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I Am Legend   C

Warner Bros. Pictures / Village Roadshow Pictures

Year Released: 2007
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Director: Francis Lawrence
Writers: Mark Protosevich, Akiva Goldsman
Cast: Will Smith, Alice Braga, Dash Mihok, Charlie Tahan, Salli Richardson.

Review by Rob Vaux

Before adapting a genre classic, Hollywood might want to consider why such a work is considered a classic in the first place... and therefore what business they have mucking with it. Yes, yes, a change in medium requires certain dramatic alterations, gloomy stories don't play well in Peoria, etc. But a film like I Am Legend leaves one with the sneaking suspicion that the filmmakers thought they were doing the original a favor by introducing wholesale changes. "It's better now! We've improved it so much! We've tossed out all that silly dross the author put in and what's left is pure gold!" It isn't, unfortunately, and the film's fatal problems emerge primarily from those points when it departs from the tone and intentions of the book it was so eager to appropriate.

At least it takes some time to get there. The first half blends striking visual power with another strong performance from Will Smith to create an atmosphere very close to that of Richard Matheson's apocalyptic novel. A few years in the future, plague has wiped humanity from the face of the Earth. Lone survivor Robert Neville (Smith) occupies an empty Manhattan Island with his dog Sam: hunting deer in the silent canyons of Wall Street, harvesting corn in Central Park, scavenging Spam from nearby houses, and trying to hide the pain of the past beneath the facade of ordinary routine. Director Francis Lawrence hits upon a moody tone of mournful longing, at once eternally peaceful and unspeakably empty. Smith's bottomless charisma shifts to match the atmosphere without losing an ounce of its appeal. His witticisms and one-liners become reflections of near-madness -- chatting up mannequins at the video store and admonishing the dog to eat its vegetables as a way of staving off the despair of absolute isolation.

He has a hobby to keep him occupied, however: a cure for the plague that decimated the human populace. For while most were killed outright by the infection, a few displayed a different reaction -- transforming into feral, vampiric beasts who scorch in the sunlight and thirst for blood. While the day belongs to Neville, the night is theirs, and the tens of thousands of them who scurry through Manhattan provide terrors aplenty for the last man on Earth. Reversing their condition gives him a reason to keep going... and he might actually do it, since he served as a military virologist in the last desperate days before civilization finally imploded. So he studies and tests and seeks every flickering chance to turn back the tide, while shuttering his windows with thick steel every night so that none of the "people" he wants to help will tear him limb from limb.

And that's where things begin to veer off course. Having established impeccably bleak credentials, I Am Legend paradoxically sugarcoats the pill while arbitrarily rubbing its nihilism in our faces. Plot contrivances spring up left and right, intended to convey the fragility of Neville's existence, but often feeling more like screenwriters' stunts than plausible threats. Lawrence parlays some of them into very strong moments of suspense, but others simply weary us by underscoring emotional elements with maudlin (and often blatant) manipulation. The film's second half takes greater and greater liberties with Matheson's work: answering the question as to whether Neville is truly alone and yet ducking the moral relativism that the novel encapsulated so elegantly. In its place is a lot of balderdash, clichéd and derivative despite the handsome sheen that Lawrence lends it. The title alone morphs into a bastardized sellout (especially when compared with Matheson's ironic twist), and each successive development in the increasingly ludicrous narrative saps a little more of the goodwill engendered by the early scenes.

Smith makes for terrific damage control, as he so often does. He plays smart, capable characters exquisitely and his growing fear and instability here is no less potent for the easygoing persona it is married to. Most of the running time consists of him alone onscreen, acting against nothing but animals, CGI effects, or the cavernous echo chamber of a depopulated New York. Few actors could even aspire to such a burden, and Smith's success evokes favorable comparisons to Tom Hanks' career-best work in Cast Away. But no man is an island, even the Fresh Prince, and I Am Legend simply can't sustain its scenario well enough to justify the effort. It should have looked harder at the book it presumably hoped to honor. The answers were there in black and white, waiting for a more imaginative screenplay to summon. Adapting a classic means subsuming your vision before its: letting your imagination interpret words that you must never presume to overshadow. Such humility is far too rare in Hollywood, a lesson I Am Legend embodies to its eternal detriment.

Review published 12.14.2007.

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