This is the sort of film in which I feel almost reluctant to review, because even mentioning the actual plot in any detail ruins one of the more effective surprises that the it offers—when the physical conflict that star Will Smith’s character will spend the bulk of the film fighting against is first introduced, it’s only after a nice, long build-up of tense foreshadowing, and has the power to summon quite a few gasps (at least from the audience in the preview screening I attended).
On the other hand, given the time and financial investment it takes to go to the movies these days, and the way films are marketed, is it even possible to go into a big budget holiday release like this without already knowing what it’s about, and having seen most of the pivotal scenes in the trailer and TV spots?
And even if it were possible to experience such films in an information vacuum these days, I Am Legend certainly isn’t going to be one of ‘em, given its long life. It’s based on a book by Richard Matheson that’s now over half a century old, and has previously been adapted for film twice, though neither used the original title (1964’s Last Man on Earth starring Vincent Price, and 1971’s Omega Man starring Charlton Heston).
Of course, the changes in each adaptation are, I suppose, enough to keep it somewhat fresh, but at the end of the day, there’s no way around it—Will Smith is the last man on Earth, and finds himself struggling against some form of inhuman post-apocalyptic replacement race, here, vampires (or at least kinda sorta vampires).
Matheson and the Omega Man screen writers each get writing credits, but director Francis Lawrence (2005’s Constantine) and the screenwriting team of Akiva Goldsman and Mark Protosevich take their cues more from Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later than any previous versions of this story, from the eerie loneliness of a major metropolitan city deserted by humans, the curious euphoria that can come from shopping in a world without money and, most especially, the bad guys, who are here also called “Infecteds” and are pretty much indistinguishable form the zombies of the 28 movies, save for being bald and loud.
A long stretch of the film passes in which we see Smith’s Robert Neville, who is here both a former soldier and a former scientist, going about his day as the last man in New York City, which is slowly being reclaimed by nature, with his only companion a German shepherd (a dog which deserves a best supporting actress nomination for her work here).
These scenes have strange beauty, and Smith deserves credit for making them work at all, let alone as well as they do—there are few actorly challenges more difficult than literally carrying a film all by yourself, but that’s what Smith does here, albeit ably supported by a gorgeous setting, herds of CGI deer, and that damn fine canine performance.
What exactly happened comes out in dribs and drabs through flashbacks. A plague has wiped out mankind—here, it’s a viral cure for cancer gone bad—a plague Neville is immune to. Between hunting, looking for other survivors, and palling around with his dog, he works in a basement lab to find a cure. The backstory is never very clearly explained, at least, not what Neville’s part in it really is (was he involved with the production of the cure, or did he simply fail to cure it?), but becomes somewhat superfluous once we meet the nocturnal cannibals with a taste for blood and a weakness to sunlight that share NYC with Neville, the reason he spent the early parts of the film looking over his shoulder.
That final cat out of the bag, the film falls onto the inevitable path towards its predictable conclusion, scenes of pitched battle between Smith and the not very convincingly computer animated hordes broken up by the melodrama of Neville’s madness and his learning of the importance of faith in God.
The title supposedly refers to Neville, but, oddly enough, the true hero of the piece is Bob Marley, as it’s actually his words and his brave acts which inspired Neville, and which inspire the eventual conclusion, along with providing the explanation of the title (in a roundabout way). But I suppose calling it Bob Marley Is Legend would have brought an entirely different crowd to the theaters.
As a muscular post-apocalyptic actioner with stretches of beauty and some serious smarts, I Am Legend is successful enough, even if it pales next to the superior post-apcoalyptic films of the last few years, particularly last Christmas’ end-of-the-world flick Children of Men.