Richard Matheson’s 1954 novel I Am Legend finally finds itself filmed under its own title after having seen cinematic life as The Last Man on Earth (1964) and The Omega Man (1971). Ironically, this latest version turns out to have even less to do with the book than the previous attempts.
In fact, I Am Legend is less a version of the book than it is a remake of The Omega Man—remonkeyed to soak up as much of that 28 Days Later … (2002) goodness as possible. As with The Omega Man, the plague victims (rechristened “the infected” à la 28 Days Later …) are more zombies than they are the vampires of the book, but unlike both earlier film versions and the book, there are no middle-ground, not-quite-vampires/zombies-not-quite-human characters. Nope. What we have here is a video-game version, with nothing but masses of antisocial zombified horrors CGI-ing their way across the screen for purposes of pretty low-caliber mayhem.
I think the idea was to provide enough PG-13 thrills to placate the more easily placated genre fans, while serving up Will Smith in a sci-fi variant on Cast Away (2000) with a dog to talk to rather than a volley ball. In essence, that’s not unreasonable, since all these stories are variants on the Robinson Crusoe theme: an everyman sort of fellow stranded alone in a hostile environment. OK, so Daniel Defoe never thought of bringing in vampires or zombies, but this was probably an oversight since he didn’t have the benefit of a grounding in B movies.
And in all honesty, Smith isn’t a bad choice for the Crusoe approach. It’s pretty hard to accept Vincent Price in Last Man as an everyman. In fact, it’s hard not to suspect that Price would be more put out by having to resort to using artificial dairy products in his cooking than by those pesky vampires. And Charlton Heston’s Omega Man is too stoically macho to qualify. Smith is someone we can at least somewhat identify with, so theoretically the approach should work. Actual practice is something else, because the screenplay by Mark Protosevich (Poseidon) and Akiva Goldsman (I, Robot) has been tooled into Will Smithery—relying on giving Smith the sort of one-liner approach his fans expect. (Truth to tell, this is probably pure Goldsman, since Protosevich’s script had been kicking around for ages.) Most of the film’s shots at profundity get lost in witty repartee with a dog and some department-store dummies.
Once human interaction (that isn’t in the form of flashbacks) enters the movie, the screenplay is off on some fuzzy theological bent of the “God works in mysterious ways” school. It asks us to accept that the Crafty But Benevolent Old Gentleman Upstairs must have had good reason to off billions of people, turn Smith into a cockeyed savior, and reimagine the world as a Vermont postcard (maybe the Old Boy has a thing for Ben & Jerry’s). All in all, it left me in a state of profound indifference.
As far as the film’s horror elements are concerned, they’re simply nothing special. The scenes of a deserted New York are unsettling, but they never become menacing. The first encounter with “the infected” is creepy—up to the point that the creatures start running around and roaring. Then it becomes boringly generic. By the time we get to masses of computer-generated monsters, the whole thing has gone to video-game hell. Any illusion of solidity is lost with these increasingly cartoonish horrors. Fans of Will Smith and zombie flicks will undoubtedly turn I Am Legend into a hit, but really it’s mostly a string of missed opportunities propped up by high-concept underpinnings and glossy production values. Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi action and violence.