Reviewed by Andrew Kasch
Starring Will Smith
Directed by Francis Lawrence
I Am Legend is the great American horror novel. Over fifty years later, Richard Matheson’s post-apocalyptic vampire story has lost none of its power. It’s a book dripping with pure mood, rich characterization, and eye-popping imagery. So why can’t Hollywood get it right?
This is the third attempt at bringing Legend to the screen, following Vincent Price’s The Last Man on Earth (review here) and the hilariously awful Omega Man. Moving the action from Los Angeles to New York, this version once again chronicles the exploits of Robert Neville, a brilliant scientist and sole survivor of a devastating plague that has killed off the world’s population. By day, the immune Neville gathers supplies and works fervently to find a cure for the virus, while trying to survive the hordes of crazed infected (here mutants instead of vampires) that run amok at night.
While the film barely resembles the novel, director Francis Lawrence gets one thing right: He goes for a somber character study instead of typical Hollywood theatrics. This is far from the soulless Michael Bay bullshit we all feared, and for the first two thirds Legend actually packs quite a punch. The images of ruined New York are awe-inspiring, and the lack of dialogue and music perfectly set the mood for a solo survival story. For a mega-budget studio project, Legend does a great job building tension through quiet, introspective moments (for the most part), and that in and of itself is a welcome relief. While the film has many problems, Will Smith isn’t one of them. This is far from the wisecracking “Hell naw!” school of acting we’ve come to expect from the man, and his restrained performance as a tortured, emotionally-unstable Neville is easily his best role to date.
But any goodwill (no pun intended) goes crashing down in the final act with the introduction of new survivors who are little more than plot devices. We’re supposed to care about these characters even though they feel like an afterthought and completely rob all dramatic focus away from Neville and his plight. At this point Legend goes from dark drama to preachy Hollywood fluff. The calculated survivalist tale quickly becomes a race to the finish line with gobs of terrible exposition and plot contrivances while Neville is reduced to giving quirky Will Smith-style rants about his love for Bob Marley and Shrek. It all culminates in a giant anticlimax of bad CGI and one of the most forced happy endings in recent memory. It doesn’t matter if you’re a Matheson fan or not, these changes only destroy the tone for the sake of mainstream appeal.
Then there’s the infected and the poor decision to make them entirely CG creations. While there are plenty of intense moments through the first half when the creatures are confined to the shadows, the sense of fear is quickly lost when we see them in all their artificial glory. Exposed, the infected are little more than shriveled-up walking corpses reminiscent of the Stephen Sommers Mummy movies. CGI is a wonderful tool for making creatures (as demonstrated most recently in The Mist), but this is a clear case of something that could’ve easily been achieved through the use of practical effects.
Aside from seeing a perfect novel abused by the studio system, the most aggravating factor here is Francis Lawrence. Between Legend and Constantine, the man has shown incredible talent as a director but keeps destroying superior source material for commercial charm. Lawrence is capable of greatness and clearly has all the skills to produce an incredible genre film, but he continues to act like a sell-out David Fincher. And that’s the problem with I Am Legend: It’s a film that wants to have it both ways – as an unconventional horror movie and a mainstream crowd-pleaser.
If you’re looking for the stuff of legends, stay home and read the book.
3 out of 5