing). Sort of like Western military forces arming jihadists (which they regard as a bad thing) so that they'll fight communists (which they regard as a worse thing).

And then the built-up virus — the bad thing — mutates into something much worse than the cancer, and it turns on its creators. And this starts where? That's right: In New York, which everyone in the movie keeps calling Ground Zero. And some poor schmoe who didn't start the problem has to try to fix it.

But even if he comes up with a cure, a way to make the nasty infected guys human again, they're just going to keep coming, banging their heads against plate glass, destroying the civilized world and — here's the kicker — either killing everyone they come into contact with or converting them into monsters just like themselves. And the only solution is to shoot them dead — or withdraw behind metal walls, into a fortress-like homeland. And that's not working.

That's I Am Legend in a nutshell. A blockbuster for our time, no?

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