I am Legend marks the third time the seminal book by Richard Matheson has been adapted to the screen (though the first time that the title of the book has been used for the movie). The story of the last man on Earth is an inherently compelling one. Just the idea of how would he survive, how would he stave off loneliness and, in the case of this story, how would he deal with the monsters that everybody else turned into all very interesting questions for the movie to adddress. It may be the best adaptation of the book so far… at least for the first 2/3rds of the film. After that things take a sharp downward turn and never recover.
I am Legend takes place in the not so distant future. In a New York City devoid of human life, with a single exception. Will Smith (Ali) plays Dr. Robert Neville, the last human being in the city and quite possibly in all the world. Flashbacks show how a cure for cancer became spawned an epidemic that wiped out humanity in fairly short order. All that is left is Neville, accompanied by his dog Sam. The two have a daily routine of hunting for game on the streets of New York, reaching out to any possible survivors through a daily radio broadcast and trying to stave off loneliness. That is during the day, at night they must be inside and fortify the building they live in. They have to do this because it turns out that the epidemic didn’t kill the human race, it mutated them. What were once human beings are now vicious vampire like creatures that are burned by the sun and ravenously hunt anything not yet infected. It is in this world that Neville continues to work on a cure, even as the reality sinks in that there may not be anything left to save.
Let us start with what works in I am Legend. The thing above all others that works here is Will Smith. For the bulk of the running time this is quite literally a one man show. It takes an exceptional performance to keep you riveted on only one character, especially when much of what he’s doing is as mundane as what is shown here. Will Smith as Dr. Robert Neville commands your attention and it’s impossible to take your eyes off him, whether he’s hunting deer, bathing his dog, or talking to mannequins he’s set up at a video store. Watching his routine that he maintains in order to keep some semblance of hope and sanity and then to watch that start to unravel is fascinating and he never hits a wrong note. Much of the imagery that director Francis Lawrence (Constantine) uses in the film is also extremely effective. Rather than the standard post-apocalyptic world audiences are used to seeing this film has New York still standing, not destroyed, simply empty, no longer belonging to humans. Animals roam free, grass has broken through the concrete, and there’s a very unnerving calm to the whole thing that is very effective. The relationship between Neville and his dog Sam is also nicely done. There is very genuine affection and it never forces cute or touching moments, it earns them naturally. Smith plays the emotions wonderfully; he is a man who literally has nothing left to hope for besides his own immediate survival yet he persists and the psychology at play in a character like that is beautifully played out.
While Smith does carry the movie almost entirely on his shoulders, and quite admirably, there are a number of things that drag this film down from the initial greatness. The first issue has to do with the infected former humans that Neville has to cope with. They are essentially mindless killers, more in line with the current popular incarnation of zombies from films like 28 Days Later and the Dawn of the Dead remake than the vampires they were in the original book and first film version. Some of the vampyric aspects (such as aversion to light) are maintained but for the most part they’re just another mindless humanoid killing machine. In and of itself this is not terrible if only for lost potential. Much of the most striking and enduring material from the novel addresses the fact that these infected humans are in fact still intelligent and have developed a society of their own which Neville is intruding on. The movie seems to hint that there is more going on than Neville would believe by having one of the infected creatures lay a trap for him and seem to be personally affected when the good doctor slays a female creature. But this is never followed up on or delved into further, and stands out as a very clearly missed opportunity to do something daring. Another problem with the creatures is the fact that they are entirely CGI created. While they do on occasion perform feats that would have been beyond that of a real person, for the majority of the time they are on screen there was no reason to not have live actors in make-up. They’re not bad CGI but they still stand out. It’s almost completely pointless and would have been more effective with flesh and blood performers up on the screen.
However the issues with the creatures is very minor when compared to what happens in the final act of the I am Legend. Up to about 2/3rds of the way in we’ve seen Smith committed to the idea that he could fix this while still clearly knowing underneath it all he’s just killing time until the inevitable. His daily broadcast to anyone who might hear it sounds almost optimistic until towards the end when he nearly begs “please” and his fear is clear. The events that happen towards the end of the film do a very good job of undermining much of what came before. The film also starts to bring up ideas of God and fate that would have been much better left implied than talked about openly. Also the creatures are suddenly bestowed with the name “dark seekers,” which is in all honesty a profoundly stupid name and would have been far better left unsaid. Smith’s performance still holds strong even through this portion of the film, and in fact some of his best material is in this part. Unfortunately all the other elements of the story are coming apart around him. The final ending to the film is at best convenient, at worst painfully cheesy.
I Am Legend is still definitely worth seeing for Smith’s performance alone. But by the time the third act starts the wasted potential of the first part of the movie will become very evident to the point that it’s glaring by the time the final credits roll. It’s been reported that the original ending was much more in keeping with the book but it didn’t test well. This may stand as an abject lesson in the fact that test audiences don’t always know what the heck they’re talking about. Oh well, maybe we’ll do better next time this story gets adapted.
Final Score: 3 out of 5