About halfway through I Am Legend, Will Smith is hanging upside down. The plot point that puts him there involves his designated enemy, a Gollumized “dark-seeker,” a human made insane, very speedy, and cannibalistic by a supposed cancer vaccine. This monstrous “Alpha Male,” embodied pre-digitization by Dash Mihok, has here evolved beyond mere grunting, hunting, and flesh-ripping, in order to rig a snare, complete with ingenious bait, to flip Smith’s Robert Neville into the air by a rope around his ankle. As Neville gapes and writhes, the movie arrives at a turning point: now the human is not the only one devising traps and making plans.
Neville upside down serves as apt metaphor for his and the film’s new situation. The clash with Alpha Male upturns the film’s preceding focus on a Neville-only present. Until now, he’s been the only sentient being in sight, accompanied everywhere by his faithful German shepherd Sam, keeping fit on his treadmill and keeping track of what he calls “his” site, the city left to him. He’s developed a system for searching apartments and stores for supplies, then marking each off on a block-by-block map. Each morning he picks up and returns DVDs from a local shop he’s populated with mannequins, each day he hauls out a super-scope rifle to hunt the deer running through debris-strewn city streets, and each evening he returns to his fortified townhouse on Washington Square before dark, because, of course, that’s when the dark-seekers emerge, looking for him.
Identified by a Time magazine cover he conveniently keeps on his refrigerator door, Colonel Neville was once touted as a combination “soldier,” “scientist,” and potential “savior.” He keeps up the potential by regularly descending into his lab top conduct experiments on rats, most showing signs of infection, red eyes and deadly aggression. Amid all his orderly records-keeping, Neville also hopes for change, sending out a radio signal each day in hopes of soliciting a fellow survivor to join him at long last.
As affecting as these scenes of Neville Alone may be — and Smith appears suitably brawny and strained — the film also cuts back and forth in time (much like Castaway did more than a decade ago), providing him with some human company as well as manifest motivation for his fierce research. In flashback, he sends his wife (Salli Richardson) and young daughter (Willow Smith) away on a helicopter just as New York City is “sealed off”: the military blows up bridges and keeps armed guard on the raggedy, increasingly red-eyed population left behind. As his wife smiles bravely during lift-off, Neville insists that he remain at “Ground Zero” in order to “fix it,” to make right what went wrong (“Daddy’s gonna make the monsters go away,” he promises his little girl, who may or may not believe him). It’s never clear how Neville comes to feel such responsibility. The film begins with a 2009 TV “Health Desk” interview: Dr. Krippen (Emma Thompson), officious and optimistic, extols her cure for cancer. “Three years later,” a caption reads, the cure has become a virus with either lethal or monster-making effects. The inexplicably immune Neville’s devotion remains at his site, thus making him look like the Last Man on Earth (the title of the Vincent Price version of Richard Matheson’s 1954 novel), or at least in New York. Its 2001 Ground Zero-ness is now expanded to take up the entire island: buildings covered in plastic make for an eerie effect as the camera passes overhead, the structures simultaneously unbending and undulating. Every morning, military virologist Neville watches recordings of the Today Show, Ann Curry and Matt (oddly, no Meredith) reporting trivia, reminding all of us of naïve olden days. If his ferocious optimism is marked by the song he plays again and again (Marley’s “Three Little Birds”), Neville is, in effect, defeated, again and again, by the “elegant” Krippen virus.
As Alpha Male (who brings along his own pack o’ dogs, vicious and inexorable) embodies that defeat, granting the film high-powered action sequences and leading his minions to smash windows and claw through rooftops. Here and elsewhere, the film pays appropriate homage to other post-apocalyptic flicks (including the obvious mimicking of 28 Days Later‘s infected and a shot of Neville and Sam roaring through town in a GT500, the dog’s trusting glance over at his human lifted from an iconic image in Road Warrior), while also specifically locating this post-apocalyptic imagining now.
In part, this historical specificity has to do with fears of biological warfare and hordes of faceless Al-qaeda operatives in “file footage,” scaling walls and conducting endless drills in the desert. But Neville’s personal conflict with Alpha Male (who occasions I Am Legend‘s standard masculine action) is also more abstract and more interesting, in that the colonel’s seeming selflessness, his self-deemed heroic efforts, are mostly ineffective: Alpha Male ascends, visibly and forever enraged, while Neville descends, hiding in the literal basement. Even when Neville believes he has found a way to “save” the mutants, they can no longer comprehend him, their descent into dreams of vengeance and violence irreversible, their previous selves lost, utterly.
Still, the film cannot brook such hopelessness. And so it introduces another term — in addition to the masculine embodiments of raging physicality and raging intellect — another unlikely survivor, Anna (Alice Braga, the perfect object Angélica in City of God), who brings with her a silent boy, Ethan (Charlie Tahan). She insists on the efficacy of faith, preaching that her answer to Neville’s call is ordained, not to mention a last option following the catastrophic and complete failures of scientific, military, and civilian authorities.
Neville’s resistance to such a “solution” has everything to do with his own faith — in himself, in his training, in his mission to remain at the site. And this resistance is tied up with Smith, whether upside down and right side up. By now an established SF movie hero, he has helped to change the genre’s conception of race and difference. Here the difference between hero and monster is broadly raced (human and other) but also specifically raced. If “Three Little Birds” is no longer a particular marker of Neville’s blackness (what with reggae’s renowned border-crossing), it does mark his difference from previous action and SF heroes (the Omega Man, for instance, would not select this track, and neither would Mad Max). Facing down a body-slamming, wholly inarticulate Alpha Male, Neville appeals to their shared humanity, even though it’s obvious: the damage of difference has been done.