Thursday, March 27, 2008

I Am Legend

Director: Francis Lawrence
Starring: Will Smith, Alice Braga, Salli Richardson, Willow Smith

Running Time: 101 min.

Rating: PG-13

*** (out of ****)

There are only a select number of actors who are capable of elevating middling material a level higher. Will Smith has slowly been emerging as one of them. I Am Legend brings nothing new to the played out last man on Earth/post-apocalyptic genre at all. If you wanted to skip it I couldn’t blame you, but if you did you’d be missing Smith’s impressive performance which makes everything worthwhile. The story is so familiar it’s actually been made twice already as 1964’s The Last Man on Earth and 1971’s more memorable The Omega Man, both of which were based on the 1954 novel by Richard Matheson.

Even those unfamiliar with Matheson by name are probably still familiar with much of his work. One of the more underappreciated science fiction authors, he’s responsible for writing such masterpieces as Steven Spielberg’s Duel, the magical What Dreams May Come and many episodes of The Twilight Zone, like the infamous "Nightmare At 20,000 Feet" starring William Shatner. Another Matheson penned episode "Button, Button," is being released this year as The Box, directed by Richard Kelly. Yes, Kelly has still been able to find work.

That I Am Legend would probably rank at the very bottom of Matheson’s accomplishments says a lot about how talented he is. Whenever his name is attached to a project I know I’m at least guaranteed something of substance and thus far no director or screenwriter has managed to really mangle any of his stories in their transition to the screen, which is somewhat of a miracle. His adaptations have a MUCH better track record than, say, Stephen King’s. So while I had little interest in seeing this, I knew it at least had one thing going for it right off the bat.

The film, despite being standard and somewhat predictable, is executed as well as can be reasonably expected from this genre. What isn’t standard is Smith’s performance in a very tough role. He has to carry this whole story by himself and does so magnificently, thus proving his status as the number one box office draw is far from a fluke. Beyond that there isn’t a whole lot to recommend, but since he is this movie, it’s more than enough.

The year is 2012 and in New York City military scientist Dr. Robert Neville (Smith) is the last remaining survivor on Earth after a virus created to cure cancer instead wiped out the human race. We find this out in the opening minutes through a videotaped interview with the doctor who created it (an uncredited Emma Thompson in a cameo). The disease mutated and transformed anyone who survived into vampire-looking creatures that kind of resemble the ones from The Descent (except far less scarier). They hide by day and attack at dawn when the sun goes down, which creates more than a few nail-biting, race against time scenarios for Neville to get out of during the course of the film.

Somehow he’s immune to the virus and mostly stays locked in his apartment with his dog Sam, working hard to keep his sanity and find a cure for the deadly virus. Flashbacks are interspersed, giving us glimpses of Neville’s life before the outbreak and the burden of responsibility he feels for its result. Sending out daily AM radio transmissions, he holds out hope that someone else might still be out there as he struggles to survive.

I Am Legend
is the latest dramatization of a genre we’ve seen executed thousands of times before. I was sure we met our vampire quota already in 2007 with 28 Days Weeks Later and 30 Days of Night but here’s yet another vampire movie, except this one doesn’t involve a number and is wearing the mask of a post-apocalyptic tragedy.

The actual vampire stuff is uneven and a lot of the scenes (especially any involving animals) are marred by some really fake-looking CGI that’s so bad I had to double-check at the end to make sure George Lucas didn’t have a production credit on the film. Where the film really excels is in providing tension and well-placed excitement, much of which comes from Smith’s desperate performance as someone who really is believable as the last man on Earth. I’m still not sure how exactly someone can be "believable" in such a role but I do know that Kevin Costner wasn’t in The Postman. Smith is here.

The best scenes of the movie involve Neville trying to keep his sanity amidst terminal loneliness. His days consist mostly of conversations with store mannequins and listening to Bob Marley, but Smith even manages to make that engaging for the audience. Saying that he carries the entire film is a bit misleading though because he does have some help in the form of a canine friend. If an Oscar for Best Performance By a Dog in a Motion Picture were given out this year Sam would have it locked up. Yeah, Smith is so good in this role manages to coax a terrific performance out of his canine co-star. Struggling to keep it together mentally Neville is forced to depend on the only family member he has left, even if she doesn’t happen to be human. The threat of something happening to the one companion Neville can depend on looms very large and we know that if it does, his grip on reality will officially begin to slip away.

The director of the film is Francis Lawrence and this can’t be looked at as anything other than a success for someone who helmed the dreadful Constantine a few years ago. Many fans of Matheson’s novel were supposedly angered at the liberties screenwriters Akiva Golsdman and Mark Protosevich took with the ending. I don’t know why considering the choice of ending is hardly a slap in the face regardless of what happened or didn’t in the book. It’s satisfying and makes sense…at least for this film. Where the movie probably bites off more than it can chew is when it tries to introduce themes like science vs. religion late into the story. It was a noble effort but this is just post-apocalyptic disaster movie and heavy themes like that will always play better in Matheson’s writing than here.

The introspective first hour promises something more akin to the novel, but eventually that gives way to a more conventional Hollywood blockbuster. Still, this wasn’t Matheson’s deepest or most exciting work to begin with so there wasn’t a whole lot that could have been done. What needed to be accomplished was, even if I can’t imagine the movie will have anyone rushing out to read the novel. I pitied the poor film that was following Southland Tales on my viewing list, especially if it fell under the sci-fi banner, but this gets the job done. There isn’t a lot to I Am Legend but with Will Smith this in command of the material, a little can go a very long way

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