I Am Legend will likely be the season’s most massive hit. It stars Will Smith and the trailers have been hyper-involving. Given that it’s at least the third attempt at bringing Richard Matheson’s classic SF novel to the big screen – and given that it really captures the essence of the novel for as long as it does – the odds are that the few who will leave the theatre feeling let down will be those who have actually read the book.
I Am Legend opens with a television interview with a scientist [Emma Thompson] who has, apparently found a cure for cancer. Cut to three years later and we are shown an empty New York City. Well, not quite empty – a red Mustang comes roaring into view with Robert Neville [Will Smith] at the wheel. He’s hunting deer in the otherwise lifeless city streets.
It doesn’t take long to discover that those allegedly cured of cancer have had some rather uncool side effects – like being turned into pale, bloodthirsty creatures that are allergic to sunlight. For the first two-thirds of its running time, I Am Legend builds suspense as we watch its protagonist, Robert Neville, maintain a rigid schedule to give him something to do in order to keep from going mad. It’s a beautifully structured and performed narrative. Then, it becomes just another zombie movie.
In the novel [no spoiler here – the film suddenly takes a hard ninety-degree turn away from it after the second act], Neville learns that he is now regarded by the night creatures with the same fear that humans have always had for vampires. Now he is the monster!
That is ending is carefully set up by Neville’s rigorous efforts to find a cure for the “cancer cure” that has turned the world’s population – except for a few souls who have a natural immunity, like him – into vampire-like creatures who come out at night in search of blood.
We see him allot time for working on the cure; hunting for provisions; driving golf balls off the tail of a plane on a rusting aircraft carrier [the Intrepid]; making a stop at a nearby video store to pick up some x-rated entertainment, and broadcasting a message in hope of finding someone else who’s alive. He has placed mannequins at various points in his route and talks to them like they’re real, but the pain in his eyes tells us that even now, his imagination can’t quite reach the madness to make them real. Throughout, he is accompanied by his loyal dog, Sam.
At the end of his busy day, he retires to his fortified home to wait out another night – memories of the last time he saw his family [wife Zoe, played by Eureka’s Salli Richardson, and daughter Marley, played by Smith’s daughter, Willow Smith]. Each time he sleeps, we learn more about what happened to them. Then the infected begin to learn; to set traps; to communicate…
And it’s here that the film veers from the finale it has so carefully set up.
For almost seventy-five minutes, director Francis Lawrence carefully modulates Neville’s increasing journey into the hell of madness. Smith makes each of Neville’s slips feel exactly right. The moment he treats a mannequin like a human being and his eyes no longer show that pain – instead, dimming just a bit before tragedy strikes.
The panoramic shots of New York, with its abandoned or wrecked cars; Neville on a pier waiting in vain for someone to respond to his radio message; his desperation when Sam chases a deer into a dark building – all add to the feel of general loneliness and build creepily. In an odd way, all that space makes us feel claustrophobic – a reaction that increases when Neville locks down his home – and increases again when he enters his even more fortified basement lab.
The CG effects of the first two acts are subtle and believable – until we get close-ups of the infected in anything other than pure shadow. Of course, by that time, the film is shifting from its bleak tone and shifting, rather abruptly, into an action-packed finale that finds Neville’s life saved by someone who… well, never mind that.
Let’s just that that the last fifteen minutes of the film are what could be called a rousing clarion call of hope. There’s gun fire, breakage and stuff getting blowed up real good. That it works at all is a tribute to the power of Smith’s presence. Before the shift, we have come to accept Neville as a person, so when the movie grinds the gears in its hyper-quick mood shift, we buy it because he buys it.
It’s even possible to walk out of the theatre feeling good about I Am Legend because of Smith’s exceptional work in it. But the fact remains, the ending is too much of a change – executed too quickly – to be anything but a studio ordered change that feels tacked on to give us a happy [or at least hopeful] ending. Heaven forefend that a Christmas blockbuster should end on a down note.
Final Grade: B