Three years after the world has effectively ended, military scientist Colonel Robert Neville (Will Smith) spends his days driving around a deserted New York City in a soup up Mustang hunting wild game for dinner. His only companion is his dog Sam, the last remnant from his past. Every night, prompted by his trusty wristwatch’s pre-set alarms, Neville locks down his house. Why? Because every night, they come out. For you see, Robert Neville is not only the last man on Earth, he’s the last human left on Earth. Or so he believes.
In flashbacks, we see how it all began: with a miracle cure for cancer. Of course, that was too good to be true, and the cure became a mutated virus that killed most of mankind, and those it didn’t kill, it turned into bloodsucking creatures. Now all that’s left is Robert Neville, who has a natural immunity to the virus. Neville spends his days trying to find a cure in his basement, going through a videostore’s DVDs alphabetically, and when time permits, hitting on the occasional attractive mannequin. And when he needs to, Neville captures the creatures to use in his experiments. Every day, he waits at the pier so survivors can easily find him, and every day, no one shows up.
For much of its first hour, “I am Legend” is a solo act. We follow Neville as he goes about his day, and slowly but surely we come to realize that he appears to be losing his mind — and when he snaps, he snaps. For the first hour, the creatures are seen very briefly, including a thrilling sequence in a dark warehouse that introduces us to the nitty gritty of Neville’s world — he is king of the sunlight, but in the darkness, he is mere mortal. But Neville doesn’t remain the last man on Earth for long. A young woman named Anna (Alice Braga) and a young boy (Charlie Tahan) suddenly appear in Neville’s world, but perhaps by then, it may be too late…
True to rumors, “I am Legend” does indeed detour greatly from the novel of the same name by Richard Matheson. There are the superficial differences (Robert Neville was an Everyman in the novel, while Smith’s version is a highly-skilled military virologist), but those are easy enough to overlook. This is, after all, a modern take on an old tale written decades ago, so these cosmetic differences are expected. The film’s biggest departure is the meaning of its title, which by movie’s end, has completely changed to mean something different. One can’t help but think that the change in the meaning also destroys much of the purpose of Matheson’s book. If that wasn’t bad enough, the replacement meaning is so hollow and artificial as to be insulting.
Perhaps I was expecting too much from “I am Legend”, but there just doesn’t seem to be a whole lot here. Smith is an affable enough leading man, and the premise is certainly intriguing. Nevertheless, a combination of awful special effects (nearly all of the creatures are rendered using CGI, and badly at that) and unspectacular scripting makes for average viewing. The pacing is off, with the first hour completely lacking in progression, while the film’s final 30 minutes feel rushed, including a 10-minute or so assault on Neville’s house by the creatures.
The creatures themselves are CGI abominations. It can’t be stressed enough how cheap the CGI effects look in “I am Legend”. In this day and age of intergalactic space battles and battling alien creatures, why does the special effects work in “I am Legend” look like something out of a bad videogame? It pains me to say it, but I’ve seen better “zombie/creature” renderings in the “Resident Evil” games. There is no realism and no weight to the creatures, which flings themselves around the screen like the computer-generated images they are. This is a big-time Hollywood movie, isn’t it? You could have fooled me.
For much of its running time, it’s hard to figure out what the point of “I am Legend” is. The script by Mark Protosevich and Akiva Goldsman seems content to drag us along with Neville’s daily routines, as if watching a man and his dog walking around a deserted New York City is somehow supposed to be a reward in and of itself. I suppose if you are a New York native there may be some inside gags to be had in seeing the production team turn much of New York’s iconic locales (such as Times Square) into a vast wasteland of growing weeds. Alas, for the rest of the non-New York world, the film’s top-notch set designs lose its luster rather quickly.
In its opening weekend, “I am Legend” pulled in a record sum, making it the best weekend opening for a December film of all time. One has to think this is primarily based on the effective advertising and the luminescent star status of Will Smith. The film itself is certainly not worth the spectacular box office returns, especially since I kept wishing for Charlton Heston to show up to save the day. As some may know, Matheson’s novel has been made into a movie twice before, 1964’s “The Last Man on Earth” with Vincent Price and 1971’s “The Omega Man” with Charlton Heston.
It would have been better if the script had dropped the virus aspect and simply gone full-bore into a tale of post-apocalyptic mayhem. “I am Legend” needn’t follow the book too closely, and indeed, I never expected such faithfulness, but the parts where Protosevich and Goldsman choose to diverge from the novel are mind-boggling. They have essentially turned a seminal piece of literary fiction into a below-average science fiction/horror/post-apocalyptic movie. Where is the ambition? The substance? The legend?
2007’s “I am Legend”, alas, proves less than legendary.
Francis Lawrence (director) / Mark Protosevich, Akiva Goldsman (screenplay), Richard Matheson (novel)
CAST: Will Smith … Robert Neville
Alice Braga … Anna
Charlie Tahan … Ethan
Salli Richardson … Zoe
Willow Smith … Marley