I AM LEGEND [dir. Francis Lawrence]
Richard Matheson should have never written his now classic genre novel I Am Legend. Over the four decades since its release, great names in horror (Vincent Price) and mainstream cinema (Charleton Heston) have tried to bring the book to life. In the case of the Italian made The Last Man on Earth, Price had to deal with poor production values and budgetary concerns. And Heston’s Omega Man tried too hard to be faithful to both the creature community as well as standard ‘70s speculation. Now comes Will Smith, Mr. Summer Blockbuster, trying to establish a new seasonal shilling post with his winter waste of an adaptation. Scribbled by that talentless hack Akiva Goldsman and directed with little flair for the epic by Constantine‘s Francis Lawrence, what wants to be a potent post-apocalyptic shocker ends up as bereft of energy as the deserted New York streets depicted.
The year is 2012. A cancer cure based on the measles has mutated, wiping out 90% of the Earth’s population. Those who did not die have turned into blood craving creatures, adverse to sunlight and primal in their brutality. The last supposed survivor is Dr. Robert Neville. Along with his German Sheppard Sam, he’s stayed behind in an abandoned New York City in hopes of finding a cure for the remaining monsters. He spends his days foraging for food and trying to contact anyone else still alive. He spends his nights barricaded in his house, avoiding the horrifying beings outside. One day, he discovers something frightening - the fiends are no longer acting instinctually. Instead, they appear to be thinking, determining the best way to get at Neville - even if it means their own destruction.
I Am Legend is a depressing experience. For everything it gets right, dozens of things go horribly, horribly wrong. About as faithful to Richard Matheson’s novel as I, Robot was to the work of Isaac Asimov, this pointless exercise in production design strives to be the most understated blockbuster in the history of the format. Sadly, it fails to realize that there already is a category for this kind of film - it’s called the ‘lackluster’. Smith’s star power might guarantee tickets and fans in the seats, and he does hold the screen with a desperate charisma that’s hard to challenge. But when you come to a post-apocalyptic thriller, you expect solid sci-fi and considered cinematic chills. Sadly, we are only partially satisfied.
Though it tends to look like a backlot gone to seed, the digital rendering of Manhattan into a gloomy ghost town is very effective. The quarantined buildings, aging shredded plastic drifting in the breeze, look remarkably real, and when Smith interacts with famed facades (Union Station, Times Square) we get a feeling of grandeur and scope. Lawrence does a good job in these moments, making up for times when the script stifles his efforts, and there’s one particular sequence where Neville cases his dog into a horrific hive of evil that exemplifies what I Am Legend could have been. But then the movie shifts over into Cast Away mode, and we’re stuck with another superstar talking to mannequins.
Indeed, the foremost problem with the film is the lack of intrigue. Since we don’t see the actual destruction of New York (flashbacks fill in some blanks, most dealing with how Neville lost his family) or the nature of the monster’s terror, we are left without the necessary context to create suspense. Even worse, the occasional scares are limited to the standard horror film histrionics - the sudden appearance of deer, the trailer highlighted arrival of a lion. For a narrative wanting to work on a much more subtle, slow burn nature of fear, these jolts feel forced and completely calculated.
Even worse, the movie has to manipulate our feelings by sinking to animal endangerment as a means of mining emotion. Since Smith is given little to do except weep and look despondent, it’s up to his sidekick to provide the pathos. Even worse, when a last act twist triples the population, lame ideas about religion, destiny, and faith come crashing into the mix, making the movie even more scattered than it needed to be. With the unexceptional CGI used to render everything outside Neville’s domain (the various wildlife, as well as the creatures, look sloppy and second tier) and the failure to come up with a satisfying finale, I Am Legend plays like 80 minute of set-up in service of 10 minutes of mindless mediocrity.
While fans have often complained about Price and Heston’s efforts, one thing about previous versions of Legend are crystal clear - Matheson’s main themes were mostly respected. Here, Goldsman and fellow scribe Mark Protosevich toss out 90% of the novel, and instead appear to remake 28 Days Later by inserting albino zombies lacking anything resembling a personality or purpose. There is no real interaction between the two sides - Smith does some doctoring stuff on the fiends, but that’s about it. Gone are the confrontations where semi-salient beings discuss their issues with our hero. Instead, we get stupid sequences of Neville ‘renting’ DVDs and mimicking the dopey dialogue of Shrek.
Even worse, we really don’t care about Neville’s plight. Since we are unaware of the danger, unsure of how he’s managed for over three years without a great deal of “only in the movies” luck, and fail to fully experience the devastation that he has witnessed (both literal and personal), we wind up with enigmatic visions that offer nothing but art department air balls. Neville’s methodical daily routine is only interesting once. After that, it becomes an illustrated guide to the amateur survivalist. The backdrop looks great, but it’s never really explored. There are dozens of unanswered scientific questions (why can’t the monsters just wear lots of protective clothing before venturing out? why aren’t deer and lions affected?) as well as issues involving basic human nature (why didn’t Neville simply sail away, or conduct his research somewhere else?)
It all adds up to a movie that’s more puzzling than evocative. Smith can still carry almost any concept, but he has to work overtime to get this mess to gel. Lawrence is even less guilty, since he builds a decent playset out of some horribly hackneyed screenplay parts. What could have been compelling, if done right, ends up looking great but feeling very, very hollow inside. For those hoping that the third time (or if you count off title rip-offs, forth) would be the charm, you’d better be ready for a dire disappoint. The only place this movie is legendary is in its own feeble mindset.