I Am Legend (2007) / Horror-Sci Fi
MPAA Rated: PG-13 for intense violence and scary images
Running time: 101 min.
Cast: Will Smith, Alice Braga, Salli Richardson, Willow Smith, Charlie Tahan, Dash Mihok, Joanna Numata, Emma Thompson
Director: Francis Lawrence
Screenplay: Mark Protosevich, Akiva Goldsman (based on the novel by Richard Matheson)
I Am Legend is the third notable theatrical release based on the classic Richard Matheson novel from 1954 of the same name. Previous incarnations have included the Italian-made 1964 Vincent Price flick, The Last Man on Earth, and the more popular Charlton Heston release from 1971, The Omega Man (which this film borrows quite a few ideas from). Although mostly marketed as a science fiction film, and not really inaccurately, this film also fits in with the horror genre, most notably in the more recent hybrids involving viruses and zombies and/or vampires. It's a smidge of Cast Away, a little bit 12 Monkeys, some more of The Time Machine, and a whole lot of 28 Days Later. While it may not ultimately emerge as anything revolutionary within the film industry to make it a notable entry, the fantastic special effects and strong performance by Will Smith (The Pursuit of Happyness, Hitch) make for some riveting viewing throughout, even when the story peters out as it nears its action-oriented finale.
Smith stars as Robert Neville, ostensibly the only surviving human in New York City not infected or killed as a result of a deadly global virus that emerged from trying to alter the habits of the measles virus in order to cure cancer. While the cancer had been cured, deadlier symptoms emerge in the patients, and soon the virus spread through physical or airborne contact with the infected. Within three years, the entire world population of humans have all but been completely wiped out. While most were killed off, some remain as shells of their former selves -- vampiric cannibals, resistant to daylight, who thirst for killing those who are uninfected. It is through these infected that Neville seeks to find a cure, capturing and subjecting them to potential antidotes that he hopes will reverse the trend of the virus in order to bring humanity back to Earth. However, being alone lends him few allies (his faithful dog Sam is his only friend), while the infected prove to be becoming more resourceful now that there is some leadership involved in their midst.
Unlike the previous versions, which were more campy, less serious treatments, I Am Legend plays the events completely straight, with some very sparse moments of comic relief. Most of the time, it is an intense, harrowing edge-of-your-seat suspense film that, even if the plot itself is lean, keeps you completely reeled in to Neville's continued attempts at survival, not only of himself, but also for the human species as a whole. The scenes of a deserted wasteland New York are some of the most impressive I've seen in any post-apocalyptic film, and definitely adds to the sense of realistic outcome that a pandemic deadly virus could result in. Even in the small scenes, such as a few minutes excursion into darkness by Neville in order to try to retrieve his dog, director Francis Lawrence (Constantine) draws out a fierce command of atmospheric tension, with Smith consummately delivering the desperation and out-and-out fright that such a journey into the unknown requires. There are many such scenes that will have audiences in rapt attention, and when there are moments of fright, they are delivered with well-earned ferocity.
For all of its impressive qualities, and there are a great many, the one choice by Lawrence that almost completely undermines his production is his choice to use CGI to depict the cannibals. While the rest of this post apocalyptic world looks completely convincing, when the gaping maws and inhuman features of the infected appear on the screen, they shatter our disbelief so sufficiently, it becomes increasingly difficult to buy into the notion that all of this could presumably happen. Rumor has it that Lawrence was not happy with the appearance of the human actors and had decided to go the CG route, but anyone who has seen the aforementioned 28 Days Later can attest that one can make zombie-fied humans scary. These computer generated creatures not only appear manufactured, looking like they popped right out of a battle in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, but they also perform feats that only someone like Spider-Man could, climbing walls, leaping great distances, and moving with lightning-quick precision. When you have so many of them vs. just one human adversary, there's no need to make these sub-humans superhuman as well.
One other thing I didn't understand is Neville's assertion that the infected have been devolving even more to the point where they have no humanity left. At the same time, he acknowledges the fact that they are becoming more intelligent and resourceful. It could even be argued that the so-called Alpha Male (Mihok, Loveless in Los Angeles) leading the charge against Neville is ardently tenacious because Neville has abducted his main squeeze (Numata), an angle that the film itself completely leaves up to speculation. For a man of science committed to studying every aspect of their existence in the hope of curing them, his inability to at least entertain the notion that these pathetic creatures have their own methods of thinking, communication and, dare I say, love is something that doesn't quite jibe.
I Am Legend falls under a rather unique category of films that, depending on perspective, will be seen one of two ways: as a great film with bad moments, or as a bad film with great moments. I personally think that what the filmmakers do during the great moments are too great o have happened by accident, and so I'm leaning toward the former category. If Lawrence and the make-up crew could have given us convincing villains without making them look and act wholly artificial, I Am Legend could have been one of the best sci-fi releases of the decade. Instead, it is merely one of the more entertaining, which isn't a bad thing to be, but it's hard not to be disappointed in the final result when a truly great movie was just within their grasp.
-- Also made in a straight-to-video effort the same year, I Am Omega.
©2007 Vince Leo