“I am Legend”, the third film based on the book by writer Richard Matheson, stars Will Smith as Dr. Robert Neville. “Legend” is a surprisingly good film despite a spectacularly weak ending and easily the best of the three film adaptations.
Dr. Robert Neville, an army scientist, is the leading researcher looking for a cure to a virus. The virus once promised to cure cancer, but has ended up killing a large percentage of the population, leaving Robert alone in a virtually deserted New York City. He spends his days exercising with his dog, doing research to try to find a cure and trying to stay alive. I say virtually deserted New York City because at night, he has to barricade himself in his home, ready to fight off the zombie like creatures who come out at night. Portions of the people not killed by the virus have become creatures who hunt at night, feeding on the remaining humans. This situation has also helped to wipe out part of the survivors and made the creatures smarter and more resourceful- as their food supply dwindles, they figure out how to find food, becoming more ruthless, more determined, scarier. Robert knows about these creatures and is determined to protect is anonymity. One day, his dog chases an antelope into a dark building and he runs across a coven of these creatures. Determined to continue his research, he captures one and takes her back to his lab. But nothing seems to work. He continues to send out messages on a radio band and to do his research. But things will change soon, and drastically.
Entertainment Weekly recently listed Smith as one of “The 50 Smartest People in Hollywood”. I’m not trying to validate this magazine filler, but they have a point. With remarkably rare exception, Smith has made remarkably well-received films serving to cement his place in the top echelon of actors who command top dollar for their films. Even when the films aren’t great, they are fun. So we can possibly forgive him “The Pursuit of Happyness” and “Wild Wild West” because he has given us such hits as the phenomenally successful “Independence Day”, “Men in Black” and “Bad Boys”. “I am Legend,” continues this trend, providing Smith with a star vehicle in which is he is virtually the only person on screen for a majority of the film. Because the film has made a lot of money, Smith will receive most of the credit for the film’s success.
After the virus eradicates much of the world’s human population, Robert, somehow immune, continues his research, working very hard to make sure his home remains a safe haven. He checks to almanac to make sure he and Sam, his daughter’s dog, return home every day before sunset. He lowers shutters and barricades the door and sleeps in the bathtub, with the dog and a rifle at his side. To maintain his sanity, he watches videotapes of old television and pretends mannequins in a shop are real people, having conversations with them.
Because there are no people in New York City, the animals run wild and Robert and Sam are always on the hunt for new game, to supplement their diet. They chase a deer and Sam runs after the deer into a dark building. Robert is reluctant to follow her, but he can’t leave his pet, his only daily contact, and his only tie to the past, to fall into the hands of the creatures that take over the night. Sure enough, they run into a group of them and Robert has to try to make it out. Somehow.
But Robert is also a scientist, so he returns to set a trap and capture one of them, to run some more experiments. Much like Sam running into the darkened building, the leader of the creatures tries to prevent one of his less intelligent followers from falling into the trap, but is unable to stop her in time.
“I Am Legend” is very good. And it is so good because it convincingly sets up Robert’s environment. I still can’t figure out how they recreated the vacant, overgrown, slightly battered New York City. Robert races his car through empty streets, overgrown with weeds and littered with rusting cars. The filmmakers spent a lot of time and money on the special effects to recreate this. A shot of the bridges leading into Manhattan, both of which were hit by missiles many years ago, is particularly stunning.
Smith is virtually the only person on screen for 80% of the film. Can there be any further definition of a star ‘carrying a film’? Also, because of the leading man’s inherent charisma and charm, he commands our attention on the screen and makes us believe he is a scientist capable of finding a cure to a virus that has wiped out 90% of the world’s population. How refreshing and different from other actors who pop up and try to portray nuclear scientists or heart surgeons and barely look like they can apply their lipstick or shave.
As Smith’s Robert Neville moves through his world, a world we are just learning about, he is almost a tour guide for us, introducing us to the various modifications he has made in order to survive. This is a testament to Smith’s skill because we never feel as though he is trying to teach us, as though he is on a pulpit explaining things to us. We learn through his actions, his observances, by watching him as he deals with the routine he has set up.
Director Francis Lawrence (“Constantine”) paces the film well, catching our attention with an action packed sequence. He fills in the details later. After a brief prologue, we are immediately plunged into Robert’s world and watch as he and Sam hunt wild animals. As the film progresses, Robert remembers key events leading to the evacuation of New York, which he refers to as “Ground Zero” for the virus on more than one occasion. These scenes also give us a look at what happened to his wife and child, giving us more details about how Robert is willing and able to cope with this strange situation.
Because we are immediately thrust into this man’s current situation, we get a real sense of what he has been living through. This is the majority of his life now, everything else, as important as it was, is now secondary. The filmmakers have placed the emphasis in the right place and make the story all the more engrossing and exciting.
There are a couple of enigmatic moments my friends and I have been talking about, because they could mean a couple of different things. Not because they are confusing or uninteresting. These discussions have led all people to have further consideration for each side of the argument. How often do you come out of an action / sci-fi film talking about things, trying to figure them out, having discussions?
For all of the work spent on creating a post-apocalyptic New York, some of the CGI character work is less than perfect. The creatures are interesting and “Alpha Male”, as he is listed in IMDB, the leader of these vampire – zombie creatures does seem to have some intelligence, some capability to lead the rest of his coven. But some of these creatures are less convincing than others. Late in the film, the Alpha Male unleashes some of his infected dogs and they are particularly fake looking. So, the CGI is not consistent throughout.
And the film begins to fall apart in the last act, leading us to a particularly weak ending. When the DVD is released, you could have a double bill featuring “I am Legend” and “The Village” and it might seem like one seamless film.
But these complaints aside, “I am Legend” is still an extremely strong film and worthy of your money.