Naomi Levy, in her book To Begin Again, tells the story of a parishioner in her synagogue who survived a brutal attack on Yom Kippur. The victim asked: “Where was God? Was God so busy at the Yom Kippur service in synagogue that God forgot about me?”
“I Am Legend,” based on Richard Matheson’s 1954 novel, tells a story in which the question “Where is God?” can be easily asked. In “Legend,” now playing, we see a post-apocalyptic world where a virus has killed everyone on the island of Manhattan, except Col. Robert Neville (Will Smith). Neville is an Army scientist immune to the virus, which originated as an attempt to cure cancer. Now it’s a quick-spreading disease that either kills or turns people into vampire-like zombies.
The isolated Neville broadcasts a message to any who would hear, saying he’s at the harbor each day at noon. Activity must be done in the daylight, you see, for the zombies move about in the darkness. They live only to consume any living thing.
New York City is full of empty cars and stores and devoid of any normal person, except Neville. Wanting to reverse the virus’ effects, he spends his nights working on a cure. Believing that science gone wrong brought this disease, Neville believes science and his dedication can change things back to what they once were. “God did not do this,” declares Neville. “It was man.”
“I Am Legend” is a grim story. It’s the third time Matheson’s novel has been adapted (the first being “The Last Man on Earth” in 1964; the second, “The Omega Man” in 1971, starred Charlton Heston).
But “Legend,” which bowed last weekend in the biggest December opening ever with more than $76 million, has a clear theological point: Where is God when something bad happens? Neville believes there is no God. And if there is a God, then God has been busy elsewhere. Neville believes it’s up to him to solve the problem.
But the problem seems unfixable, the circumstance unchangeable. Each attempt to combat the virus fails, so Neville’s abilities seem insufficient.
God does appear in the movie, however, in an unexpected form. It seems to illustrate a verse from Zechariah: “Not by might, nor by power, but by my spirit, says the Lord of Hosts.” God appears in the form that God has chosen before, but can Neville see this divine intervention?
Will Smith carries “I Am Legend” with his performance. His charm comes through, even in this bleak story. But even Smith cannot overcome a badly paced story and a forced ending.
Nevertheless, the larger issue of God’s presence in the midst of tragedy makes the movie more than just another theme-park experience with special effects. It can prompt discussion of how God works in the midst of tragedy.
Mike Parnell is pastor of Beth Car Baptist Church in Halifax, Va.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi action and violence.
Director: Francis Lawrence
Writers: Mark Protosevich and Akiva Goldsman
Cast: Robert Neville: Will Smith; Anna: Alice Braga; Ethan: Charlie Tahan; Zoe: Salli Richardson; Marley: Willow Smith.
Michael Parnell is pastor of Temple Baptist Church in Raleigh, North Carolina. He is married and has two boys. His love is for movies, and he can be found in a theater most Fridays.