About 10 minutes into the new Will Smith movie I Am Legend, which opens in Manhattan theaters on Friday, my heart rate went up to about 200 and stayed there for the next hour and a half.
Staggering back out into Times Square’s holiday crush from the screening room it seemed we’d just been through an aerobic workout before even facing the crowds of tourists and commuters—surprisingly not zombies.
And the lingering questions were weird ones. Would corn naturally grow in Madison Square Park if humanity were wiped out, or did Will Smith have to plant it there himself? Should I get a German shepherd?
But what really stuck was this: why is Hollywood (and, it sometimes seems, much of the rest of the world the world) so keen to see New York City obliterated?
The movie is scary. Scary in the don’t-look-over-in-that-dark-corner-Will-Smith-there’s-a-zombie way that you already know from every horror movie since Nosferatu, but also terrifying in a "holy crap, this is how it could all go down" kind of way.
I Am Legend is based on Richard Matheson’s 1954 book, which has been the source material for all sorts of science-horror movies, and written way before we were scared of airplanes flying into buildings, biological warfare, and of funny-sounding but deadly diseases like bird flu. It’s hard to know anymore what to be more scared of: the weather or germs. But New York seems to get it either way, with tidal waves crashing through midtown in The Day After Tomorrow or aliens bursting through sidewalks in last year’s War of the Worlds (yes, New Jersey, but close enough) and covering the people with a sickeningly-familiar gray ash. And there’s more to come: the trailer for J.J. Abram’s much buzzed-over Cloverfield shows the Statue of Liberty’s head being blown off. Great.
The premise of the movilete goes like this: a scientist (a brilliant, un-credited cameo by Emma Thompson) announces she’s cured cancer with a man-made virus. Except, whoops! The virus mutates, goes airborne, and those infected change into gnashing-toothed, red-eyed monsters with an apparent insatiable appetite for human flesh.
A couple of years later—with the exception of Will Smith’s Robert Neville, a military virologist with a sweet Washington Square Park townhouse and even sweeter doggie companion (yay, vacancy rates!)—humans are no more. At least, not as humans.
All the chomp-chomp-chomp of zombie attacks scare in predictable horror-movie fashion, but that’s nothing compared to the feeling of dread that settles in when director Francis Lawrence shows his New York City of the future: desolate with grass growing up and over Park Avenue sidewalks, deserted cars abandoned in the streets, the only sound of life is the flock of birds flying overhead or the herds of deer going for a romp up Lexington (until one gets eaten by a lion, sigh).
Even more stressful are the scenes of absolute panic, shown in flashback, of a desperate city trying to evacuate "the island" as the virus spreads. Um, does anyone else remember a certain day in September not too long ago when it was announced Manhattan was being shut down? Does it really seem that far-fetched anymore to see fighter planes blow up the Brooklyn Bridge?
Holiday Bonus Time: Apparently the pandemic reached its zenith during the Christmas season, and bright twinkly lights adorn the city streets as people run screaming for an exit.
Three years later, Will Smith prowls for food and distraction through an echoingly empty city that’s still adorned with dulled and dingy Christmas decorations from auld lang syne. Oh come on, Warner Brothers! Like the holidays aren’t hard enough.
We love that our local newscasters get to pop up in these big budget films (Hi, Roma Torre!), but listening to these familiar faces give the apocalyptic news doesn’t feel quite fantastical … it just feels creepily right somehow. Deep down, don’t you know the first to broadcast the news of Manhattan being overtaken by killer bees or a new strain of the measles will be NY1’s Pat Kiernan?
Isn’t it time to give Boston a turn? What’s Philly up to these days? Let’s give that Liberty Bell a whack. Or better yet, watch the Hollywood sign tumble down from the hills.