Imagine trying to pitch this as the headline release over the Christmas period. I Am Legend is arguably the least festive film for many a year, boasting an overall downbeat and subversive tone and a central character going through a serious mental breakdown. Add to the mix a deadly disease, post-apocalyptic landscapes and marauding blood-sucking vampires and you have the recipe for a disaster of epic proportions. The film stunned analysts and critics with its huge opening weekend in the states, and although it is impossible to recommend this film as a feel good event, it is still essential viewing.
Robert Neville (Smith) is the only survivor left in New York City after a man-made virus wipes out the population. Neville is immune and has decided to methodically search for other survivors and a cure, recalling his own scientific background. We are introduced to Neville’s new world three years after the virus has struck, leaving him with only his trusty dog for company. The pair systematically set up a routine constantly trying to avoid the dark and returning to their fortified shelter before sunset, because although he is the last man on Earth, he is not alone.
The film opens with a chilling news clip introducing a miracle cure to save the planet. This is, however, the very beginning of the end as we are subsequently thrust into the new world three years later where Neville is now accustomed to his new surroundings. It’s a deliberately disorientating manoeuvre as the audience is left unbalanced while we see an empty metropolis decaying infront of us. One of the film's many successes is its refusal to make things easy for the viewer. The intervening years are not explained, and we only see personal flashbacks of the Neville family trying to escape the city before it is cut off from the rest of civilisation.
The film's biggest trump card, however, is its star. Stretching himself more than he has ever done before, Smith shows a depth and maturity that is a startling surprise. He may well have won plaudits for Ali, but that performance amounted to little more than a caricature and hyperactive impersonation. Even in the well-received The Pursuit of Happyness, Smith was given much assistance with excellent support and a series of emotional set pieces to react to. Here we see him on his own, reacting only to mental cues and the smallest of events all to great effect. The routine he establishes becomes understandable as the isolation and loneliness that Neville must be feeling creeps up on him as deftly as the vampires do.
There are a couple of twists along the way, and although it would be unfair to give them away, it’s worth pointing them out as gearshifts that only enhance the experience. The only (mild) disappointment is the gimmicky feel of the computer-generated vampires that move and appear unrealistic (because obviously ‘real’ vampires have been well documented!). If those special effects fail, then you’ll be relieved to know that the more notable sequences of a deserted New York take the breath away ... just like the film itself.
SECOND OPINION | Craig McPherson *** I Am Legend marks the third kick at the film can for Richard Matheson’s 1954 novel about the lone survivor of a global pandemic that has transformed humanity into a horde of blood-hungry vampires. Originally brought to the screen in 1964 under the title The Last Man on Earth, with Vincent Price in the lead role, the movie was remade in 1971 as The Omega Man with Charlton Heston, and now gets another pass as a starring vehicle for Will Smith. While none of the versions actually get Matheson’s apocalyptic fable right, this latest incarnation is probably the best of the bunch, the result in large part to some impressive and atmospheric CGI, decent acting on the part of Smith and a german shepherd that practically steals the movie.
Directed by relative newcomer Francis Lawrence, whose only significant prior helming credits include the tepid Keanu Reeves demon flick Constantine and a series of Britney Spears and J-Lo videos, Legend manages to ramp up the cringe factor by turning every darkened building, corridor and stairwell into places of unspeakable dread, for while daylight manages to hold the vampirish mutants at bay, there’s nothing stopping them from holding court in dark corners. Set three years after the genetic manipulation of the measles virus into a cure for cancer has run amok — the virus itself mutating in horrific and unforeseen ways — Smith’s Robert Neville, a top flight military scientist, remains alone at “ground zero”, barricaded in a fortified home complete with basement laboratory from which he whiles away his days conducting experiments on rats and captured human mutants in a desperate attempt to find a cure. His only companion in this lonely existence is a dog named Samantha whom he leans on to hold isolation-induced insanity in check.
While increasingly the efforts of computer generated effects are poured into the realisation of unworldly creatures and spectacular explosions — of which Legend has its share — it’s in the transformation of Manhattan into a moonscape of abandoned vehicles and buildings, slowly succumbing to reclamation by nature, that the computer wizards behind this film really deserve credit. As tales of the apocalypse go, Legend falls short of filling the ample shoes of such previous entries such as 28 Days Later and even the 2004 revisioning of Dawn of the Dead, but its capable packaging of creepy dread, coupled with a great performance by Smith as a lonely man struggling to be the lone voice of humanity, all topped off by more than capable effects make this a popcorn film not to be missed.