We watched the recent film I Am Legend with our older children last night. It is quite a powerful film, with lots of interesting discussion material in it.
But what really gave rise to a quite extensive family discussion was the very short Hong Kong animation that followed the movie on the DVD version we watched.
It is silent, the same story, a girl alone in a deserted world. She finds her way to a bridge and jumps off it as her way of dealing with the situation. “What a downer!” was the immediate, universal reaction.
It – probably unwittingly – served to draw an amazingly clear line under the fact that Dr Neville (Will Smith) in the film did not ever give up; he remained absolutely, almost maniacally, committed to trying to find a cure for this dreadful virus, despite the apparent hopelessness of the cause.
As my daughter pointed out, the film and the animation expressed completely opposite attitudes in dealing with a terrifying and apparently hopeless situation.
You can live with hope or without hope. Your hope can derive from markedly different sources – for Dr Neville his belief in himself, that he can find a cure somehow by dint of continuing research and experimentation, and for Anna and Ethan, the other survivors who eventually find him, belief in what she describes as a “message from God” that there is a colony of survivors in Vermont.
The important thing is that they believe that they must go on striving, seeking, searching. In Dr Neville’s case, his belief in himself eventually transmutes into a belief that a higher power than his own ability is very much in play here.
The element of synchronicity – that Anna comes at that precise moment for a reason, that she is to be the messenger who delivers the cure, leads to Dr Neville’s sudden moment of understanding that there is much more at work here than just what he is doing and that in fact others have a vital role also.
His subsequent decision to sacrifice his life to enable her and her son to escape with the cure was so absolutely contrary to the tragically hopeless loneliness and despair portrayed in the animation.
Though both end in the death of the protagonist, a death chosen and embraced freely, one has a definite, selfless purpose of salvation of others, whilst the other has an empty, tragic uselessness one that is just ultimately pointless and disturbing.
The idea of a hero willingly giving his life to save or defend the many even when it seems a useless sacrifice is such a powerful motif in Western culture, and the belief that such an act is radically redemptive in some way is present in the earliest western literature.
The bottom line is that there must always be a compelling reason for the hero to choose death, and that reason in the most effective of these stories always involves the good of others.
There is a nod to this tradition in the title, referring to Anna’s recognition that what Dr Neville is about to do is the stuff of heroic legend.
It is reassuring to discover that our children still prefer archetypical heroes – and that they are still good box-office…