© 2007 Ray Wong
Richard Matheson's novel, I Am Legend, was adapted for the silver screen twice already (once as The Last Man on Earth with Vincent Price, and then The Omega Man with Charleston Heston). There was always a certain cheese factor associated with the films, though classics they may be. So is the third time a charm?
In a short prologue, a doctor (an uncredited Emma Thompson) reveals on TV that the scientists have found a virus that cures cancer. Now fast forward three years later: Dr. Robert Neville (Will Smith), a military officer and scientist, is the only man still "alive" in New York City. The other people have all been infected by the virus and become zombie-like "night crawlers." The infected only strive after sunset, when Neville boards up his house and stands guard with a rifle. During the day, Neville scouts around town for supplies, gas, and food -- and sometimes he hunts with his canine companion, Samantha. Every day he broadcast his message over AM radio in hopes other survivors will find him.
Meanwhile, Neville is determined to find a cure based using his own blood as a basis: for some (unexplained) reason, he's immune to both the virus, both airborne or direct contact. After 100 days, his experiment yields an encouraging result and he traps an infected so he can do a human test. During the process, he stirs up a hornet's nest as the infected begin to seek him out as well.
Like Tom Hanks in Castaway, Will Smith (Pursuit of Happyness) is the only person on screen throughout most of the movie. His only acting partners are Samantha and the occasional zombies. With such a big chip on his shoulders, Smith carries the weight rather well. He is always a very likable actor, and he definitely displays his charisma and abilities in this one-man show, more or less. Still, Smith's larger-than-life personality seems to overshadow the characters he's playing: it is both an asset and a burden.
The relatively thin cast includes Alice Barga (Crossing Over) as Anna, a fellow survivor. She's nice and a sigh of relief for Smith and the audience, but not edgy enough to play one of the few survivors who have to fend off the zombies. She looks and acts like a soccer mom. Charlie Tahan (Once Upon a Film) plays Anna's son Ethan. He has nothing much to do and not much to say either. His role is rather unnecessary. Salli Richardson (Eureka) has a few brief scenes as Neville's wife -- not substantial enough to make an impression. Will Smith's own child Willow plays his daughter: she's mostly just an annoying child.
Written by Mark Protosevich (Poseidon) and Akiva Goldsman (Poseidon), the script has a really good beginning and a faster-paced middle, and a yet-faster-paced ending that culminates in an explosive climax. Unfortunately, it is also riddled with too many plot holes. The flashbacks doesn't really tell us much either, except to slowly reveal what happened to Neville's family -- but seriously, do we have any doubt what happened? It was very predictable.
Still, they have a purpose in the story to break up the bleak and slow pace as Neville and his dog roam around town. There are worse offenses. For example, when Anna and Ethan show up, I can't really suspend my disbelief and their explanation is not convincing either: she doesn't even have a gun. And then the whole speech about God simply makes me roll my eyes. The second half of the film is littered with such plot inconsistencies and heavy-laden messages which reduce the film to some mindless Zombie action flick.
If that's what it is, then there are better end-of-the-world zombie fares, a genre that has been done to death to begin with (pun intended). 28 Days Later, for example, is a superior film. However, director Francis Lawrence (Constantine) does give us certain groovy visuals: the sceneries of a desolate jungle island -- Manhattan -- is something to behold. There are also some real frights, including an extended scene in an abandoned warehouse, in the dark, that may make audiences squirm in their seats. And the relationship between Neville and his dog is very well developed so in a later scene we can feel the emotional impact; on the other hand, it's rather interesting because we feel worse about his dog than his wife and child. That tells me how unnecessary (or poorly written/executed) the flashbacks really are.
The biggest disappointment, however, is the zombies. They snarl and howl and bite and snap, but they're not scary enough. Most of the time, they look at animated characters from a video game (inspired by Half Life, perhaps?) They're supposed to lose all their humanity, but they're not beastly enough. And the final sequences involving them are way too over the top, leading to a contrived ending. There's so many missed opportunities here; it's unfortunate. Will Smith the actor may one day become a legend, but this film isn't going to make that happen.
Stars: Will Smith, Alice Barga, Charlie Tahan, Salli Richardson, Willow Smith
Director: Francis Lawrence
Writers: Mark Protosevich, Akiva Goldsman (based on novel by Richard Matheson)
Distributor: Warner Bros.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi action and violence
Running Time: 101 Minutes
Script – 6
Performance – 7
Direction – 6
Cinematography – 7
Editing – 7
Production – 7
Total – 6.7 out of 10