Richard Matheson’s 1954 novella I Am Legend is no stranger to screen adaptations. Originally filmed in 1964 as Last Man on Earth it starred Vincent Price as Dr. Robert Morgan, the only survivor of a world-wide epidemic who is being hounded by zombified plague victims. A few years later it was updated with flared trousers and afro hairstyles as The Omega Man starring Charlton Heston’s hairy chest and clenched teeth. Now the sci fi classic is being given a third life—it’s a tri-make—with Will Smith as government virologist Robert Neville, in what is certainly the loudest version of the story ever committed to celluloid.
The film begins, however, with quiet contemplation. Smith and his trusty dog Sam are alone in New York City, now an overgrown shell of a city where deer run wild in Times Square. Their daylight hours are spent searching for food, hitting golf balls into the Hudson and setting up a welcome wagon on NY’s South Street Seaport for any stray survivors. So far none have shown up.
At night though, things get a bit more complicated.
Once the sun goes down pasty-faced plague-infected zombies come out to play, and they like to play rough. For three years Neville has carefully avoided contact with the beasties; he’ll occasionally trapping one to try out a newly concocted antidote but that’s it.
Soon though his luck runs out and his quiet life is upended when he stays out after sundown and the ghouls attack. The confrontation temporarily unhinges him and he decides on a suicide mission to kill himself and as many of the zombies as possible.
His death wish is thwarted by a woman (Alice Braga) and her young son (Charlie Tahan) who appear out of nowhere and save him from a grisly death at the hands (and mouths) of the hungry flesh eaters. He should be happy to see the pair, but after three years of solitude his social skills have deteriorated somewhat. She tries to convince him to join her on a trip to a “safe” community in Vermont. He’s convinced there are no other survivors, let alone a community of them living in the mountains and tries to get her to stay put in his heavily fortified hide out.
Unfortunately for them the creatures of the night have discovered their hiding place. At this point the movie literally ends with a bang. After a smart and stylish first half it’s as if the filmmakers decided to pay homage to one of Will Smith’s older films, only this time it’s called Bad Boys III: When Angry Zombies Attack. Bullets fly, mayhem ensues and many actors in whiteface scream into the camera. It’s loud and chaotic and seems like it belongs in another movie.
Luckily, however, I Am Legend starts strong with powerful images of a deserted New York City. The tranquility of the once vibrant city is beautifully captured, but when that stillness is shattered, as it is when a herd of deer bolt through deserted streets, it is breathtaking in its effectiveness.
Without a word—after a short prologue the opening ten minutes or so are largely dialogue free—director Francis Lawrence has created a visual world in which something has obviously gone horribly wrong—its solid show me-don’t-tell-me filmmaking. Couple that with amazing set design and visual effects and the film rates as first class eye candy.
Will Smith, along with a buffer-than-buff physique, also brings some chops to the role. We first meet him in full movie star swagger mode, but as the movie progresses he convincingly portrays Neville’s gradually deteriorating mental state. It’s not going to earn him an Oscar nod, but it’s good work.
Unfortunately not everything else works as well. Neville’s habit of talking to mannequins is silly and off putting. It’s something out of a b-grade sci fi flick, not a smart slice of speculative fiction. Overall screenwriter Akiva Goldsman does a good job of updating the material, but references to Bob Marley’s personal philosophies seem a bit staler than the three year old can of Spam Neville finds lying around.
Then there is the ending. While some might find the action-packed finale exciting and climatic, I found it typical, easy and not nearly as interesting as the first half of the film.
I Am Legend is a good sci fi movie but with a bit of tweaking at the end it could have been a great one.