I Am Legend: The Psychological and Philosophical Aspects of Humanity
By Anthony Watkins
Francis Lawrence’s I Am Legend is a 2007 science-fiction thriller/drama starring Will Smith as the lone survivor of a devastating virus that has wiped out 90% of the population of humanity. Living alone in New York City, Robert Neville (Smith), a former lieutenant and US Army virologist, tasks himself with finding a cure to the plague. On the outside, Lawrence’s film may come across as your typical science-fiction film, with a curing virus gone badly and a character having to battle cannibalistic zombies. However, the film goes deeper than the typical sci-fi adventure in exploring psychological and philosophical issues related to Neville’s isolation from humanity. These issues will be fully examined, along with how director Francis Lawrence stylistically augments these issues.
The film begins with news footage of a woman named Dr. Krippen who has discovered a cure for cancer by genetically re-engineering the measles virus. Lawrence abruptly flashes forward to three years later. Using many long shots, he scans over a desolate and apocalyptic New York City, a once-thriving industrial powerhouse that has been reduced to a wasteland overgrown with plants. Except for a few birds, nothing in the shots is moving—cars are left parked in the middle of the streets, trains and subways are stopped, and human life is non-existent. With a high-angle shot of a street, Lawrence reveals the first significant movement—a car racing down a static street. Here we are introduced to Robert Neville. As mentioned earlier, he is the only human living in New York City, but we discover he does have a companion—a German Shepherd dog named “Samantha” or “Sam.”
Sam serves a pivotal role for Neville in the film. Since he is completely isolated from humanity, he has no real person or sentient being with whom to interact. To a great degree, we learn this problem is solved because of Sam’s existence. Neville treats her like he would a son or daughter. He bathes her (talking to her during the process), runs the treadmill with her, and spends virtually every part of his day with her. When eating at the kitchen table, he says to her, “Eat your vegetables, don’t just push them around!” Similarly, he sleeps with her and in the morning asks how she slept. When driving, he always has her riding in the front passenger seat of the car, surveying the city with him. In one instance, when he discovers it is his birthday, he tells her, “If you’re planning a party for my birthday, tell me now. I don’t like surprises.” All of these instances reveal how Neville sees Sam as much more than just a dog—he sees her as part of him and his family. As will be discussed later, she is the reason he continues to do research for a cure.
Although Sam fulfills much of Neville’s need for human interaction, he still has methods in order to try to socialize himself with humans. In his house, Lawrence accomplishes this through the mise-en-scène. In the kitchen, especially during meals, Neville is seen repeatedly watching old news footage of life before the plague hit. He does this not only in order to entertain himself during the long days, but also to keep himself sane and remember what life used to be like. In a similar manner, when experimenting with serums for the cure, Neville records video logs. This is obviously done to keep track of his findings, but it is also a method of talking to himself and a computer screen that allows him to perform additional interaction.
Another prime example of Neville’s psychological need for human interaction occurs when he goes to the video store. Upon walking in, we see several mannequins set up strategically throughout the store, looking at movies or running the cash register. Neville interacts with the mannequins as if they were real people and even has names for them. In one instance, he asks, “Hey Fred, what are you doing here so early?” He even goes as far as asking if one particular mannequin has feelings for another mannequin. These are strange moments to experience as a viewer, but we understand why they are needed for Neville.
A turning point in the film occurs when Neville is forced to kill Sam because she became infected with the virus. In a heart-wrenching scene, he has to strangle her as she tries to attacks him. Lawrence uses a close-up to show the intense emotional pain of Neville as he is forced to kill his one true companion, his one path for interaction with a sentient being. After hearing her gasping breaths, we see her limp body fall off Neville’s lap, as Lawrence slowly dollies away from Neville, revealing that he is now truly alone.
As mentioned earlier, it is at this point that Neville loses all faith. When he had Sam, he at least had a glimmer of hope in finding a cure. He had a living individual which responded to him and related to him. When he goes back to the video store with the mannequins, he begins talking to them. But this time he cannot fake it—he knows they are not real and cannot hear him. He ends up breaking down beside one of them, pleading, “Please say hello to me.” The need for human contact with other humans becomes abundantly clear in this emotional scene. Living in isolation from other humans for extended periods of time has serious negative consequences, and the film comments repeatedly on the essentialness of human contact. In the end, Neville, resorting to the fact that he will never find a cure and anyone to replace Sam, foolishly drives at night and runs into the infected mutants. He is about to be killed by the mutant leader, but is rescued at the last second by a human survivor of the plague, Anna (Alice Braga) and her son Ethan (Charlie Tahan).
Earlier in the film, Lawrence began subtly introducing the philosophical themes of the film through the mise-en-scène. In particular, in the beginning we see posters saying, “God still loves us. Do we still love Him?” The posters immediately raise the debate of whether the virus was man’s doing or God’s planning. This debate fully comes to light when Anna tells Neville that there is a survivor’s colony in Vermont. Neville immediately refutes it, telling Anna that “nothing happened the way it was supposed to happen” and that there is no survivor’s colony. Anna pushes Neville further, explaining that something told her to turn on the radio and hear his broadcast and that this is all part of “God’s plan.” Neville takes extreme exception to this, and proceeds to tell Anna the statistics of the virus and its death tolls. He ends his rant by confidently exclaiming, “There is NO God. There is NO God.” At this point they are interrupted as they are attacked by the mutants who followed Anna home when she rescued Neville.
This discussion between Anna and Neville forms the core of the film’s philosophical agenda. Anna demonstrates a clear faith in God and his plan for humanity, while Neville cannot accept a God would exist given the effects of the virus. Furthermore, Neville does not believe in any divine intervention, as he states, “God did not do this Anna, we did.” He believes the virus is all man’s doing and humanity is to blame. Anna, on the other hand, firmly holds to the belief that everything happens for a reason, and that all that has happened over the past couple years has a purpose. This opens up the complex theological debate of human free will vs. divine intervention. Do we as humans truly have the freedom to do what we want, or are we being guided by God and is He in control of everything that happens? It is certainly a mind-boggling idea and discussion, and viewers cannot help but ponder the idea after watching the film.
In conclusion, Francis Lawrence’s I Am Legend offers much more than the typical sci-fi film. First and foremost, it comments on humanity’s need for interaction with each other. We are social beings, communicating with each other in one way or another countless times each day. When we take that away and become isolated, we cannot help but look for ways to compensate for the absence as Neville did through several ways in the film. Secondly, the film raises the complex theological discussion of human free will and divine intervention, a discussion that is fiercely debated by religious and non-religious people today. In the end, Lawrence’s film ends up being a deeply emotional thrill ride that has strong psychological and philosophical aspects that are relevant and continue to be relevant for all of society today.