Francis Lawrence’s 2007 version of I Am Legend was a box-office smash taking just shy of $600 million dollars worldwide, with Will Smith proving the Fresh Prince was the King of Hollywood for a reason. The film itself is good but suffers from a poor third act, collapsing into the most formulaic of gung-ho endings with the strangest deus ex machina explanation of proceedings.
What if things had been different? What if that dark, unrelentingly bleak opening had continued throughout? What if the non-humans were not simply an army of CGI monsters but beautifully-crafted beings of prosthetics and animatronics? What if the script was a tight psychological thriller/horror by Skyfall/Gladiator scribe John Logan?
What if Ridley Scott had directed I Am Legend?
Back in the late 1990s, science fiction cinema was booming. Stargate, Mars Attacks!, Contact, 12 Monkeys and Alien 3 all came out with middling-to-strong box office results – Star Trek films, meanwhile appeared almost annually – thus the market was primed for an I Am Legend star vehicle.
Warner Bros. owned the rights to Richard Matheson’s novel, having purchased them for the Charlton Heston-starrer The Omega Man (1971). They were eager to begin again with haste so as to enjoy sci-fi’s wave of popularity, hiring Mark Protosevich (scribe of Spike Lee’s Oldboy remake) to deliver a spec script. His script, which bore strong similarities with Matheson’s novel, impressed – with the story now set in San Francisco in the year 2000.
Sir Ridley signed on in early 1997, agreeing to work with Protosevich’s script, with Arnold Schwarzenegger set to star as the resourceful lone survivor Robert Neville. By July 1997, production was slated for a September start date with locations lined up, and everything – on the surface – was fine. However, Scott was never truly impressed by Protosevich’s original script and turned to his friend and scribe John Logan. Logan, who would eventually follow Scott onto Gladiator, had spent months providing ideas and creating several drafts of a dystopian LA destroyed by the virus.
The Scott/Logan version of I Am Legend was a bold, artistic mash of sci-fi action and psychological thriller, without dialogue in the first hour and with a sombre ending. The script is delightfully dark and thoughtful with the dialogue taut and intense. The shocks are there too and the deep existential intensity of the script would’ve allowed Scott to deliver his wide, expansive awe-inspiring shots. See for yourself here.
However, the idealistic cinematic hopes of Scott and Logan worked better in their own minds than those of the producers and accountants. The bold, almost silent, opening hour was just one of a series of problems Warner Bros. had with the project. The sombre ending, the overly negative story and a lack of commercial and merchandising appeal lead Warner to become much more forceful about how their money was being spent.
From the studio’s P.O.V., John Logan had yet to have any of his work produced, and Scott had come off the back of three box office and critical disappointments (1492: Conquest of Paradise, White Squall and G.I. Jane). These factors would never create an overwhelming atmosphere of confidence. It was not until Gladiator that Sir Ridley reasserted his directorial prowess and prestige. Discouraged by the psychological emphasis over action beats, Protosevich was brought back in against Scott’s wishes.
Entering December 1997, the problems were ever increasing. The budget had now hit $108 million with no footage to show for it, causing shareholders to pressure Warner Bros. to intervene and stop the costs spiralling any further out of control. When considering Warner Bros.’ own box office failures with sci-fi flicks such as Sphere and The Postman, both led by A-listers such as Samuel L. Jackson, Dustin Hoffman and Kevin Costner, it’s clear that the studio were not willing to suffer another flop and its economic repercussions. To further reinforce this worrying thesis, Schwarzenegger had seen his last film, Warner Bros.’ very own Batman and Robin, falter spectacularly – with the later Governor earning a Razzie nomination as Worst Supporting Actor.
Despite the cracks, Scott desperately tried to save the project, rewriting the script to reduce the budget by $20 million. However, in March 1998, the studio pulled the plug.
Recently, footage emerged of what Scott had in mind for his mutants. Rather than rely on CGI, Scott favoured the art of makeup, prosthetics and animatronics. It’s some truly stunning work.
When asked by Empire in the media tour for Prometheus about the failed project, he said “I Am Legend was taken right to the wire and it was only brought down because the budget was too high at the time. It was a mere $106 million, which to me now seems a medium-sized film, but it was shot down because I said I couldn’t reduce it any further. So I crossed the street and made Gladiator instead. It was a good move.” The director has never come across as a sentimental fellow, and it seems he’s definitely lost no sleep over this one.
With hindsight, it seems idiotic to turn down such a gorgeous concept as Schwarzenegger and Scott working in sync, and creating something truly iconic – yet to wholly critique the execs who play the numbers game is ridiculous when the context is considered. All the same, the vision of huge underground ‘anti-cathedrals’ full of feral mutants, as planned by Scott, is just jaw-dropping and truly in line with what Matheson originally had written. If only…
Credit to Empire, Wikipedia and David Hughes’ amazing book The Greatest Sci-Fi Movies Never Made, which provided the inspiration for this feature. Buy it here.