What would you do if you were the last man on Earth? Apparently, Will Smith would drive around in sports cars, hunting deer in the middle of Manhattan. Despite this pretty heavy premise (and somewhat weighty title), I Am Legend still has all the earmarks of a Hollywood holiday blockbuster. Fun set pieces like the aforementioned deer hunt, or golfing into the middle of the river allow Smith’s everyman charm to make it all seem like good ol’ post-apocalyptic fun. There’s some heaviness when Smith’s character (Dr. Robert Neville) flashes back to the time before a human-engineered viral cure for cancer turns on its creators by wiping out virtually the entire race. Scenes of military quarantine and families torn apart (his own included) can really jerk the tears, but it all seems to be water under the bridge as long as Smith and his German Shepherd buddy get to pal around the nature-reclaimed ruins of NYC. However, this movie is reminiscent not only of Tom Hanks’s Castaway but also of Cillian Murphy’s 28 Days Later (or maybe Milla Jovovich’s Resident Evil — take your pick) when the mutants show up. So what begins as a story about solitude becomes more of a fight to keep the monsters at bay.
With Smith as leading man, it’s no surprise that the movie would turn this way. Even not having read the original Richard Matheson story nor watched its various cinematic incarnations (including Charlton Heston’s Omega Man), I did not expect a cerebral, philosophical, or introspective movie. It is a good thing, however, that the one man who had an immunity to the virus was not only the doctor tasked with seeking the cure, but also an army colonel — all your post-outbreak roles have been combined into one easy package. Smith is fine as always being serious/funny/emotional/heroic but he still can’t really pull off brainy, so he was not super-convincing as the one we’d all depend on to find the cure (maybe that’s why they didn’t find one). Nevertheless, he’s relatable, and in this case there’s pretty much no one else we can root for (Go mutants! — as if), so he’d better be.
The pacing of the movie was kind of a problem, though. Not only was the ending very abrupt (don’t worry, I won’t spoil it) but the early scenes with Smith and his dog going through their routine were pretty languid and relaxed. However, once some non-routine events occur half-way into the movie, the pace really changes and things happen too quickly. What compensated that to me was the visual (I know, here I go again about the visuals) aspects. I saw this one in IMAX as well and it really added to the feeling of being there. I felt like I was in this grassy over-grown city with Smith. When the camera pans out to show how far the ruins of New York go (pretty far) it’s a really impressive image of decay — like a giant’s corpse. Also, I was impressed again with the realism of the CGI (computer-generated imagery). There are a few scenes where the dog has to fight with mutants and mutant dogs. I wasn’t sure where the real animal ended and the animation began (but seeing as there’s no such thing as mutant dogs, it must have been somewhere). All this came together as a well-drawn-out backdrop to this story. I just wish the story could have been a bit more complex and interestingly told. There were no real surprises (except the occasional cheap shock when something jumps out from off-camera), Even the “playing God is bad” message is so hackneyed that it hardly resonates. (3.5 out of 5)
What if I had made I Am Legend?
I think I would have made it a lot more about Robert Neville’s challenges and struggles to survive while still trying to find a cure. In the day (when the mutants stay home) it’s pretty easy for him. He doesn’t really need to find food or supplies. Everything’s all stocked up in his home. He needs some motivation for overcoming whatever obstacles come up, otherwise I don’t know why he does what he does. I mean, one of the turning-point scenes occurs because the dog runs away and he has to chase after it — come on! Also, there’s sort of an element of growing intelligence in the otherwise animalistic mutants. I think they should have explored that a bit more (otherwise it seems like a kind of forced plot point just to cause Neville problems rather than something logically thought out). Finally, I would have used more voiceover narration rather than Smith actually talking. It seems a bit too comical to have him talk to the dog all the time.