Richard Matheson in 1954, 'I Am Legend' is a gem of a book, a story that genuinely creeped me out and sent shivers up and down my back. Movie studios saw potential, and they've gone to the well a handful of times, including the most recent effort, 2007's I Am Legend.
It's been three years since a genetically-mutated medicine reversed its positives and wiped out some 94% of the world's population. Like a disease, it spread, turning normal human beings into mutants, Darkseekers who cannot step into any sort of light. In a silent, completely alone Manhattan in New York City, Dr. Robert Neville (Will Smith) fears he is the last man on Earth. Neville is somehow immune to the disease that affected so many, and now lives on his own, his dog, Sam, a German shepherd, his only companion. They travel through NYC looking for supplies, for help of any sort. All the while, Robert keeps working at a cure, hoping that his blood holds the key to stopping the disease spread.
As bankable a star as Hollywood currently has, Will Smith is the main reason to go see this 2007 science fiction-horror-apocalyptic story. At times, it's easy to think of him as a movie star and not an actor, but he's shown on multiple occasions he is truly an actor. As the last man on Earth, the focus in on Smith's Neville and no one else. He dominates the screen. Dropping into this story some 3 years since the disease, we see Neville's routine from day-to-day. Survive, supply, search and get back home to a fortified house on Washington Square before the Darkseekers come out from their daylight hiding places. In quick flashbacks, we see Robert's involvement in the evacuation of Manhattan, adding another layer to the character. It has to be an actor's dream to have a role like this, and Smith doesn't disappoint.
Most importantly, Smith's performance feels very real. Yes, it's a movie. Yes, he's working off a script, but it feels like a human being would react. Imagine being alone with no one to talk to for three years, but a loving dog that rarely leaves your side. Neville has set up mannequins around NYC and named them, talking to them every day, wondering if he should flirt with a "cute girl" at the video store. He goes to that video store and picks up a different movie everyday (he's working his way through the 'G Section'). Neville hunts -- for food and Darkseekers -- and waits at a specific point each day in case anyone listens to his radio broadcasts. The pressure becomes almost unbearable for him, and rightfully so. The spotlight is on Will Smith, and he certainly embraces it here in a sympathetic, heartfelt, and emotional role.
So what else? The look of this film from director Francis Lawrence is a lynchpin to everything working. The opening sequence is startling especially, laying out the groundwork for the story to come. Driving a souped-up Mustang, Neville and Sam drive through an empty NYC. They're hunting for deer, passing completely isolated, empty streets. Cars line the curbs where they were left. Buildings tower over them, no one inside at all...no one human at least. Seeing New York City like this provides some truly amazing shots. I especially liked composer James Newton Howard's score, his main them in particular. Listen HERE. It is underplayed in a perfect way. Everything about the movie could have been big, loud and obvious, but Lawrence's direction, Howard's music and Smith's acting keep things grounded.
All those positives aside, there are some negatives. The first 60-70 minutes are pretty perfect. The last 30-40 minutes aren't. SPOILERS from here on in SPOILERS We learn that Neville isn't alone when he is rescued one night by Anna (Alice Braga), a woman in her late 20s/early 30s, and Ethan (Charlie Tahan), a young boy, who have similarly managed to survive. Maybe it's just because the focus isn't entirely on Neville anymore, but there's just little interest in seeing Anna and Ethan's plight. The pacing up to this point is perfect, doing a great job of building tension and keeping you guessing, but the last 30 minutes (especially the ending) feels rushed. It ain't a happy ending either, but that wasn't an issue. It works in a big way, tweaking Matheson's original ending, but that's to be expected. It would have been hard to sustain the momentum throughout, but 'Legend' gets close.
An incredibly creepy, well-acted sci-fi horror flick. There are flaws, but the positives outweigh the negatives. I loved Smith's performance, and that rises above any other issues I have.
I Am Legend (2007): *** 1/2 /****