I Am Legend

Dir: Francis Lawrence, 2007. Starring: Will Smith, Alice Braga, Charlie Tahan. Science-Fiction
I Am Legend
Is it possible to love a movie and recommend it but still advise to turn it off just after the half-way mark? The history of films with great Act Ones and maybe even Act Twos that then fall apart by Act Three constitutes a long list (Mulholland Dr., From Dusk Till Dawn, Full Metal Jacket, etc.). I Am Legend may be the most extreme case. It has a pretty spectacular first half that’s suspenseful, exciting, but by that last act things go terribly astray. Based on the classic novelette by the great writer Richard Matheson, it had been filmed twice earlier— first in the ‘60s as a dull low-budget Vincent Price flick called The Last Man on Earth and then the culty Charlton Heston early ‘70s vehicle re-titled The Omega Man. I don’t remember ever making it all the way through the Price version, but the beloved Heston flick had the same problem as the newest take; though the whole of the ‘70s film is so goofy that the plot twist in the second half is less abrupt and problematic than in the newer more “realistic” version, they both have great set-ups that couldn’t carry through to the end.

The new version opens with a TV broadcasting a news show; Doctor Krippin (an uncredited Emma Thompson) declares they have engineered a virus that will cure cancer. Cut: it’s three years later and an abandoned Manhattan looks straight out of the History Channel’s Life After People; nature has taken it back with plant growth covering Times Square and wild animals now living freely on the island (using both CGI and actual redressed New York locations). Robert Neville (Will Smith) seems to be the last man alive; he speeds around Manhattan with his dog Sam (or Samantha), hunting elk, losing out on his latest prey to a pack of lions. Neville was a military scientist and had worked with the team that invented the miracle drug that eventually wiped out civilization. Though he is immune, he looks for a cure by testing lab rats in the basement lab of his Washington Square brownstone, when he’s not hitting golf balls off a aircraft carrier and broadcasting his daily radio plea for any survivors to come find him.

It turns out he’s not alone though. Some people have survived but they have become hideous bald night creatures with sunlight instantly killing them (similar to the cannibalistic cave dwelling humanoids of Neil Marshall’s The Descent). He captures one and does some promising research in his effort to potentially cure him. His place is fortified at night and during the day the streets are his as long as he makes it home before dusk. After the creatures set a trap for him (similar to the one he used) Sam is attacked by a night monster dog  (yes apparently dogs can get the disease) which eventually turns old Sam into one of them and in a sad moment Smith has to put the dog down. (The best moments in the book are between Neville and a stray dog with a similar outcome.) Pissed about his dog he goes on a suicidal night creature killing rampage and is cornered by them—just like in The Omega Man this is where the otherwise terrific flick goes wrong.

He is inexplicably rescued by a woman, Anna (the gorgeous Brazilian actress Alice Braga of City of God) and a feisty kid (the annoying Charlie Tahan). They hang out while Neville freaks out, but then his recitation of dialogue from Shrek earns their friendship. Eventually the creatures attack the survivors in his brownstone; Neville gives his own life for Anna and the kid, who also now carry the cure. They somehow drive off of Manhattan (though the bridges were blown up by military jets in flashbacks) and pull into a charming New England fort full of other survivors.

There actually is an alternative ending on the DVD that has driven the internet movie nerds wild, where Smith survives, too; but what makes it more interesting is he has contact with the creatures before escaping his destroyed pad and realizes they have feelings and are just fighting to retrieve the creature he kidnapped. It doesn’t fix the Act Three problems but it does make the “monsters” more complex. It also draws a little closer to the theme of the book and the title I Am Legend. The “legend” of this film (and the Heston version) is that Neville carries the cure and will be a legend to future generations. But much more interesting is that the legend of the book is Neville’s standing amongst the creatures; he realizes that he is the monster in their eyes.

But the controversial ending and forced last act aside, that first half is still pretty amazing. Like Tom Hanks in Castaway, it’s basically a one-man show with Smith easily carrying the film. He really is in some ways an underrated actor, more than an ultra-charming personality. I Am Legend proves once and for all he has the acting chops as well, bringing much more to a tricky role than your standard action star. He combines the loneliness and masculinity that would be required to survive, as well as a haunted quality resulting from losing his wife and child, which we see in a chilling flashback, to the panic of Armageddon. Smith even pulls off the intelligence of being a science lab geek, a trait you might not have expected back in his Fresh Prince days. 

I generally am not a CGI fan, but here the look of Manhattan is completely believable if not downright disturbing. The choice to have the humanoids being fully CGI creations was risky but not an issue; frankly, the CGI deer roaming the island may be the most questionable use of the technology. However, what may be missing from the humanoids is personality and purpose; the alternative ending gives them a little more and a clear leader, but in the final version they are just hell-bent zombies (whereas in The Omega Man, they may have had a little too much purpose, and groovy dialogue).

I Am Legend may not take its place with the best post-apocalyptic flicks (Road Warrior, Children of Men, Dawn of the Dead, etc.) but it certainly qualifies for that next tier (along with The Omega Man). Like a Shakespeare play, I’m sure in the years and decades to come someone will fix on the idea to remount I Am Legend (actually it would make a cool play); hopefully they won’t continue to have those same vexing third act problems. Here’s an idea that may help: one of the greatest sci-fi writers ever, Matheson, gave you the brilliant set-up with his book, and now stick to his blue-print for the ending.


Posted by:
Sean Sweeney
Jan 12, 2012 11:45am
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