I Am Legend, the third cinematic adaptation of Richard Matheson's novel, has been in development for a very long time. Originally slated to star Arnold Schwarzenegger and be directed by Ridley Scott, this movie has kicked around for so long that by the time it has finally reached the screen, Schwarzenegger is out of the business altogether and the director is someone whose career in music videos hadn't even started when Michael Bay was being touted as possible replacement for Scott. Nevertheless, all these years later, we finally have this new version of I Am Legend, starring Will Smith as the Last Man on Earth and directed by Francis Lawrence (Constantine).
I suppose it's a common fantasy - believing that you're alone on the planet. The reality, if it ever happened, would be more the stuff of nightmares. When Matheson wrote I Am Legend; from which this movie takes its name, its main character, and certain events and themes; he was interested in exploring the hard aspects of what this kind of existence might really mean. Loneliness can drive a person slowly insane even if they guard against it. That lies at the core of I Am Legend - the psychological torment endured by the protagonist. That, and the vampires.
Matheson's book has often been credited as the "inspiration" for many of the modern-day zombie movies; his "vampires" have a kinship with George A. Romero's dead. Cinematically, the creatures of this film most evidently echo (perhaps because of the circumstances) those in Danny Boyle's 28 Days Later. In fact, there are numerous similarities between that movie and I Am Legend, not the least of which is that both feature a scenario in which an apocalypse occurs because of a disease and those who don't die turn into slavering, raving monsters.
I Am Legend opens in 2012 New York City - the most deserted place on Earth. Kudos to the special effects wizards for using computers to so effectively depopulate the city. It's eerie watching such emptiness. New York has a human population of one: Dr. Robert Neville (Will Smith), an ex-military scientist who was to some degree culpable for what happened to his race. The disease was initially hyped as a cure for cancer (by Emma Thompson in an unbilled cameo) but it mutated and became a killer. The creatures it transforms can't emerge in the sunlight, so they stay hidden during the day only to come out and seek fresh blood between dusk and dawn. In that period, Robert and his faithful dog, Sam, are padlocked within his apartment. They hunt by day and hide by night.
Robert is lonely and his loneliness is eroding his sanity. He talks to Sam as if she was a human. He speaks to department store mannequins he has dressed in clothing. He rents DVDs of old news shows not so much so he can revisit the past but so he can hear human voices and pretend he's not alone. In many ways, it's how Tom Hanks survived in Cast Away - by making a volleyball, Wilson, his best friend. Robert has set a broadcast to shout out his location on every station on the AM dial, but so far, no one has come looking. He uses a private lab in his apartment to continue research on the disease, always searching for the elusive cure. If he could save one vampire - turn it back into a human - he would no longer be alone. Ghosts of his past haunt his dreams, and it's through those tortured flashbacks that we gain some knowledge of what the last hours were like for our kind.
The first two-thirds of I Am Legend are superior to the fast-paced, action-oriented final 35 minutes. There's a key event that occurs just past the hour mark and, after that, the movie feels more like a typical Hollywood adventure than the introspective, thought-provoking production that graces the screens for the first 65 minutes. The ending, while not a complete cop-out, diverges from that of Matheson's book and feels a little too convenient and facile. For most of the movie, character drives plot. The closer we get to the conclusion, the more plot drives character.
There are some top-notch action sequences, such as one in which vampires and vampire dogs attack Sam and an injured Robert. There's also another scene in which Robert tries to take out an entire cell of vampires with nothing more than a speeding vehicle. There are some missteps - the deer chase is dumb and marred by CGI deer that look CGI. And the climactic struggle is less exciting than it should be. There's a sense that some of the action was inserted into the movie to keep from losing the attention of younger viewers. It's okay for the movie to deal with intelligent ideas as long as there are enough bangs to enliven the proceedings.
As Tom Hanks did in Cast Away, Will Smith pulls off this half-insane role perfectly. Of course, in addition to being alone, Robert has other crosses to bear. He is hunted by the living dead. He carries a weight of guilt. And he knows, on one level or another, that he is responsible for what happened to his wife and daughter. Smith nails the portrayal. It's the kind of work that will earn him an Oscar nomination.
Science fiction fans hoping for a faithful adaptation of Matheson's novel will be disappointed. This is no more a visitation of the source material than its predecessors, The Last Man on Earth or The Omega Man, were. The updates are timely - the movie makes the suspension of disbelief curve as easy to ascend as it was in Children of Men. For me, the most engaging aspects of the movie are connecting with Robert and understanding how he uses routine to survive each day. It's seeing the empty New York and understanding how its desolation offers both solace and pain. For the most part, the action sequences work - and they are directed in a straightforward manner that thankfully does not rely on fast cuts and shaky camera movement - but they are not the real reason to see this movie. Cautionary tale though it might be, I Am Legend offers a window into a future that probably won't be but that is easily believed within the context of this workmanlike motion picture.