I Am Legend is the latest incarnation of Richard Matheson’s 1954 story of the same name. Over the years it has been filmed as The Last Man On Earth, 1964, with Vincent Price, and the 1971 Charlton Heston vehicle The Omega Man. You can also see more than just a passing influence in the British shocker 28 Days Later. For now though it’s back to Hollywood and Mr. Smith’s turn to be the Legend.
For those of you who haven’t seen it before, the plot is pretty simple. We clever humans genetically mutate an existing disease and turn it into the cure for cancer. Unfortunately there is a slight snag, and it seems we are not so clever after all. Something has gone ever so slightly wrong and instead of curing cancer the disease turns ninety nine percent of the world’s population into carcasses and the majority of the remaining ten percent into light sensitive, blood crazed, vampire types. Oops.
Everyone that is, apart from Dr. Robert Neville, a brilliant army scientist who spends his days looking for a cure to the disease, and his nights in his bath tub, with his dog and a large gun.
What you get with I Am Legend is something rare in a modern blockbuster: A movie that pretty much lives up to the hype.
You have to take your hat off to director Francis Lawrence. His vision and creation of a post apocalyptic New York is worth the price of the admission alone. The opening scene of Smith driving after a herd of deer through a deserted Manhattan is nothing short of spectacular. He gives the empty streets a chilling feeling of scale and loss. It’s not that the city is empty of life, far from it. Deer roam the streets and huge flocks of bird’s rise upwards to the sky. Vines and moss have covered the buildings and grass grows over a vacant Times-Square. There are no sounds save the birds and the roar of Mr Smith’s red Mustang. Life the city has, just not human. To say it is eerie would be like calling the Grand Canyon a large ditch.
Lawrence is helped by the fact that New York is an immensely photogenic city at the best of times, but in this desolate and deserted state it takes on a new kind of beauty. Crumbling, sad and slowly returning to nature. It is a frightening enough picture without the dark dwelling vampire mutants.
The only trouble with a film about the last man on earth and a ton of bloodthirsty mutants is that it doesn’t leave much space for plot development. You do tend to find yourself waiting for the inevitable to happen and then when it does it’s not much of a surprise. However, that said, the action moves along quickly, helped by some very impressive flashbacks and some truly tense moments. Although, the film does have a tendency to go for the cheap shock tactics at times. But you are never bored as it accelerates through nerve jangling tension to exhilarating action and back as smoothly as Big Will’s Mustang.
Smith is excellent as Robert Neville. A man still trying to save the human race despite the fact he is the only left. He gives the character the right mixture of sadness and drive while letting us know it wouldn’t take much for him to snap. He looks fantastic and despite his salt and pepper hair you get the feeling he has been spending more time at the gym than in the laboratory. This performance is solid. You feel for him as the last man on earth and what that would be like. He lives in the same house he always did, only now it has a laboratory in the basement, heavy metal shutters for the doors and windows and original Van Goghs on the wall. His only company in the world is his dog Sam who goes everywhere with him, but it is obvious that the solitude is getting to him. When he starts taking to shop mannequins you don’t see a man losing it but someone trying hard to keep it together and you sympathise. New York maybe his playground but it’s his prison at the same time. He is tied to it by not just his work but by his memories and his hope. Hope is what is driving him and he is running on empty.
As big budget blockbuster films go this is not going to change the world. It is relatively predictable, there are too many unanswered questions and a few glaring inconsistencies; but if you can get past that and just want some all out good old fashioned fun then this is the film for you. The effects are great, the vampire mutants are scary, Will Smith is charismatic and heroic and it was just immensely enjoyable from start to finish. When it was over, I for one was very glad that when I left the theatre and walked through Times Square, it was still refreshingly overcrowded and so was the rest of New York.
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