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I Am Legend (A Movie Review)

Updated: Oct 7, 2022

I Am Legend

I AM LEGEND (2008)

Starring Will Smith, Alice Braga, Salli Richardson, Willow Smith, Charlie Tahan, Dash Mihok, Joanna Numata and Emma Thompson.

Screenplay by Mark Protosevich and Akiva Goldsman.

Directed by Francis Lawrence.

Distributed by Warner Brothers Pictures.  100 minutes.  Rated PG-13.

I Am Legend has a bit of a pedigree.  The movie is based on a respected Richard Matheson novel, and Matheson is one of the greatest unsung talents of science fiction.  The novel has also been made into a well-known movie in the 1970s, The Omega Man starring the Moses of the NRA himself and the king of the disaster movie: Charlton Heston.

The new movie stars Will Smith – one of the biggest box-office names in motion pictures.  Smith has made his name in science fiction genre films such as this – Independence Day, Men in Black, I Robot – okay, they weren’t all that great, but they were mostly extremely popular.

It also features a vital cameo by Emma Thompson – one of the great actresses of her generation – as a scientist whose experiments to cure cancer instead unleashes a plague that essentially decimates mankind on Earth.

It also has one of the most realistic and impressive post-apocalyptic sets in film history.  We’re not talking Escape From New York here.  I saw I Am Legend in a theater within blocks of many of the areas that were shown in the film and the art design team nailed midtown Manhattan.  Without people but with the addition of overgrown plants, trash, free-roaming animals and abandoned cars, the world of the film is undeniably creepy.  The better you know New York City, the more disquieting the sets become.

Yet when you strip away all the artifice, it’s still just essentially a zombie movie.

It is perhaps better made and more thoughtful – and certainly with much better source material – but a zombie movie nonetheless.

Smith plays Robert Neville, a military scientist who is still trying to undo a man-made plague, three years after it is essentially too late.  90% of all humans have been killed by the virus, mutating into undead night-crawling marauders who have killed and eaten almost all people who were immune to the outbreak.

Through his training and intelligence, Neville has been able to survive.  Therefore, he and his dog Samantha drive through the abandoned streets of Manhattan, hunting for food, doing vaccine experiments on captured creatures, watching videotapes of old news reports, shagging golf balls off of abandoned jet-fighters, sending out radio messages that he will be at the same place every afternoon.

Then at night, he and his dog go down to his house on Washington Square, which he apparently lived at even before the plague.  (How did a civil servant afford a huge four-story brownstone in the heart of the Village with a park view?)  They close the windows, put up metal barriers and shield themselves from the howls, crashes and odd sounds in the night.

He also goes to the video store every day, borrowing a new DVD every day.  Neville has set up a group of dummies around the shop, including a clerk and several looky-loos.

And here, perhaps, the movie jumps too far in the surreal.  Look, I’m not judging.  I’m sure if you go three years with no human interaction then you will be desperate for some kind of company.  Still, as a viewer, you can’t help but thinking: the guy is chatting up a mannequin.  Totally insane.

In fact, in a later scene, he is nearly killed just because he is so delusional that he gets freaked out because one of his mannequins has somehow shown up in front of Grand Central Station – and he somehow is unable to completely comprehend that this must be a trap.  A mannequin can’t walk; therefore, he must have been put there by someone, right?

Smith does all of the heavy lifting here – in fact he is alone (or with his dog) for huge chunks of I Am Legend.  Most of the other human characters are either mutants or in flashback.  For the most part Smith is up to the job of carrying I Am Legend.  However, his character has uncomfortable quirks that make him hard to really like.

In fact, when two living human beings (Alice Braga and Charlie Tahan) finally do show up, Neville acts like a complete asshole.  Braga’s character suggests that he has lost the knack of interacting with other humans, however he is so off-the-wall that you again get that same queasy feeling you got with him talking to the mannequins.  It seems like either bad storytelling or bad characterization – it may be what would really happen, but it doesn’t make it more satisfying from a plot standpoint.

Also, the zombified undead stuff has a strong whiff of been-there, done-that.  Yes, this is based on one of the earliest of these stories, but by now we’ve seen the ravenous undead scrabbling for flesh way too many times.  I Am Legend allows the monsters a little more speed and a little more intelligence, but otherwise we’re talking The Night of the Living Dead here.

Too bad, because at its best, I Am Legend had promised so much more.

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2008  All rights reserved.  Posted: February 12, 2008.

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