Francis Lawrence’s film I Am Legend came out in 2007. While the film received only mediocre reviews, it left an impact on the public conscience. Despite being an adaptation of the 1954 novel by Richard Matheson, the text of the film reflects the fears and social anxieties that people experienced at the time and still continue to experience. The film follows a US Army virologist named Robert Neville, who tries to survive in a post-apocalyptic world.
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An extremely dangerous virus caused the majority of the human population to mutate into creatures that resemble zombies with vampire-like behavior. Neville survives alone and tries to develop a cure. Meanwhile, it is revealed that the mutants are, in fact, sentient and are capable of love. However, after Neville creates the cure, he is forced to escape and travels to find other survivors that he managed to contact just in time. While the plot of the film is simple, there are a lot of themes that can be examined. This paper will show how Lawrence explores the fear of science and the “us vs. them” mindset through the allegory of monstrosity in the 2007 film adaptation of I am Legend.
Fear of Science in the Post 9/11 United States
While the United States could be considered one of the most scientifically advanced counties of the 1990s, the scientific policy and opinion about science in general drastically changed after the events of George W. Bush’s Presidency and especially after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center. Over the period of eight years, George W. Bush’s cabinet was responsible for the complete disregard of scientific evidence on the topic of global warming, strict limitation of embryonic stem cell research, and a variety of anti-enlightenment policies (Acosta and Golub 419; Pugh 41). These choices were not made without support in the form of political advertising, which played on the fears of people who could not understand the complex scientific endeavors that these policies affected (Suhay and Druckman 6).
It is plausible that Lawrence chose to represent those fears in the form of a virus that transformed the majority of the world into hostile and seemingly inhuman creatures. The film uses a lot of very dark imagery of New York that echoes some of the footage of the city after the terrorist attacks. The choice of the main character being a virologist is also deliberate because he represents both the problem and the solution to it.
The director is completely aware of the danger that uncontrolled science may bring. Reflections of man-made viruses, maliciously created genetically modified organisms, mutations from chemical and radioactive pollution can be seen throughout the film. However, the film does not paint science as the true villain as it may seem from the outset. Science is always neutral, despite the good and evil things that humanity may create through research.
It can even be argued that there is no true evil force in the film since both humans and mutants are only trying to survive, despite their completely different ways of life. Nevertheless, science is seen as both the villain and the savior of this world, which provides a valuable commentary on the nature of science after a long period of unscientific rhetoric from the ruling party (Golub and Hayton 80; Kellner 13).
Othering Through Scientific Negligence
Another theme that is touched upon in this film is the alienation of anyone who does not look or behave like “us.” Lawrence utilizes a classic approach to science fiction by creating an “us vs. them” mentality in both the main character and the viewer through the inhuman appearance of the antagonists and a very late revelation of their sentient nature. While the behavior of the mutants is completely unlike that of a human, they are capable of love and affection.
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In an alternate ending, it is even revealed that they may still have memories of their previous lives. However, the film does not explore the notion of cohabitation or communication with them beyond a very short scene. This element of the story is a relatively overt commentary on the xenophobia that was present in the United States in the years after the 9/11 attacks. The nature of the attackers was completely foreign to non-Muslim Americans, which led to a very strong “us vs. them” mentality. A group of people that was present in the country since its establishment started to be seen as a potential enemy, which is similar to how the mutants used to be ordinary people before transforming into monsters (Heyes 1; Hwang 15).
Francis Lawrence managed to create a standout film despite having little experience in full-length cinema. His clever use of post-9/11 fears and atmospheric imagery explored difficult topics in a very accessible manner. The film is not perfect in its execution, but it is elevated by its themes and an unusual approach to conflict that is focused on the survival of both presented sides. Unfortunately, the themes explored by the film are still relevant more than a decade later. In recent years, the fear of science escalated to the point that ordinary people begin to believe in the earth being flat. The same could be said about the fear of “others.” Perhaps this era will eventually end, but the damage to society has already been done.
Acosta, Nefi D., and Sidney H. Golub. “The New Federalism: State Policies Regarding Embryonic Stem Cell Research.” The Journal of Law, Medicine & Ethics, vol. 44, no. 3, 2016, pp. 419-36.
Golub, Adam, and Heather Richardson Hayton. Monsters in the Classroom: Essays on Teaching What Scares Us. McFarland, 2017.
Heyes, Michael. “Fixing Ground Zero: Race and Religion in Francis Lawrence’s I Am Legend.” Journal of Religion & Film, vol. 21, no. 2, 2017, pp. 1-29.
Hwang, Eunju. “Stateless Within the States: American Homeland Security After 9/11 and Francis Lawrence’s I Am Legend.” European Journal of American Studies, vol. 10, no. 10–2, 2015, pp. 1-43.
Kellner, Douglas. “Social Apocalypse in Contemporary Hollywood Film.” MATRIZes, vol. 10, no. 1, 2016, pp. 13-28.
Pugh, Graham. “Clean Energy Diplomacy From Bush to Obama.” Issues in Science and Technology, vol. 31, no. 3, 2015, pp. 41-54.
Suhay, Elizabeth, and James N. Druckman. “The Politics of Science: Political Values and the Production, Communication, and Reception of Scientific Knowledge.” The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, vol. 658, no. 1, 2015, pp. 6-15.