Warner Bros has spent the better part of a decade working on getting another I Am Legend off the ground. They’ve tried it all, the “see the origins of the zombie outbreak” prequel, the “screw it, let’s just clone Will Smith and do another one” sequel, everything. There were even zombie elephants involved at one point. But these options required the return of Smith as Robert Neville, and Smith has never been particularly keen on returning to the property (maybe it was the zombie elephants that turned him off). Now, only one option remains: Warners is slamming its fist down on the flashing red “reboot” button, obliterating the old I Am Legend and redoing the film from the ground up.
Deadline reports the studio is using A Garden at the End of the World, a spec script from Gary Graham (an Apple Store employee turned screenwriter) as the foundation of a new I Am Legend. Warners was initially developing Garden as a standalone film, but someone along the way realized it bears at least a passing resemblance to Will Smith and plague zombies, so Graham has been tasked with pasting the I Am Legend brand over his old script. The original Garden was supposedly also very similar to The Searchers, only with a vein of sci-fi running throughout.
There’s a kind of moral outrage that sets in every time a film is remade so soon after its release (feel free to arrange these words into any order you’d like: “soulless,” “corrupt,” “out of ideas,” “churn out,” “how dare they”). But I’m going to set aside my individually allotted portion of righteous fury for now, because another shot at I Am Legend is another shot at getting I Am Legend right.
There’s nothing wrong with Smith’s I Am Legend (other than criminal underuse of his wacky mannequin sidekicks), but it’s nowhere close to Richard Matheson’s original work. In the book, Neville is the last man on Earth, holed up in a barricaded house and researching a cure to whatever it is that’s floored 99.999% of humanity. That much, the Smith version nails. But here’s where the two deviate: in the most recent I Am Legend film, the zombies have rudimentary intelligence. The head zombie is just brainy enough to have a mate and to want her returned safely after Neville takes her.
And in the novel (maybe skip the next two paragraphs for SPOILER reasons, if you haven’t read the book) the monsters are just as intelligent as you or I. They’re sentient and trying to start their own civilization, and here’s ol’ Neville, murdering them in droves because he just assumes that monster people equals bad people. Eventually they overpower him, capture him and prepare to put him to death. In his last moments, Neville realizes that he’s essentially the Boogeyman for a new civilization. Hence, “I Am Legend.” Also, book Neville is marauded by vampires (classical ones, too – anti-garlic, anti-cross, the works), not zombies. But that’s more of a cosmetic thing.
The 2007 adaptation hints at, but never commits in full, to this: in the end, Neville still finds the cure that will rid the planet of mutant freaks forever (because we’ve learned nothing from that whole “the zombies can feel love and just want a truce” thing). Same goes for the prior adaptation from 1971, titled The Omega Man, which gives its mutants intelligence and the capacity to form a cult but still regards them as a plague that must be cured for the good of civilization.
The first adaptation, The Last Man on Earth, came the closest in 1964, ending when Vincent Price is killed by the New World Vampire Order. But even that one doesn’t commit in full, having good vampires, which are only partially infected and trying to cure themselves, and full vampires, a pack of mindless bloodsucking freaks. We’re still missing that key ideal where the vampires themselves are actually the good guys.
Another I Am Legend could finally capture the core of what makes “I Am Legend” so fascinating. It won’t be a 1:1 remake, because we know it’s styled like The Searchers, and that more or less directly negates the idea of Robert Neville as a post-apocalyptic shut-in. But it could still resemble the novel at its most basic “humans bad, vampires good” level. After four remakes, that’s really all we need.