The Good: Acting, Direction, General plot, Most of the character aspects, DVD bonus features
The Bad: Pacing, CG effects
The Basics: Will Smith sells life after a viral apocalypse as a scientist, guilt-ridden, who is working to cure anyone who might be left in I Am Legend.
These days, who doesn't love a good post-apocalyptic action-adventure story? Sometimes it feels like we might be living on the brink of our own human-made calamity, so there's still entertainment in the escapism of watching the last people on Earth struggling to survive. I run hot and cold on apocalyptic visions for two reasons: 1. So many of them have been done and 2. Far too often the established parameters of them become defied in the process of the work. Sure, there's not much new in the "everyone gets killed, save our protagonist" genre, there's not much one can do about that. But the latter issue, well, that takes skill to get around. For a long while, I sang the praises of 28 Days Later (reviewed here!) and despite how the virulent plague there is suddenly ignored for plot-convenient battles dripping in blood, I do love that film. The only other vision of the end of the world I have thoroughly enjoyed, even though it systematically dismantle its own principles is the first season of Jeremiah.
At least, that is how I felt until I saw I Am Legend. I Am Legend, another film that proves Will Smith still has serious opening ability for theatrical releases and now available on DVD, presents a fairly stark vision of the near-future, where humanity's tampering with genetics for noble purpose has ended badly for the vast majority of people.
Robert Neville and his dog, Sam, live in New York City, or rather what is left of it. Overgrown after three years of decay, New York is the starting point from which a genetically engineered virus managed to wipe out most of the population of Earth. Dr. Alice Krippin genetically engineered a cure for cancer, a cure that went amuck and slaughtered most of the population of the world when it became airborne. Neville, immune to the airborne strain, was seen as a potential savior and remained in the City with Sam, who is vulnerable to bites, but like most animals is immune to the airborne variety. Neville patrols New York during the day scavenging food, hunting deer with his SUV, and broadcasting a message to potential survivors who might be passing by. He also uses his own blood to experiment with potential serums on infected rats in an attempt to design a cure for the plague. When one of the vaccines illustrates promise, Neville is compelled to hunt for one of the infected humans still living in the City, which sets off a war between Neville and a mutant that may end humanity's last chance at survival.
I Am Legend is clever in that it takes a bit of time to build up to where it is going. Neville is established as a fairly cautious, guilt-ridden character who patrols a seeming wasteland with little practical purpose. The writers of the film wisely hold the creepy card for as long as possible before revealing what it is that keeps Neville inside at night. Calling Neville the last man on Earth is not entirely true as there are Infected; mutants who are not killed by the virus, but rather rendered into psychotic, brain dead, light sensitive zombies that roam the City at night with their equally twisted dogs.
And here are the big problems with I Am Legend; it takes a while to build up, Neville is incredibly intelligent except when it comes to seeing what it in front of him and the principles of this vision are kept with a sense of literalism that is entirely ridiculous. In turn, the pacing of I Am Legend is a bit off. There is a long build up where Neville is alone, caught with his inner demons, talking to himself and suffering through recordings of broadcasts from the outbreak. But as soon as the first mutant is shown, the film rapidly becomes a much faster paced film obsessed with movement and entirely lacking in the quiet moments that define the eerie world Neville is trapped in for the first third. Honestly, Will Smith could have carried the film just fine with Sam without any mutants, I think.
The reason for that is that Neville is a remarkably strong character as defined by Will Smith and his somewhat twitchy dialogue to himself. And while I might be all alone with this theory, Neville's character falls down once he encounters the den of mutants because the otherwise incredibly intelligent Neville draws the absolute opposite conclusion from the data given to him. When he captures a mutant to test his new serum on (very cleverly, by the way), he notes that the mutants have degraded to the point that there is nothing human left in them. Unfortunately, this is the opposite of the logic of what he is witnessing as he notes that one of the mutants almost risked getting burned by coming out into the light when he captured his test subject. Here's the thing: Neville captures a woman, the mutant in the doorway willing to risk life, limb and all is male and it's not much of a leap to suggest that Neville captured his mate and he's reacting thus with a strong possessive urge that is both primal and very human.
That said, the film's premise is that the mutants will generally avoid the sunlight because their skin literally burns in it. This works almost in every context, but it becomes a parody of itself when Neville and Sam find themselves trapped near dusk near a den of mutants and their dogs. Despite having an inch of sunlight between them, the dogs will not break the beam of light and this seems ridiculous. The pain of passing through such a beam would be negligible and for animals that have gone feral, this is pretty much a joke.
Outside those three complaints, I Am Legend is a clear winner. The film is smart and has a wonderful sense of mood, despite the pacing issues. Neville is characterized wonderfully through his actions as meticulous and deeply wounded by his inability to save humanity before the bulk of it was wiped out or transformed. He clings to a strange sense of idealism and his sense of both hope and survival are balanced well to create a character who is a logical savior. There is a surprising amount of character in Neville, characterized through his interactions with mannequins, talking to Sam and talking to himself. He is a man guided by a scientific method, but there is also a very real messiah complex at work in his insistence that he is both the alpha and the omega of the plague.
Will Smith portrays Neville brilliantly and with a slightly twitchy and nervous quality whenever Neville is outside his laboratory or home that prove his acting ability. He interacts with his costar, a dog named Kona, with a sense of professionalism that he appears to have for every human costar I've ever seen him interact with. Smith has a wonderful sense of body language; standing tall and straight in his lab, hunching nervously in the video store when he attempts to flirt with a mannequin, and moving with the grace of a professional soldier when hunting. Smith completely sells the reality of the world through his performance and had there been no other people in the film, Smith still could have carried the film on his own.
The thing is, there are other people, mostly in the form of radically altered (by CG effects) mutants. The computer-generated mutants are fine in the slow scenes, though even there many of them are lit inappropriately. In the action sequences, many of the mutants are downright terrible and the effects become disappointing as the film degenerates into a battle between Neville and the leader of the mutants.
But just as CG effects do not sway me to recommend a film, this time they will not put me off an otherwise wonderful vision of life after the end of the world. I Am Legend is creepy, exciting and at times truly heartwrenching. It is a stark reality that appears on DVD with a decent number of behind-the-scenes featurettes to make it worthwhile. With an entire bonus disc that features animated adventures, bits on viral outbreaks and an alternate theatrical version that provides a different ending, which is intriguing.
Anyone who likes science fiction or a decent psychological drama is likely to enjoy I Am Legend. If you have a low tolerance for films that require patience, though, this might not be the film for you. As someone who likes smart, end-of-the-world films, it's an easy recommend on both the viewing and the buy.
For other visions of the end of the world, please check out my reviews of:
The Walking Dead - Season 1
For other film reviews, please visit my index page by clicking here!
© 2011, 2008 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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