I AM LEGEND

(2007)
With Will Smith, Alice Braga, Charlie Tahan, Salli Richardson, Willow Smith, Emma Thompson (uncredited)
Directed by Francis Lawrence
Reviewed by JB

     Every film version of Richard Matheson's novel I Am Legend suffers from some defect.  THE LAST MAN ON EARTH with Vincent Price was made on a shoe-string budget and features some very un-scary vampires but is saved by its star.  THE OMEGA MAN with Charlton Heston has surely dated, but is saved by its star and the fact that 70's movies tend to date well.  The latest, I AM LEGEND, makes the tragic mistake of rendering its vampires via mediocre CGI.  Like the first two films, however, I AM LEGEND is saved by its star.  

     You probably couldn't think of three actors with less in common than Price, Heston and Will Smith.  The only common thread among them is that they are each beloved and instantly identifiable movie commodities - in other words, you know what you are going to get with each one of them. Price is going to be creepy, Heston manly and Smith... er... Smithy.  He's appealing, he's an everyman, he's not a bad guy to spend an hour and a half with.  If he doesn't have the otherworldly presence of Price or the powerful physique of of Heston, he is, I say without apology, a more subtle actor than either.

     So following the perils of Will Smith (as Col. Robert Neville) and his dog as they attempt to survive day after day in a hostile world filled with viral vampires is a good time, so to speak.  Smith has enough screen presence, personality and built-up goodwill generated from previous Will Smith outings that he can carry the major parts of the film that feature only him.  As with Heston, it helps that Smith is something of a sci-fi icon thanks to films like INDEPENDENCE DAY, MEN IN BLACK and I, ROBOT.  So Smith is not the problem here.  As second lead, the dog is great too.

     The recreations of a post-apocalyptic New York City are convincing and the flashbacks, in which we see Smith bidding his wife and child goodbye as they leave New York via helicopter, help flesh out the backstory so we are fully aware of what Col. Neville has lost.  I also like that the movie doesn't bother explaining certain details.  What is that liquid Neville pours on his front steps in what seems to be an attempt to hold the vampires at bay?  Who created the trap Neville gets ensnared in?  What exactly is Neville's relationship with the virus itself and why is he immune? They may seem like key details we need to know, but the lack of those details actually makes Neville seem even more isolated.  We can watch him, but we may not ask him questions.

     What holds this version back is, need I say it, the overuse of CGI.  Recreating lions and deer via CGI is bad enough - the deer are especially unconvincing as they romp through Manhattan - but to allow your major villains to be completely computer-generated too negates much of the suspense a film like this needs. The infected of THE LAST MAN ON EARTH and THE OMEGA MAN may be a bit silly, but they are played by real people.  You know they are alive, you believe in them.  The infected in I AM LEGEND are from another world, specifically the world of video games where characters don't conform to the laws of physics the way they should.  There is an attempt to set up one of the "Dark Seekers" as an alpha-male leader, but, stupidly, the effects people make most of the vampires look exactly the same, taking away that particular character's individuality.  

     Of course, there is an entire generation or two now who have grown up watching CGI in movies, so I am speaking from an old-school perspective.  In any film, the villain is the second most important character.  If I don't believe in the villain, I cannot fully believe in the movie.  Post-apocalyptic CGI fests are also starting to feel played out beyond their welcome.  Be it a world filled with robots, zombies or vampires, we've pretty much seen it all before.  But, as I said of Bruce Willis and LIVE FREE OR DIE HARD, I AM LEGEND is a summer-popcorn flick (inexplicably released in winter) starring Will Smith.  In and of itself, that's usually not a bad thing no matter what the genre, and for movie fans who enjoyed the first two versions, there is the fun of comparing and contrasting the three different approaches to the story.  Overall, with its strengths and its weaknesses, I AM LEGEND is about as good as THE LAST MAN ON EARTH and THE OMEGA MAN, meaning that a fine time will be had without much thinking involved.  But someday, somebody will come along and make a five-star film out of this material.  3½ - JB

Science Fiction         The Secret Vortex


YES SIR, THAT'S MY BABY

The character of Will Smith's daughter is played by his real-life daughter Willow.