I am Legend (Lawrence, 2007) finally made its way to the top of my Netflix queue this week. I didn’t really care if I ever saw it, but my wife thought it sounded good. Ironically (or maybe due to our various levels of expectation), she ended up thinking it was really boring and too slow, and I ended up thinking it wasn’t too bad.
I liked the slow, quiet parts of the film that explored the psychology of Will Smith’s character Robert Neville. I haven’t read the original novel, and I haven’t seen the Charleton Heston version The Omega Man (Sagal, 1971), so I couldn’t be disappointed in how unfaithful the film was to the earlier versions. And, sure, the special effects are bad and the zombies look like computer generated cartoon characters, but that kind of thing doesn’t bother me. I’m more interested in story, character, and theme. So I was pleasantly surprised to find out that the film was about one of my philosophical interests: the problem of evil. Unfortunately, I’m not sure the movie has much to say of philosophical interest.
The movie sets up the problem in its starkest form. When he finally meets another human survivor, Anna, who claims to have been led to him by God, Neville responds by rehearsing the havoc wreaked by the zombie-creating Krippen Virus: “Let me tell you about your ‘God’s plan’. Six billion people on Earth when the infection hit. KV had a ninety-percent kill rate, that’s five point four billion people dead. Crashed and bled out. Dead. Less than one-percent immunity. That left twelve million healthy people, like you, me, and Ethan. The other five hundred and eighty-eight million turned into your dark seekers, and then they got hungry and they killed and fed on everybody. Everybody! Every single person that you or I has ever known is dead! Dead! There is no God!”
Anna wants to take Neville to a colony of survivors, but Neville doesn’t believe there is any such colony. Not only is there no God, there are no other humans: we are utterly alone in the universe. But at the climax of the film, Neville does indeed hear the voice of God telling him to sacrifice himself to save the world. He becomes so obvious a Christ-figure that it is literally his blood which will provide the cure to the virus. Then Anna takes the cure to the colony of survivors, giving them hope for the future.
So what’s the point? Is it simply that we should not give up hope? That we should have a kind of blind faith that there is a God, that God has a plan, and that we are not alone? Whatever the message of the movie is, it seems to be summed up by Neville’s speech about reggae musician Bob Marley: “He had this idea. It was kind of a virologist idea. He believed that you could cure racism and hate — literally cure it, by injecting music and love into people’s lives. One day he was scheduled to perform at a peace rally, gunmen came to his house and shot him down. Two days later, he walked out on that stage and sang. Somebody asked him ‘why‘ he said: ‘The people that are trying to make this world worse are not taking a day off — how can I? — Light up the darkness.” Again, the point seems to be that we should keep the faith and continue to fight the good fight in spite of the fact that, to all appearances, we are making no difference. It’s a rather traditional theodicy.
Note the line about “the people that are tyring to make this world worse”. Combined with the fact that this movie takes place in New York City which Neville refers to as “ground zero”, this seems to be a reference to the war on terror. Interestingly, there may be a critique here of the Bush administration’s characterization of the terrorists as people who “hate freedom” and want to destroy civilization. When Neville kidnaps a female zombie to use as a guinea pig for his anti-virus research, a male zombie risks his life to save the female. Neville rather obtusely interprets the event this way: “Behavioral note – an infected male exposed himself to sunlight today. Now it’s possible decreased brain function or growing scarcity of food is causing them to ignore their basic survival instincts. Social de-evolution appears complete. Typical human behavior is now entirely absent.” Of course, what’s really going on is that the zombies are not entirely inhuman monsters but have genuine love for one another. (This theme is made explicit in the alternate ending to the film, available on the DVD’s bonus disc.)
At another point, Neville refers to the fact that the zombie virus was a product of human technological experimentation gone wrong: “God didn’t do this, we did.” This line serves both to reinforce the traditional theodicy (by presenting evil is a result entirely of human sin and free will) as well as to suggest again a liberal viewpoint on terrorism (by implying that terrorism was in fact cultivated by America unjust foreign policies and cultural imperialism).
Whichever interpretation we emphasize (whether the reading of Neville as a Christ-figure battling absolutely evil zombies or the reading according to which both sides are morally ambiguous), the point seems to be the same: God is found in our relationships with others. It is when Neville is absolutely alone that he falls into despair about the death of God. But when he meets Anna, he learns again to hear God’s voice (significantly, through a memory of his daughter’s voice). And what is God’s voice telling us? In the words of Neville’s daily radio broadcast, “You are not alone. There is hope.” In the words of Bob Marley, we can “light up the darkness” by spreading human love like a virus.
As an answer to the problem of evil, it’s not terribly deep or original. But it’s not entirely wrong, either.