“I Am Legend,” Francis Lawrence’s post-apocalyptic thriller in which a virus genetically re-engineered to cure cancer instead destroys mankind, is famously not a documentary. You’d be hard-pressed to find people who believe its lead actor, Will Smith, to be an actual virologist for the U.S. Army.
And yet as recently as earlier this week, it behooved one of the “I Am Legend” screenwriters to clarify that the 2007 film is, in fact, a work of fiction: “Oh. My. God,” tweeted Akiva Goldsman, who co-wrote the adapted screenplay with Mark Protosevich. “It’s a movie. I made that up. It’s. Not. Real.”
In “I Am Legend,” loosely based on Richard Matheson’s 1954 novel, people who aren’t killed by the re-engineered measles virus turn into vampire-like zombies. Goldsman was responding to a snippet from a recent New York Times story about a business struggling to get its employees vaccinated, one of whom expressed concern over a vaccine turning “I Am Legend” characters into cannibalistic mutants. In the film, it isn’t actually a vaccine but the virus itself that causes the transition.
But that’s besides the point. As Goldsman tweeted, it’s all pretend.
Misinformed posts claiming that vaccines turned “I Am Legend” characters into zombies have circulated online for months, according to Reuters, which reported in December that the posts were being shared after the U.S. government authorized the use of Pfizer’s coronavirus vaccine. As of Wednesday, more than 166 million Americans have been fully vaccinated. The zombie count, however, remains at zero.
The film’s science was even debunked by experts in the immediate aftermath of its release. Reflecting on how the fictional virus becomes airborne, the director of an infectious-diseases lab at Columbia University described it to Popular Mechanics magazine at the time as sounding “pretty far-fetched.”
“Viruses don’t mutate and become airborne,” said expert source W. Ian Lipkin. “They typically fall into a couple of different categories – respiratory, STDs and vector-borne like insects, ticks and mosquitoes. They don’t change from tick-borne to pneumonic. They just don’t do that.”
Setting aside the ludicrous idea of vaccinated people turning into zombies, the urge to process real-life events by comparing them to familiar entertainment is natural. The conversation surrounding “I Am Legend” is, in some ways, almost the inverse of chatter surrounding 2011′s “Contagion” early on in the pandemic, when the latter became one of the most streamed titles on Netflix.
Directed by Steven Soderbergh, “Contagion” follows characters situated throughout a world struggling to contain the fictional virus MEV-1. In light of the coronavirus pandemic, the film was seen as almost prophetic, given how it portrayed science far more accurately than many of the outbreak storytelling that preceded it. The team consulted with real epidemiologists while working on the project – coincidentally including Lipkin, the expert who debunked the “I Am Legend” science years before.
One critique they often received from the scientific community, screenwriter Scott Z. Burns told The Washington Post in April 2020, was that “in the movie it seems like we came up with a vaccine too quickly.”
“My understanding is that coming up with a vaccine itself is only a part of the battle and not even the hardest part,” he said. “To kill the virus in a petri dish is one thing. To make a vaccine that will not hurt people, that is safe, that does what we need it to do without it doing things we don’t want it to do, is a painstaking process that requires doing trials that are safe before you scale up production.”
Burns wasn’t wrong. But scientists were thankfully able to reach a point where they could safely produce and distribute coronavirus vaccines – none of which produce a sudden urge to attack Will Smith.