There was to be a great joke played out in the latest film incarnation of Richard Matheson’s novel of the last surviving man on Earth. The old racist movie cliché is that if a black man is one of the central cast, he’ll be the first to die. So casting a black man as the last surviving man in Matheson’s tale seemed like perfectly mad twist given how the book ends, a joke that would do Renny Harlin’s DEEP BLUE SEA, where LL Cool J is the lone survivor against smart shark attacks, one better. However, Hollywood’s commercial belief in soothing heroic endings turns the casting of Will Smith as Robert Neville into something of a sick hoax where the old cliché is given new life for the current generation.
In the book, Neville is described as a white scientist with blue eyes and blond hair, weighing in at 200 and some odd pounds. While having an English name, he’s also of Germanic origin. The Master Race parallel was obviously intentional, given that the story is about our species' one lone survivor indiscriminately killing off the now dominant competitors. 'Indiscriminately,' because although his rivals in this Darwinian competition look the same, have the same feeding patterns, similar totemic fears of garlic and religious icons, and the same nocturnal behavior patterns, they're of two types: a more bestial, lower order form and a mutant human-vamp hybrid capable of highly rational thought. Neville is a classic tragic figure, holding on to the last vestiges of our civilization’s rationality by pathologically trying to find a cure for vampirism even though he’s immune and more than willing to annihilate the Other through a more physical remedy while it sleeps. His success via the latter means has made him a fearsome legend in the hybrid community as the ravager of their race.
It’s no wonder, then, that Ridley Scott wanted that Teutonic slab of manhood, Arnold Schwarzenegger, to play the role in his version, which ultimately faltered for budgetary reasons. Despite his Aryan taint – or the cynic might say because of it – Arnold is what The Industry calls a likable star, enjoyable to watch, regardless of how many ethnicities he might be mowing down. Money in the bank. So seeing him playing out Matheson’s hero as the chickens come home to roost would’ve made for a great ironic tale, but alas you’re only as likable as your last picture, and his previous few didn’t do so hot.
Enter Will Smith, as likable a star as Hollywood currently has, even more so than Tom Hanks. When an actor was needed to play controversial figure, Muhammad Ali, Smith was a natural choice given Hollywood’s ratiocination. I’m sure it went something like he’d help us all identify with Ali during his most divisive period. White America has never warmed up to the Nation of Islam, after all. It’s barely reading between the lines to see how “likable” translates to “bankable” and “bankable” translates to “appeals to white audiences” and “appeals to white audiences” translates to “tends not to bring up any racial issues that might disturb said white audiences.” Thus, if you’re going to change the racial makeup of Matheson’s last man on Earth, let it be a black man who’s very likable. Helps us identify with him. Mighty white of the producers.
Whatever machinations might have existed to place Smith in the role, he has the chops to carry off the extended quiet scenes of a very lonely guy whose only companion is his dog, Sam, and a bunch of showroom dummies (a big surprise to me, I must admit, since I’ve never found him any more prone to nuance than Arnold). If tv movie reviewers aren’t already talking about Oscar nods, it’s only because his performance is in a sci-fi flick. I resisted seeing director Francis Lawrence’s last picture, CONSTANTINE, for some like-minded changes that were foisted on comic book character, John Constantine. Presumably for purposes of identification (this time meaning to an American audience), the thoroughly dark British Sting-lookalike became the more likable American star, Keanu Reeves, and his struggle in the wicked arts was transplanted to sunny Southern California. Casting Smith, on the other hand, promised some new and interesting commentary on its source material, rather than making hash of its symbolic structure. And had screenwriters, Akiva Goldsman and Mark Protosevich, kept to Matheson’s basic story, it would have, but they didn’t.
Imagine a black man behaving in the same way as Matheson’s white hero, futilely trying to eradicate the Other as if it’s another form of virus, or degenerate vermin. When Neville is captured by the hybrid race and has to come to terms with his mission being not much more than some perfunctory last ditch effort at eugenics, the film would’ve played out like a version of “only I’m allowed to call my brother an asshole.” Like the recessive genes that lead to the phenotypes of blue eyes and blond hair, Neville, black or white, possesses a natural immunity to vampirism. And when the biological chips are down, the illusion of race gives way to an irrational, biologically derived need to protect the species, side with the family that’s neglected you for years. It might’ve proved a disturbing tale to those who believe a history of oppression and lack of cultural power obtains an intrinsic trait of morality to minorities and/or those people who have been oppressed. Any of those differences in people that exist today would prove to be not much more than empty signifiers when humanity itself is a minority of 1. Now that’s what I would call a valuable use of identification.
But this film is a blockbuster aimed at the December market, so what we get are vampires who are, at best, beginning to function on a level slightly above that of Bud in Romero’s DAY OF THE DEAD. They’re capable of following indexical commands through deep-level growls (supplied by Mike Patton) and can duplicate the actions of Neville (copying his Rube Goldberg traps, but not inexplicably his ability to drive the cars placed there by Ford’s advertising department). This keeps the evolutionary struggle between Neville and vamps somewhere on a par with lions chasing deer (both of which are shown running around in sequestered Manhattan), rather than exploring the ontological implications that Matheson’s vampires have for humans. Neville is still fastidiously trying to find a cure, but he doesn’t much hunt for vampires during the day, except for the occasional test specimen. Most crucially and most stupidly, Neville’s encounter in the book with a hybrid female who dupes him is replaced by an encounter with a real woman and child with a promise of salvation in a hypothetical community of humans living in Vermont. Neville is shown being a devout Christian in flashback, but one who has come to reject God in his solitude. When the mysterious woman, Anna, and the child, Ethan, save him from attempted suicide, she reveals that God told her of the commune. He yells at her, giving her empirical reasons for why there’s no reason for hope, but the audience know it’s just about Christmas and science never wins these debates in popular fantasies.
Just as vampires are invading Neville’s house, he and Anna discover that his cure is working on a captured female vampire. It’s at this point where the movie begins to truly make mincemeat pie of just about every significant philosophical aspect of the novel. As the vampire hordes are crashing in on the humans, Neville gives a sample of the recuperating vampire’s blood to Anna, puts her in a safe room of some sort and sacrifices himself by blowing the horde up with a grenade, all for the salvation of humanity. The hoax to which I alluded at the beginning of this essay is that Anna and the child, both white (well, alright, she’s Brazilian), survive in a movie purportedly about the last man on Earth who also happens to black. Compound this stupidity with her arrival to the commune, whereupon big iron doors are opened to reveal what is by and large a bunch of fucking white people in a town’s square looking like Mayberry, with a big symbolic white steeple dead center in the screen, and you get a backwards racialist and religious fabled-styled ending; one that could only be inadvertently created in our sensitive times through just the right mixture of identity politics, generic feel-good naïveté and economically determined choices. The filmmakers might as well have replaced Anna’s voiceover at the end with the West Texas drawl of Sam Elliot saying, “We hear tell of this legend, some black fella who sacrificed hisself so that we might survive. That’s right noble of him and we all sure wish we could thank him.” It’s not quite as offensively hilarious as 300, which didn’t even try to be decent, but it comes close. Keep hope alive.