March 24, 2008

I Am Legend


Reviewer: Craig Phillips
Rating (out of 5): *** ½

It was entirely a coincidence that I watched I Am Legend on the heels of having finally watched 28 Weeks Later only two days earlier - in addition also reading through Brian Vaughan's post-apocalypse "Y: Last Man Standing" graphic novel series in which a virus kills off every male on the planet save one. Still, it was impossible not to think of these - the vampiric infected hordes for the former and the possibilities of being the last man alive in the latter. And, as the only companion for Smith's Dr. Neville is his German Shepherd, also hard not to think in passing of A Boy and His Dog, the Harlan Ellison-penned sci-fi. But of course, what comes to mind most while watching I Am Legend is its more direct predecessors. And before petering out in the final act, this third official adaption of Richard Matheson's 1954 book by the same name (the others being the fairly faithful The Last Man on Earth, with Vincent Price, and The Omega Man, with Charlton Heston - and no, he doesn't shout "Get your claws off me you damned dirty mutant!") is a better-than-expected reworking of that source material.

Director Francis Lawrence softens some of the sharp edges of the original but maintains the grim horror of the situation and the utter loneliness and despair felt by Neville. By setting the new version in NYC, rather than Matheson's Los Angeles it also (as with Cloverfield) can't help but invoke feelings of 9/11, but even more so it uses our memories and knowledge of New York as a fast-paced, densely packed and highly social metropolis to add to the eerie emptiness felt in the film's present. (Neville is so lonely that he talks to mannequins at a video store as if they were clerks and patrons.) And it's certainly easy to become worked up over the sight of lions rampaging down the streets of Manhattan.

In The Omega Man, the mutants were more coherent "The Family" rather than the more vampiric, primal darkseekers of I Am Legend. Here the infection is caused by a virus originally intended to cure cancer (a cure discovered by a doctor played by Emma Thompson, seen in a prologue), which Neville feels responsible for, biding his time desperately trying to develop a vaccine. With only the dog - and the mannequins - for company, this is Will Smith's one-man show and he pulls it off, giving one of his best performances; here he's less the smirky charmer of Men in Black and more the pained, half-mad man of Pursuit of Happyness, with less treacle.

He carries it even as the film loses some of its nerve. {SPOILER WARNING} I found it a bit hard to understand Neville's final decision at the end; he was defending the cure he'd discovered by giving it to Anna, but it seems there could've been a way out of it that didn't involve blowing everything up. The script basically tones down the bitter irony of Matheson's original story, missing the point and hinging its resolution on action beats. It's too bad because everything that comes before it is quite sharply focused.

Note: As the studio only sent me the Widescreen edition of the film, which is perfectly adequate except I had to then seek out the Special Edition which includes the alternate ending. And, despite the fact that I usually have no problems with "downbeat" endings if they feel appropriate, I did prefer the alternate take, cathartically. The theatrical version just feels like a cop-out.

I Am Legend is three film genres for the price of one: Science Fiction, Action, and Horror, and while it's no classic in any one arena it remains edgy fun. It's certainly a better adaptation than Smith's I, Robot, which must have had Isaac Asimov suing from his grave.

Bookmark and Share

Posted by cphillips at March 24, 2008 2:55 PM

So you didn't like I ROBOT?! Well, OK, you can still be my pal. I AM LEGEND appears to be one of the more difficult movies to rent just now. Even into the second week after release, both GreenCine and Netflix have very long waits (and I don't do Blockbuster any more), plus my local video store only got the full-screen version. Frustrating. I guess your review will have to hold me for awhile, Craig. It certainly has whetted my appetite!

Posted by: James van Maanen at March 25, 2008 4:48 PM