I Am Legend

Movie Information

The Story: Will Smith plays the "last man on earth" in this postapocalyptic zombie yarn. The Lowdown: Uneven special effects, a clunky structure and a lack of any real focus undermine this third attempt at filming this story.
Genre: Sci-Fi Action Horror
Director: Francis Lawrence
Starring: Will Smith, Alice Braga, Charlie Tahan, Salli Richardson, Willow Smith
Rated: PG-13

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.

About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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5 thoughts on “I Am Legend

  1. Erik Harrison

    Remember when I said commenting was a bad idea?

    I just came back from a showing of “I Am Legend” and rather liked it, and I think you’re being rather harsh. To call a film “video game” like is facile – CGI looks rubbery, Harryhausen looks jittery, and makeup doesn’t play in tight shots. Blah blah.

    Cutting that away and looking at the storytelling I find a lot to enjoy. I buy Neville’s functional madness. At first, it seems like pushing the concept for a gag when he says hi to Fred and Marge the mannequins, but then grows into something more when you realize how dependent Neville is on this little game. It’s easy to appreciate why he is so disturbed when other safe human beings show up, rather than ecstatic. Neville doing the dialog from “Shrek” is the kind of thing we all have done – but taken to an extreme. His attempt to prove that he’s not crazy just shows how marginal he is.

    There are some interesting ideas in the behavior of the infected as well. Displaying sophisticated emotional behavior, for instance – when the “hero” infected comes out into the light, presumably because Neville has taken his girlfriend. Neville’s total inability to see this as a human act is tantamount to blindness. His grief overcomes his ability to understand that perhaps he is the villain of the piece, a day monster.

    The film does take a thematic left turn in the fourth act, and lost me – I could have watched “The Stand” or “Signs” where similar religious content is explored, more thoroughly. But I found Neville’s sacrifice satisfying, and appreciated the film skipping the obligatory sex scene and cute kid.

    There is a bleaker, more complex version of this movie that only changes the last 20 minutes or so. But as it stands I was thoroughly entertained. CGI or not.

  2. Ken Hanke

    ” Displaying sophisticated emotional behavior, for instance – when the “hero” infected comes out into the light, presumably because Neville has taken his girlfriend. Neville’s total inability to see this as a human act is tantamount to blindness.”

    That seems a very generous reading to me, since it could as easily be read — which is what I did — as typical of the script’s sloppy tone. In other words it struck me that it was an avenue they started to explore and then dropped. I have a hard time imagining the script being as subtle as your reading suggests. It may be, but I’m skeptical.

    As far as CGI is concerned, I’m not four-square against it, though there are varying levels of quality. I have a basic dislike of its lack of solidity — something you don’t get with Harryhausen (though I’m not a big Harryhausen fan either) — but it can be good and, like a good cartoon, it can give the illusion of solidity. To me that’s exactly what it doesn’t do here. The last sections of the film in particular with its army of zombies attacking Neville’s house really do look like a video game.

    In the end, it’s a case of you liked it, I disliked it. You were persuaded by its drama, I merely found it tiresome.

    It’s a side issue that has nothing to do with the movie itself, but I find it ironic that Will Smith — with his reported $2 million trailer (complete with recording studio) — is playing a kind of everyman.

  3. megana

    it’s an obvious question, but don’t we call it “acting” for a reason? who’s to play the everyman? an actual everyman, plucked from suburbia? an indi actor w/ few credentials, but just enough lines around his eyes to make the audience believe in him? or should viewers enjoy something other? also, I find it interesting that the same person who can give such a disdainful review is somehow capable of slapping four! stars upon the trite drivel that was/is “wonder emporium.”

  4. Ken Hanke

    So, have you actually seen MR. MAGORIUM’S WONDER EMPORIUM?

    Whether you have or not, yes, I’m quite capable of awarding four stars to a movie that largely achieves its deliberately modest aims, and I’m quite capable of giving a disdainful review to a film that purports to be more than it is. Just because the material is supposedly heavier doesn’t mean the movie is good.

    As for the first, I stated upfront that the remark had nothing to do with the movie — other than to inflate its cost. My real point, however, lies in the fact that Smith is widely perceived as being “just a regular guy.”

  5. Sundance

    I liked this movie.

    I thought it was a great popcorn flick.

    Yes, it took huge liberties w/the source material (the Legend was Neville, but not to other humans…more of a Blade-like character to the infected–a story to share amongst each other to keep them safe during the day), but I thought it was just ok. Not bad @ all!

    Will Smith is one of the best actors of this era. His ability to convey emotion is almost (ALMOST!) unparalleled in cinema today.

    PS: In the original story, the infected were quite intelligent. It was nice to see @ least one of them displaying a modicum of it.

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