Staring: Will Smith, Alice Braga, and Charlie Tahan
Written by: Richard Matheson (Novel)
Mark Protosevich and Akiva Goldsman (Screenplay)
Directed by: Francis Lawrence
What is it about H. G. Wells’ War of the Worlds and Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend? It seems that every time there is a major conflict raging in the world, a new interpretation of these novels gets produced. Wells’ classic was first turned into the famous Orson Wells’ radiobroadcast of 1938, as the rest of the earth was engulfed in a very real war. In 1953, at the height of cold war panic, George Pal brought the story to the silver screen, and in 2005, as the Iraq War raged on, Steven Spielberg committed another version to film. Matheson’s work has had a similar history. First filmed as The Last Man on Earth with Vincent Price in 1964, amid continued cold war fears, and later as Charlton Heston’s Omega Man, during the Vietnam War in 1971, the time has now come for I Am Legend to get a post 9/11 update of its own.
This time around, two-time Oscar nominee Will Smith steps into the lonely shoes of Dr. Robert Neville, sole survivor of a global pandemic. By day, he wanders the vast, empty streets of New York city with his trusty dog, Sam, gathering supplies from abandoned stores and apartments, hunting the deer that now run freely across an overgrown Times Square (that is, when the zoo’s escaped lions don’t bag them first). By night, however, he is a prisoner in his own home. His windows are covered in thick sheets of metal; his doors are latched and barred. At night, you see, the vampires come out to play. Oh, the movie never calls them vampires, but that’s what they are. The plague has reduced humanity to a race of hairless, vein-laced creatures who feed on blood, and exposure to sunlight now burns them to cinders.
Dr. Neville searches frantically for the secret to his own immunity, hoping to formulate a serum that will cure these creatures and return their humanity, but his efforts have met with frustrating results. Now, however, it appears he may be on the brink of a vaccine.
He captures one of the creatures, injects it with the concoction, and records the progress, hoping to restore civilization before his own isolation drives him to insanity.
Like Tom Hanks (Castaway), Will Smith is certain to get another Oscar nod for his work here, showing us how Man deals with total isolation and the absence of all human contact. He dresses mannequins at a local video store, chatting with them as if they are old friends, even trying to work up the courage to say hello to a beautiful (plastic) woman. And of course, there is his dog, Sam. Like Friday to Neville’s Robinson Caruso, the animal never says a word, and yet it provides an anchor that keeps the scientist moored to his sanity. While Smith’s banter can be humorous at times, there is always a great sadness in his eyes, and it says more about his loss than any words could express.
Director Francis Lawrence and writer Akiva Goldsman should be applauded for the storytelling they are able to accomplish without dialogue. News clippings plastered around an apartment tell the story of the end of the world, signs hung beside the road say, “God still loves us,” shots of the fallen bridges and vacant urban landscape call to mind the horrors of 9/11, and in one of the most heartbreaking scenes in recent cinema, the image of an empty crib screams volumes.
While the first two-thirds of this film are masterfully rendered, the final act takes much of the wind from its sails.
Neville discovers another survivor and her son (Alice Braga and Charlie Tahan). In his apartment, he tries to get used to being around living people again, then must fight to save them from the creatures. While this section provides the explosions and gunfire the trailers like to display, it does not have the emotional firepower the film possessed when Neville was on his own.
Which brings us to the weakest portion of the film: the ending, which calls to mind the works of much-maligned director M. Night Shyamalan.
The three film adaptations share their source material’s use flashbacks to tell the story of Neville’s family. Today, this is a common technique, used in everything from 1984’s The Terminator to TV’s Angel. Here, we are shown a single memory in pieces: the evacuation of New York. Each piece moves us further along until, near the end of the movie, we understand what really happened. Then, in the film’s final moments, Neville has a kind of religious epiphany that ties what is happening now to those flashbacks. It reminds the viewer of the climax to Shyamalan’s Signs, and the final scene even had this reviewer thinking of Shyamalan’s The Village. Had the filmmakers shown some of their earlier ingenuity to suggest what was coming throughout the film, this ending might have come off brilliantly. As it is, it seems anti-climactic, almost as if the creative team had given us everything they had too soon and were spent by the final frames.
Still, the opening and middle of I Am Legend are so very good, and Smith’s performance is so strong, it would be a crime not to join the last man on earth in a theater near you.
4 out of 5 stars.