I Am Legend
Director : Francis Lawrence
Screenplay : Mark Protosevich and Akiva Goldsman (based on the novel by Richard Matheson)
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 2007
Stars : Will Smith (Robert Neville), Alice Braga (Anna), Charlie Tahan (Ethan), Salli Richardson (Zoe), Willow Smith (Marley), Darrell Foster (Military Escort), April Grace (TV Personality), Dash Mihok (Alpha Male), Joanna Numata (Alpha Female), Samuel Glen (Military Driver)
In its opening passages, I Am Legend, the third screen adaptation of Richard Matheson's deeply influential 1954 novel, creates with startlingly effectiveness the creepy, despondent aura of what it would be like to be alone in the world. The story is set in the urban jungle of New York City, which, having been deserted for three years following a human-eradicating virus plague, is beginning to resemble an actual jungle with unchecked plant and weed growth breaking through the pavement and crawling up the concrete. Animals wander through the maze of abandoned cars in the streets, and while there is no overt decay in the buildings, we are struck by just how strange the city looks without anyone in it. It is, in essence, a zombie: the shell of something that was once living, but is now devoid of a soul.
We are introduced to Robert Neville (Will Smith), who is apparently the only human being left on Earth. A former Army scientist, he lives in Manhattan with a faithful German shepherd named Sam. Together they hunt and forage the remains of civilization during the day, and as soon as the sun begins to set, they hole up in Neville's steel-reinforced penthouse. For a while the reason for this is left tantalizingly vague, with only awful noises in the pitch blackness of night suggesting that there is something out there from which they are hiding. We soon learn that Neville does this because there are others who survived the plague, but were turned into light-sensitive mutants that come out at night and feed. Our first glimpse of them comes in a terrifically tense scene in which Neville must follow Sam into a darkened building where they have congregated to stay out of the sun. Unfortunately, the more we see of them, the less effective they are.
Intercut into the present-day narrative are terrible flashbacks in which Neville tried to get his wife and child (Salli Richardson and Willow Smith) out of Manhattan as the military was cutting off the island, quarantining it in a vain attempt to contain the outbreak of the virus. We know the quarantine has failed because the film opens with news footage of a British scientist (Emma Thompson) explaining how she has genetically engineered a virus that has effectively “cured cancer,” which is then followed by a brilliant shock cut to three years later in which we find the deserted environs of New York. Thus, the scenes of Neville and his family are less flashbacks than they are nightmares in which Neville struggles against the impossible.
That the population-destroying virus is our fault--a cure for cancer that ended up damning the human race--is a virtual given in dystopian science fiction, and one of the curious changes from Matheson's novel is making Neville a scientist who was at least partly responsible for its development, which is what drives him to continue his experiments in a basement lab. We get the sense that he wants to cure the virus not only to give the human race a second chance, but to save his own soul. The race for a cure is punctuated by what appears to be Neville's dwindling sanity, an element that is conveyed with great authority by Smith in several sequences in which his charm cracks and we see the splintered anguish within.
The first half of the film is an intriguing catalog of the details of Neville's day-to-day existence as the only man left on earth--exercising in his apartment, checking the almanac for the exact time of sunset so he can set his digital watch, picking up a new DVD each day (“Halfway through the G's,” he tells the mannequins he has set up in the store to approximate some form of human interaction), and driving out to the pier where he waits for other living humans. At the same time, we are piecing together exactly what has happened and why he appears to be the last human on earth. Director Francis Lawrence (Constantine) keeps the tension high, drawing as much potency from the film's uncanny locations as possible, and Will Smith proves that, like Tom Hanks, he can hold the screen doing virtually anything, even carrying on conversations with a mannequin.
For everything that is good about it, though, I Am Legend struggles against two primary problems. The first is the night-crawling mutants, which are dubbed “Dark Seekers.” Their vampiric qualities have been drastically changed from the source novel, turning them instead into rather generic screeching zombies in the 28 Days Later (2003) mold. This would be fine in and of itself, but screenwriters Mark Protosevich and Akiva Goldsman are wildly inconsistent in their treatment of the Seekers, presenting them as both ravenous, mindless hoards and as cunning, skillful hunters who are clever enough to replicate one of Neville's own traps to catch him. Much worse, though, is their visual presentation. Aside from truly creepy initial glimpses we get of them in the dark, they are presented in embarrassingly cartoonish CGI that robs them of much of their power. What is worse is that the CGI does little to expand on what flesh-and-blood actors in well-done make-up could have accomplished, unless we consider the elongated screech of the lead Seeker, which aurally sends chills up your spine, but visually does little more than bring back bad memories of the equally lousy digital effects in The Mummy Returns (2001).
The film's other problem is the awkward manner in which it tacks hope onto what is essentially a hopeless narrative. Apocalyptic science fiction rarely ends well, and 30 years ago it was acceptable for a studio film to follow the essence of such narratives to their logical conclusions. Today the audience, however battered and abused during the film's running time by shock jolts and forlorn hopelessness, must be rewarded in the end with an uplifting coda that ensures, in the words of Bob Marley, the film's vocal stand-in for everything hopeful, that everything is going to be alright.
Copyright ©2007 James Kendrick
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