Bright Lights Film Journal

A Boy and His Dog: On Will Smith, Apocalypse, and I Am Legend

“Neville remains wholly oblivious, falling into each trap the ferals set … “

Any viewer familiar with the apocalyptic imagery of The Omega Man (1971) or more generally with the last-man vigilante image of NRA spokesman Charlton Heston could be forgiven for taking I Am Legend’s opening high-octane CGI motorized deerhunt through the weed-strewn streets of midtown Manhattan as nothing more than a straight gun-toting homage to its illustrious predecessor. Throw in an advertisement for the 2007 Shelby Mustang GT500 (itself also an update of the famous 1960s muscle car)1 and you have a by-the-numbers action scene replete with the requisite inside references to its source period. Still, that wasn’t just any source period: beneath the surface of Bruckheimer-esque blockbuster referentiality there lurks a strange descendant of the downbeat negativity of the original wave of pulp armageddonism that Heston made his own. This lasted from his kickoff to the epic Planet of the Apes series (1968) through Omega Man to Soylent Green (1973) — with a nod to Kurt Russell’s neo-noir Snake Plisskin in John Carpenter’s Escape from New York (1981), James Franciscus in Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970), and the pastoral sci-fi adolescent fantasy A Boy and His Dog (1975), starring a youthful Don Johnson telepathically linked to alpha dog Blood. The shift to older but equally baby-faced African American headliner Will Smith turns out to be the core change to this tradition; many interesting effects ripple out from the need to reconcile Smith’s star persona with the film’s debt to this seminal cycle of ’70s paranoia and pop-apocalypticism.

The most striking effect is the toning down of the alpha male machismo of the original leads. Robert Neville 2007 is a tragically grieving family man, desperately striving to make the world safe for a daughter he can’t quite persuade himself died in the desperate flight from a soon-to-be quarantined Manhattan island. Rather than externally displayed in his character’s biceps and pectorals, Neville’s sexuality is displaced in two directions: first, onto his feral nemesis and alter ego (named only “Alpha Male” in the credits, and played by West Village native Dash Mihok2); second, onto his relationship with the German Shepherd bitch Samantha. The relationship with “Sam,” as he usually calls her, is both paternal (within the house especially he treats her explicitly as a surrogate for his lost daughter) and Platonic (outside the house she doubles as a teenage buddy, especially in the video-store scenes). While Heston’s chest was integral to his macho persona, the only buff scene we get here is a textbook workout sequence in which the pull-ups are so exaggerated they look as if a supporting stepstool has been digitally removed from the image even as Smith’s muscles put the pre-personal-trainer physiques of Heston, Johnson, and even Russell to shame.

Moreover, rather than adult, as would befit his role as lieutenant colonel and family man, the only sexuality Neville openly displays in the film is adolescent — the elaborate roleplaying with the mannequins in the video store, the bonding with the young boy Ethan over the dialogue of Shrek, and the awkward flirtation with Anna (Alice Braga) around a Bob Marley song (even as that exchange ostensibly underlines the generation gap between himself and the younger Anna). A Boy and His Dog indeed: Neville is certainly in love with his high-tech multi-function rifle, but he always seems to lose it at the crucial moments, and he never does catch a deer.

It is a neat point that the only deer we actually see brought down in the film is the stag lying glassy-eyed in the dark and terrifying West Chelsea warehouse lair of the Alpha Male feral;3 Neville’s touchiness on this point emerges in his violent pout faced with Anna’s home-cooked breakfast, which includes the bacon Neville had been saving for “a special occasion.” Still, the hunting subtext does more than provide product placement for the adolescent male demographic and a self-conscious reference to Heston’s NRA support. It also establishes Manhattan as a different sort of apocalyptic setting than we have seen before. There have been two standard post-apocalyptic roles for the Big Apple. First, the ghettoized criminal underworld that stretches from 40s and 50s film noir through Escape from New York’s maximum-security prison and the nocturnal gangland of The Warriors (1979) through the dark Gotham of so many comic and action pictures: a highly inhabited extrapolation of the clichés of the Big Apple as epitome of urban degeneration. The other is the island as a wasted ruin, epitome of the destruction of civilization, from the Statue of Liberty half-buried in the sand at the end of The Planet of the Apes through the bravura CGI spectacles of New York underwater in Spielberg’s AI (2001), New York frozen in the new Ice Age of The Day after Tomorrow (2004), or New York simply obliterated in Independence Day (1996), to name a few. The New York of I Am Legend is neither a terrifying urban underworld nor in ruins; it is deserted but basically unchanged from the city of 2007 — a fact the filmmakers stress with their choice to retain even the Times Square ads that were up when they filmed the backdrops for their digital effects. This novel setting is simultaneously rural and urban, whence comes the power of the film’s first part, much of which is devoted, as A. O. Scott noted in his New York Times review, to “simple, striking effects” instead of the requisite destruction and noise so evident in the opening hunt.4 This is an achingly familiar setting, iconic both for tourists — Times Square, Grand Central Station, Washington Square Park, Central Park, Temple of Dendur — and for locals, who can amuse themselves spotting the reconstruction of the recently closed 4th Street Tower Video or guessing at possible subtexts in the choice of the West Chelsea gallery district for the feral stronghold or Tribeca for the loft Neville loots (or, for that matter, NYU nerve-center Washington Square North for the implicit choice of the prime real estate location in all of New York).

It is an eerie effect, and all the more effective for generally understating its theme that the most familiar and everyday things can become instantly alien to you. In this sense, it is essential, if fundamentally ridiculous, that Neville has not squatted his multimillion-dollar townhouse but, rather, continues to live in the family dwelling — this is his neighborhood, this is his home, and this, no doubt, is supposed to have been his local video store. But it is also a fundamentally ambivalent effect, because the most emotionally powerful effect of the film — the aching sense of loss reinforced by the flashbacks of that loss — is also the source of an equally powerful sense of positive fantasy — wouldn’t New York be wonderful if it weren’t for all those people? Likely an inside joke on the part of the filmmakers that both plays on and updates typical clichés about the city (and a joke picked up on especially in the local papers), this ambivalence also reflects a different tradition, the paradox of the bunker fantasy that dates back to the 1950s, which is born out of fear of nuclear apocalypse and need for shelter from the total destruction of everything one has known but also comes to serve as a repository of everything one wishes one’s present life actually had but does not. The bunker fantasy emerges even in a novel as dark as Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, where the discovery of a cornucopian and pristine bomb shelter provides a sole glimmer of light in the midpoint of an unremittingly dark journey through a wasted and twisted America.

The opening exposition of Robert Neville’s life in post-apocalyptic Manhattan deftly combines the nightmarish and utopian components of the bunker fantasy. He occupies a townhouse on Washington Square Park; he has scavenged and looted the best of the city (as we see from the Van Goghs that decorate his walls, presumably lifted from MOMA) beyond the contents of a dumpster diver’s wildest dreams. The wristwatch alarm clearly establishes the inherent contradiction of this situation, signaling the need to return home and interrupting his hunting expedition (as it apparently does every day); cutting short the detailed routine of peaceful domesticity by requiring him to close all the cast-metal shutters that transform the southern exposures of his 19th-century picture windows into an urban fortress. We as viewers already know (or most of us at least do) the motivation behind the alarm, the stark division between day and night that tropes the paradox of the modern city (although this division too the film will gradually and perhaps not quite self-consciously undercut): in this world you can get everything you want but you have to share it with the ferals and you have to leave your comfortable family behind. This point is made all the more strongly by the fact that Smith’s own daughter Willow plays Neville’s screen daughter Marley — the screen persona is incompatible with Smith’s identity as show-biz dad.

The more Neville forays into the world of the flesh-eating ferals, the more contact he loses with his “normal” world, first Sam (the sole link to his lost family, the last gift of social responsibility bestowed by Marley), then his safe home, and finally his life. This progression also enacts the bunker dilemma of The Road (which novel it echoes in many ways in a pop-cultural form) — there is simply no way to enjoy the fruits of capitalism without being exposed to the poison of its inequities. The suspense the movie creates everywhere as we watch Neville’s routine, waiting for it to be ruptured by the ferals powerfully enacts this paradox: however much he may have adapted to this life, we never feel wholly comfortable within it. And the plotting of the film reveals the truth of this viewer’s intuition as we watch the tenuous stability of Neville’s life rapidly unravel. That it unravels primarily because he underestimates the animal intelligence and social organization of the ferals is a testimony to the tight thematic construction of Mark Protosevich and Akiva Goldsman’s script. Even as what we see makes it clear that the ferals are mimicking and learning from Neville’s own behavior and traps, exhibiting a similar sense of mate loyalty and pack behavior to that we see in the army background of his flashbacks, Neville remains wholly oblivious, falling into each trap they set. And he seems to go to his death never having noticed it either. For all of the ostensible qualities of reflective family man, he lives and dies an unselfconscious adolescent, driven by his immediate emotions.

The brief appearance of Anna seems partly intended to open up this submerged theme, as she studies the experimental subject (“Alpha Female”) and examines the wall of photographed heads, displayed like so many hunting trophies, that plaster an entire wall of the subterranean laboratory, and which we have not noticed up to the point that she does. “Did they all die?”: Anna’s question may lead us to give another spin to Neville’s matter-of-fact, scientific objectivity toward the lab rats we see in a wall of cages on the other side of the lab. It may also cause us to consider more closely the choice of female gender for his test subject, whose violent struggles against Neville’s experiments and whose mate’s heroic attempt at revenge emit a faint but unmistakable whiff of sexual competition and violence that hearkens back to the facile misogyny of A Boy and His Dog, which famously concludes with the eponymous buddies feasting on the love interest rescued from dystopian small-town America buried beneath the earth.

After all, Neville, too, has been alone with his dog a long time, as anodyne and unthreatening as Smith manages to make his character’s sexuality on the surface. We may also glimpse hints here of a liberal undercurrent to the Heston-like vigilantism of the opening sequences — it takes the Brazilian import Anna to counterpose a Christian (but not evangelical) ethical stance (and a Latin sexual charge implicit in her physical resemblance to her famous namesake aunt Sonia, veteran of another genre of ’70s film, the raunchy sex farce) to Neville’s pure male, science and army mentality. Faced with this challenge to his bachelor life and world view, Neville first freaks out at the breakfast table and then sees no option but to sacrifice himself in a suicide bombing. Science and militarism definitely take a second place to maternally inflected ethical values, as the film wraps up far from the heartless city in its Vermont sanctuary amid the splendor of fall foliage.

A closer look at its settings can help to unpack the conflicting ideologies and influences within the film. I Am Legend is replete with underground settings — indeed, one could argue that it is nothing but a compendium of these spaces.5 Manhattan itself is figuratively underground: sealed off from the rest of the world, an island of wantonly discarded wealth, a gloriously expansive garbage heap ripe for the picking. But it is not actually destroyed, as in so many post-apocalyptic films, nor is it unremittingly negative and dangerous, as in the other tradition mentioned above. It is just overgrown, gone to seed and feral, at least until the concluding siege of Neville’s townhouse, and in the wanton disregard with which Neville treats the space around him as his own private playground. Paradoxically, given the context of plague and the general theme of apocalypse, it has not been rendered sterile; to the contrary, the film stresses its fecundity. In only three years, weeds have reclaimed the streets, wild deer have multiplied nearly unchecked, and corn grows abundantly in Neville’s generous allotment in Central Park. It is an underground, in other words, that belies the appearance of underground; only in its peripheral vision does its true nature remain visible.

Neville’s house constitutes its own underground space, an overgrown bunker that proves all too permeable once its secret location is revealed (a precise echoing of the father’s fear in The Road that makes him leave the welcoming space of the bunker behind — too exposed). Stocked with all that is “best” about civilization (much of it packaged as product placement like the gratuitous Shrek scene where Neville bonds with the boy Ethan), the house reveals its bunker function especially in the early scene of the kitchen, in which every cabinet is packed to the gills with canned goods; as the Tribeca loft does in the scavenging scene, where the empty nursery also mirrors the later scene in which Neville opens up his own closed child’s room to the refugee Ethan. We find a negative mirror image of the Washington Square townhouse in the West Chelsea warehouse that is home to the alpha pair and their pack, and into which Neville must wander to rescue Sam after an overly enthusiastic deerhunt. Filmed with the single light source of Neville’s hunting rifle, the scene is tense in the extreme, but also, in a nice reversal that shows the dark underground to be equally permeable as the light one will be, a falsely confining space — Neville escapes not through the lost entrance but by crashing out of a darkened glass window from the second floor. The space is only underground viewed from the inside, and from the perspective of Neville’s rifle sights.

But there is more, one inside the other like Russian dolls: the quintessential underground laboratory, the cellar of Neville’s dark secrets and obsessive experiments, the bunker within a bunker that equally proves completely permeable once exposed to the ferals. And then there is the Plexiglas “safe zone” within the cellar laboratory, where Neville cages his human test subjects, which also proves unable to withstand the massed force of will of the Alpha Male faced with the sight of his manacled mate. And, finally, there is the coal hole in the back of the high-tech Plexiglas safe zone, which somehow does manage to serve the protective purpose none of the purpose-built bunkers have been able to fulfill. Figuratively at least, the coal hole functions as a tunnel to freedom (we see it as a tunnel-like shape when Anna and Ethan enter it, low to the ground and ovoid with a heavy metal door). It’s like a vestigial remnant of the old cave underground of our prehistoric ancestors, redolent of warmth and shelter, womblike to suit its capacity to encase mother and child. Naturally, Neville rejects Anna’s claim that it is big enough for the three — if he were in it, he implies, it wouldn’t lead outward anymore, but just be a dead end extension of his own lab space.

The film reinforces the distinct underground identity of the coal hole by cutting directly from Neville’s explosive suicide to the SUV on the road in Vermont, neatly eliding the various technical difficulties involved in the escape, as it elides the technical impossibility of getting a cure out of the blood sample Neville provided at the last minute, and as it elides the fact that the cure is pretty pointless anyway — after all, how would it be administered to the ferals? The more likely possibility is that the safe colony will simply wait out until the ferals die out from disease or lack of food, unless we speculate that the evidence of their social organization also is evidence of their ability to reproduce, since sexual competition and reproduction are the only possible motivations for their group behavior (assuming we are looking for realistic motivations). The Vermont sanctuary is the final underground space of the film, a utopian version of Neville’s bunker sanctuary and symbolic repository of everything good about America (including its acceptance of immigrants like Anna). Its utopia is effective only because of its extreme sketchiness (although we do see representatives of the armed forces inside) and in the slight possibility that the SUV will be left outside with its massed gasoline canisters and that they will enter on foot, leave urban consumerism and middle-class consumption behind them. It’s a social and procreative (and religiously based) utopia as opposed to Neville’s dead-end bachelor scientist daydream, and, of course, it’s rural rather than urban.6

It’s also a perfect repudiation of A Boy and His Dog, where Vic rejects the tainted invitation to join the closed rural community, escapes with the proffered girl, and concludes by negating procreation, maturity and family in favor of sophomoric adolescent humor, voiced by the loyal dog, Blood, saved with the meat of Vic’s mate: “Well, I’d say she certainly had marvelous judgment . . . if not particularly good taste.” I Am Legend pastiches (consciously or unconsciously) elements from nearly every one of the films in the various apocalyptic traditions from which it emerges, but there is an unmistakably revisionist undertone to its pastiche. Not only does it liberalize the gender and racial politics of the earlier cycle of films, but it more surreptitiously undercuts the iconic persona of its male lead (an undercutting rendered all the more effective by the deadpan of Smith’s excellent performance), especially his star-making turn in Independence Day. It is somehow fitting that the African-American response to Tom Hanks in Castaway transfers its Robinson Crusoe setting from a desert island to the inner city, but what is even more striking is that Smith’s race has ceased to figure in any significant way in the plot; it emerges only in details of setting and characterization. Rather than Independence Day’s up-by-his-bootstraps pilot, Neville is pure establishment (army officer, scientist, conservative tastes) and wields his power in a completely unambivalent way, unquestioned by those around him. Or at least that’s the way the flashbacks set him up — but is the casting of Smith in the Charlton Heston role also part of the film’s undercutting of the very cultural identity Smith wears so well in the flashback scenes?

Paradoxically, the death of Neville’s African-American wife and child cuts him loose from his proper ethnic moorings, and sets him adrift in a space that has generally been the exclusive preserve of white men. This is not the identity politics typecasting of typical disaster melodrama, although we catch a glimpse of that genre convention when Anna and Ethan arrive to wrap up the plot. But what this glimpse catalyzes is not so much a resolution of the plot’s tensions and contradictions as a revelation of just how irreconcilable they are. The ferals threaten to take on the humanity that filters in from analogy with their real-life counterparts who choose to drop out of the system of capitalism, refusing to be domesticated by its consumerist promises; Neville threatens to burst the confines of “last bastion of civilization” icon by laying bare the assumptions and contradictions of the social criticism of the old Heston school (“What a mess we’ve made of the world”). Social commentary back then was on the surface and skin deep; in contrast, Neville takes the brave new world as it is, and the film leaves it up to us to draw any conclusions.

In sum, we could say the message of I Am Legend, unusual in mindless blockbuster territory but certainly familiar to contemporary liberal academia, testifies to the contingency of fixed roles and identities. This is a world where things don’t end with a bang or a whimper, but keep limping onward, somehow managing to put together the glorification of environment-destroying utility vehicles with the aesthetic of dumpster diving, the paterfamilias with the twisted adolescent, and a love match of outcasts (shades of another ’70s classic, the British cannibal thriller Death Line) with flesh-eating zombies. I would not hesitate to term it a typical Hollywood rubbish heap if, like its pulp predecessors, it didn’t all hold together so well and end when it has to. The charm of the original cycle of dystopian apocalypse was that they were nasty, brutish, and short — they said their piece and got out. Not that I Am Legend manages wholly to avoid the bloat that blights contemporary Hollywood, but, like The Matrix before it, it gives a context for that bloat rather than taking it for granted. And unlike The Matrix, fortunately, I Am Legend appears to have forestalled the possibility of making any sequels to capitalize on and break the original spell it cast. Like A Boy and His Dog, except now on a franchise rather than the narrative level, I Am Legend makes the fundamentally immature and irresponsible gesture of refusing to reproduce itself, of guaranteeing the perpetuation of its own kind — unless, perhaps, when Ethan reaches puberty he somehow transforms, butterfly-like, into a new Neville for Will Smith to return to inhabit, reincarnated as the last man in the world, again.

  1. In fact, the car itself references the earlier film, in which a 1970 Ford LTD featured (“Ford Shelby Mustang GT500 in I Am Legend,” accessed January 10, 2008). []
  2. A. O. Scott, “Man about Town, And Very Alone,” The New York Times, accessed January 10, 2008. []
  3. The credits call them “The Infected,” but I prefer the term feral to reflect the way, in my view, that the film establishes them as humans gone wild rather than just as mindless zombies — they appear to be evolving rather than simply crazed. []
  4. Scott, “Man about Town.” []
  5. It is at first surprising that the film almost completely ignores the most iconic of New York’s undergrounds, the subway, which only appears in a shot of the familiar entrance at Union Square, one of the city’s only ornamental entrances. Moreover, the subway was iconic in many of the key ’70s films, and it would have been an obvious choice to locate the ferals in its dark tunnels and darkened stations. The choice to locate the ferals primarily in the ground-level spaces of the city suggests an avoidance of the working-class, quotidian identity of the subway. As we will see, there is a symbolic logic to this choice (as there is to avoiding the subway’s counterpart, the skyscraper). Rather than social in their meaning, the underground spaces in I Am Legend are almost wholly individualized — this is no longer a conventionally urban space, and so it no longer carries the specific spatial connotations of the modern city. []
  6. A more consumerist, and perhaps a more likely version of the utopia that plays on the same dichotomy would see Anna as a new soccer mom, able finally to enjoy all of the perks of the SUV without feeling guilty for destroying the environment with them, since she is justified by her imperiled situation and her carbon footprint is minimal in a world whose human habitation has been shrunk to next to nothing and whose industrial capacity has been nearly eliminated. Meanwhile, Neville’s enactment of the masculine SUV fantasy when he attempts to ambush the urban ferals in revenge for Sam’s death ends in total disaster; he must be rescued by Anna, who can only explain his foolhardy reliance on the vehicle’s impermeability as a death wish. []