A film review by Craig J. Koban

I AM LEGEND jjj
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2007, PG-13, 114 mins.

Robert Neville: Will Smith / Anna: Alice Braga / Ethan: Charlie Tahan / Zoe: Salli Richardson / Marley: Willow Smith

Directed by Francis Lawrence /  Written by Mark Protosevich and Akiva Goldsman / Based on the novel by Richard Matheson

I AM LEGEND appears like it was made out of regurgitated elements of other long forgotten sci-fi films:  We have a post-apocalyptic wasteland; a spirited, determined - if not emotionally troubled and conflicted - hero; and monsters that come in the form of faceless, zombified vampires that want the hero dead.

At face value, my willingness to sit through I AM LEGEND - considering that it looked like a dozen other similar genre films that I have already seen - was not altogether high.  Whatís surprising, in hindsight, is what an efficient, well acted, tense, and absorbing experience the film was.

I AM LEGEND works very well because of two key assets.  Firstly, the film creates such an effortless tone of dread and misery with its eerily real atmosphere and visuals.  The film concerns a viral cataclysm that has wiped out just about all of humanity, sans one, and shows the single human survivor of the planet living alone in The Big Apple.

The manner with which director Francis Lawrence (CONSTANTINE) is able to use state of the art CGI effects to envision a New York that is void of human life is the film's real highlight.  As the hero solemnly and cautiously strolls through the remains of Time's Square, there is rarely a moment during the proceedings that donít breath with a creepy verisimilitude.  Weak visual effects would have eviscerated the whole tone and mood of the film.  I AM LEGEND is such a tour de force display of effects wizardry that they help to bolster the film's sense of eminent loneliness and despair.

Secondly, the film contains one of the more thankless and tricky performances of the year by Will Smith, who is able to create a nuanced and totally convincing performance playing most scenes without anyone to act off of.  Much like Tom Hanks did to similar effect in CASTAWAY (where he played a man trapped on a desert island, all alone, for several years), Smith manages to avoid playing his role with his tongue in his check or with any grandstanding and instead creates a tortured, isolated, and slightly deranged figure.  His performance is subtle in the way he shows how one manís solitude from other humans has slowly eroded any sense of normalcy and sanity.  Smith received considerable critical raves for his work in last yearís THE PURSUIT OF HAPPINESS, but his good acting there seemed like a sentimentalized grasp at an obvious Oscar nomination.  For my money, heís much better in LEGEND and his performance, considering the fantastical storyline, feels more low key and thoughtfully tactile.

The film opens with a television interview where a doctor (Emma Thompson, curiously unbilled in the film) has claimed to have discovered the cure for cancer.  Although initially hyped as a miracle cure, the vaccine unfortunately mutated with horrendous results.  We then get quickly whisked forward in time to 2012 where the once promising cure has now turned into humanityís deadly plague and has eradicated everyone on Earth...except one man.

New York, once a teaming metropolis of millions, now has only one citizen in the form of Dr. Robert Neville (Smith), who once worked as a military scientist before the diseased-caused apocalypse.  His problem is twofold: He lives a life of utter desolation and misery (he has no human companions, only his dog) and he also lives with extreme guilt in the sense that he was partially to blame for the spread of the apocalyptic disease.

Itís no wonder he feels a burden of guilt. The disease has apparently turned those infected into hyperactive, hairless vampires that have all but diluted their past human impulses and now are vengeful and cruel blood hunters.  They are like zombies in the sense that they lack individualized personalities and kill without provocation, but are more like vampires in the traditional sense that they come out and feed only during the nighttime.

This makes Nevilleís daily life one of rigid time tables.  During the night, Neville and his dog Sam stay completely locked inside their apartment (he has huge steel barricades over each window and sleeps in a bathtub with his rifle).  During the day Neville roams the empty streets of New York hoping to find any indication of survivors.  He broadcasts on AM radio signals and tells how he will be at a particular pier everyday at noon: If anyone is out their, they are to meet him there.  Alas, Neville goes through each day without meeting any other surviving human.  Instead, he tries to discover a cure for the vampire virus in his basement laboratory and tries his best to keep sane in an insane world.  In order to feel less isolated, he dresses up mannequins and talks to them as if they were alive.  He visits a local video store everyday (during his three years he has made his way through all the films A to G) and pathetically tries have a relationship with the other "patrons."

The one thing that I AM LEGEND does so dexterously is to jump back and forth between the future and the past, where in flashback form we see pieces of the haunting day where Neville tries to get his wife and daughter to safety before the military quarantines Manhattan Island.  A more typical choice would have been to show the scenes in the past first and in chronological form, but instead the film jumps us right into the future and slowly and carefully shows us pieces of what happened.  The effect here creates considerable forward momentum in the plot and keeps us transfixed.  Also, like many people perhaps experience, Neville is traumatized here and there by snippets of his memories from day to day.  It also helps to provide a singular motivation for his quest for a cure in the future: if he could make the vampires human again, then he would not be alone.

Again, I AM LEGEND does a virtuoso job of making us believe that Smith does, in fact, populate the barren streets of New York all by himself.  The film is also exemplary paced and creates genuine tension with its visuals. The first sections of the film have a leisurely pace about them, as we see Neville slowly proceed through the remains of the city.  By slowing things down in these sections the thrills generated during our first introduction of the creatures seems more chaotic and scary.  Sure, the creatures themselves may not be the technical marvels of CGI that the lifeless cityscapes are, but they nevertheless are a vile and malevolent force in the film.  The monsters, if anything, are designed with the primary motivation to frighten, and on those levels the filmmakers have succeeded.

If the film has a misstep then I think it would be in its highly rushed third act, where Neville meets up with two other human survivors: a woman named Anna (Alice Braga) and her son (Ethan Tahan).  She comes with a message to Neville that an actual human colony exists outside of New York and than Neville must accompany them back there.  He, of course, is highly skeptical, but as the film quickly spirals to a conclusion, we are granted a final showdown between Neville and the vampires that ends a bit too abruptly for its own good.  The final moments of the film are bleak and sad, but with a hint of hope.  Itís just too bad that the last third of I AM LEGEND was not quite as good as its first two thirds.  The Anna character and her son are marginalized for the convenience of the story.  The film would have been stronger if it focused more attention on the emerging relationship between her and Neville.

Yet, I AM LEGEND still emerges as a scary, atmospheric, and efficiently well sustained post-apocalyptic thriller.  The direction is patient and carefully laid out, the scares in the film are well timed, the vistas of a depopulated New York will stay with me for a long time, and Will Smith creates such a sympathetic and unsettled character in Neville.  As good as the filmís visual palette and thrills are, the main attraction of I AM LEGEND is Smithís grounded and thoroughly credible performance.  In the wrong actorís hands and with the wrong choices, the character could have approached B-movie territory with a lot of unintentional guffaws.  In Smithís assured hands, his dialed down and quietly strong performance makes the horror of the film feel more authentic.

This is the third time that I AM LEGEND has been made into a feature film.  It is based on the landmark 1954 sci-fi novel by Richard Matheson and we can hardly blame the film for feeling familiar (the story, themes, and creatures in it have inspired storytellers like George A. Romero to make his zombie films and Stephen King, who often sites Matheson as a strong influence).  The first film version was the 1964 Vincent Price staring vehicle, THE LAST MAN ON EARTH, followed by 1971's THE OMEGA MAN, staring Charlton Heston, which deviated severely from the source material.  This new adaptation is the strongest and most stirring of the bunch and it fosters a sense of lingering anxiety and suspense with its premise better then its predecessors.  If anything, itís one of this fallís most satisfying, well crafted and made thrillers; it manages to bridge the gap between being a popcorn horror thrill ride with absolutely stunning production values with an introspective human drama about one manís losing grasp of hope and his descent into misery.  Perhaps the biggest kudos that should befall the film is that it takes a highly familiar story and makes it feel fresh and lively.  It was far from the dumb shoot 'em up sci-fi adventure that I was expecting.

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