Films have the capacity to incarnate the truth more powerfully than any other storytelling medium because, as my script-writing tutor used to remind us, “movies are motion pictures. That means they are pictures that move.” Visual action means that along with a powerful storyline, a film can show truth silently through sign and symbol.
Because it deals with the supernatural, the science fiction/horror genre provides an especially fecund field for spiritual themes to be explored. Francis Lawrence’s 2007 film I Am Legend is one of the best examples of a mainstream film that is not afraid to delve into spiritual themes through the combination of a strong storyline and powerful symbols.
The third attempt to bring Richard Matheson’s 1954 novella I Am Legend to life, the movie I Am Legend begins with a British doctor explaining how she has created an engineered virus that cures cancer. However, the hopeful virus mutates and spreads, killing ninety percent of the world’s population and turning the rest into light-sensitive Darkseekers—pale, hairless, vampire-like predators who feast on blood.
Will Smith plays virologist Dr. Robert Neville, the only healthy human left on the island of Manhattan. Living with his dog Sam in a fortress-like townhouse, Neville hunkers down at night—protected from the prowling, zombie-like Darkseekers. During the day he hunts deer in Times Square, talks to mannequin “neighbors,” sends radio signals into the silence to contact survivors, and strives in his basement lab to find a cure for the plague.
The film conveys the tense dread of living alone in an abandoned city inhabited only by humans who have turned into monsters. The atmosphere of a New York that has become a jungle is terrifying, and Mr. Smith’s performance as the lonely Neville is suspenseful, tragic, warmhearted, and winning.
In watching the film a third time, what intrigued me was the subtle use of Christian imagery and the thoughtful way spiritual themes were evoked. The “darkseekers” echo the horror of those who “love the darkness rather than the light because their deeds are evil” (Jn. 3:19). Infected with a horrible virus, they have become voracious and violently irrational subhuman beasts. With their preternatural strength and aversion to the light they are like the sin-obsessed and demon-possessed.
Believing that they can be cured, Neville works for their salvation. Cleverly, the film writer portrays Neville as a man of lost faith and hope. Actor Will Smith said that he was inspired by the story of Job and saw Neville as a figure abandoned by all, including God.
The story turns as Neville has reached rock bottom. About to be overcome by the Darkseekers, he is rescued by a Brazilian woman named Anna and a boy named Ethan who have survived and responded to his prayer-like radio requests.
Keen-eyed viewers will spot a rosary hanging from the car’s mirror, for Anna turns out to be a woman of faith who claims to hear God’s voice. She assures Neville that, despite the terror, there is a greater plan and all will one day be well. He rebels against her answer, but returns to it when he finally “sees the butterfly.”
What butterfly? This YouTube film collects the butterflies in I Am Legend. We first see a butterfly in a poster that says “God Still Loves Us,” then in the flashback scenes in which we see Neville’s wife and daughter in a terror-stricken New York. As they hurry to the evacuation point, the child makes a butterfly with her hands and repeats, “Look at the butterfly.” Later Neville and Sam see a butterfly while picking corn. Finally when the mutant throws himself against the window at the end of the film, the glass shatters into a huge butterfly pattern. Neville then turns and sees that there is a butterfly tattoo on Anna’s neck and suddenly he “sees the butterfly” and senses the reality of a greater plan of providence. The butterfly, of course, is a classic symbol of resurrection—the caterpillar “dies” in the tomb of the cocoon only to emerge transformed into a thing of beauty and symbol of life.
The symbolism of blood also recurs throughout the film. The Darkseekers are vampire-like bloodsuckers, and echoing the Old Testament “the life of the flesh is in the blood,” theirs is a sick addiction to blood. During a final attack by the mutants, Neville takes a curative vial of blood from the victim who was saved by his treatment. Trapped in the basement with Anna and Ethan the Darkseekers attack. Neville hides Anna and Ethan in a coal bunker and detonates a grenade, thus killing the mutants and sacrificing himself. Anna takes the vial of blood to a colony of survivors, thereby saving the world by the sacrifice of Neville and the precious blood.
Critics who have spotted the Christian symbolism have complained that it spoils the story. While the symbolism is not as obvious as allegory, it is clearly conscious. While Christian truths are not woven into the story as deeply as they are, for example,in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, still the storyline and symbols carry a strong Christian message displayed powerfully through symbol, visual imagery, and a successful storyline that incarnates the themes of darkness, evil, and the ultimate redemption of a world too often immune to the Christian gospel.
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