The sight of a lone survivor wandering the abandoned streets of a famous city riddled with monsters is becoming a frequent sight on cinema screens and apocalyptic scenarios putting the fate of humanity in the hands of one potential saviour have been doing the rounds for decades. So what makes I Am Legend, based on a novel already put to film in the form of The Omega Man (Boris Sagal, 1971), worth the retread of so many popular themes? Probably the ability of Will Smith to single-handedly keep a film together no matter how many times it might threaten to fall apart.
Robert Neville (Smith) is alone in New York after a cancer-curing drug turned bad and mutated humans into flesh-eating vampire monsters who can only surface at night. Immune from the effects, he has spent the last three years living alone with only his dog Samantha for company as the deserted city falls into disrepair. A life hunting dear, slowly watching every movie available in the local rental store and sending out a radio message that he will be waiting at 12noon every day in the same spot is only made purposeful by his testing to find a cure. Lost_-esque questions about where the electricity supply is coming from and why the deer and a family of lions appear to be the only animals in the city must be forgotten as _I Am Legend delves into the lonely and desperate life Neville leads in the thankless task of finding a vaccine — a problem brought on by humanity’s own desire to control nature’s diseases through modern medicine.
Neville’s close relationship with his dog and search for meaning in his existence provide some emotional depth to an otherwise simplistic plot.
In recent years, Smith has managed to find himself in films that succeed in spite of his superstar status. Ali (Michael Mann, 2001) and The Pursuit of Happyness (Gabriele Muccino, 2006) proved he could carry a film more demanding than simply wise-cracking his way to the next action scene, leading to two Oscar nominations for best actor. I Am Legend is all the better for it. Although it does have elements of a Blade film when he battles the monsters, Neville’s close relationship with his dog and search for meaning in his existence provide some emotional depth to an otherwise simplistic plot. Lawrence plays some clever tricks with the backstory narrative to keep Neville’s past a mystery until two thirds in, and fuels the interest further. When the catastrophe of Sam getting infected by the virus that has wiped out all signs of humanity around the world threatens to break the hard work and effort Neville has put in over his three year isolation, you can feel the pain.
Yet I Am Legend falls short of being truly convincing due to its reliance on a coalescing of character goals in its conclusive moments that feels contrived when considered on reflection. The heavy-handed religious overtones do little to soften the blow as the film fumbles around for a dramatic and worthy message to send to us all. With the CGI of the monsters and animals also proving to be a letdown – it seems to have been either rushed or done on the cheap as it lacks the gloss of most recent Hollywood efforts – I Am Legend works as a kind of sci-fi Cast Away (Robert Zemekis, 2000) initially, then makes a jump towards greater meaning it really can’t achieve. It’s best viewed as a vivid spectacle of a degrading New York and another example of Smith’s fine acting abilities rather than a complex take on the threat humanity poses for itself.