Remarkably eerie yet annoyingly larded with cheap horror-film shock effects, “I Am Legend” stands as an effective but also irksome adaptation of Richard Matheson’s classic 1954 sci-fi novel. In what is to a considerable extent a solo turn as the last healthy human on a post-plague planet Earth, Will Smith strongly holds the screen in a one-man Alamo besieged by marauding cannibals. Potent B.O. looms worldwide.
Matheson’s pioneering novel, which worked a lot of science into a story populated by vampiric predators, hasn’t fared too well on the bigscreen thus far. First adaptation, the 1964 Vincent Price starrer “The Last Man on Earth,” lensed in Italy by helmer Sidney Salkow, was a cheesy affair, while the 1971 “The Omega Man,” toplining Charlton Heston under Boris Sagal’s direction, murkily altered the story to put the leading man up against an albino cult called “the Family.” A direct-to-vid item called “I Am Omega” (from the Asylum, specialists in parasitic low-budget versions of big-budget studio fare) has just been produced.
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The scripters of “The Omega Man” get credit on this new version (curiously given the many differences between the two films), initially penned by Mark Protosevich when Warner Bros. first announced a remake a decade ago. That pic was to have toplined Arnold Schwarzenegger with Ridley Scott directing; at various points in the interim, Tom Cruise and Michael Douglas have been attached as stars, as was Michael Bay as director. Akiva Goldsman subsequently came aboard to help produce and give the script a final go.
Following a brief prologue (featuring a TV clip of an uncredited Emma Thompson as a doctor announcing a cure for cancer), the opening minutes are breathtaking in their haunting imagery. The setting is a desolate Manhattan, parts of it unchanged but others in ruins, upholstered in part by grass and weeds and with abandoned vehicles jammed together. Billboards for “Hairspray,” “Rent” and “Wicked” still adorn Times Square, but the only living beings in evidence are some flying birds, a herd of stampeding deer and a family of lions stealthily hunting its dinner.
And then there is one man, Robert Neville (Smith), first seen racing a red-and-white Shelby Mustang GT 500 through the canyons of midtown in the company of his German shepherd. Neville carries a high-powered rifle, and tries to get off a shot at a deer, but returns empty-handed to his Washington Square apartment, which appears well stocked with food and other goods.
Although he holds back from embracing the genuinely surreal, director Francis Lawrence (“Constantine”) displays a strong sensitivity to the majesty of desolation (he was reportedly inspired by John Ford’s Western landscapes). Setup also creates a genuine sense of curiosity and fear about what else might lurk out there, something shortly indicated when Neville battens down the hatches for the night and curls up with his dog in an empty bathtub while dreadful howls and screams surround them from outside.
Doled out in flashbacks are glimpses of how, three years earlier, Manhattan was quarantined due to the outbreak of a devastating man-made virus. A military scientist, Neville proved to be uniquely immune, and so remained on the island after seeing his wife and daughter off in a spectacular nocturnal evacuation scene staged with hordes of extras near the Brooklyn Bridge.
Convinced he’s the last normal man alive, Neville retains his sanity by following a rigorous routine and spends his days roving around Manhattan hunting for other survivors — humans who, due to infection, have turned into zombie-like cannibals who normally venture out only at night. When he captures any — a very dangerous business — he’s able to continue his desperate experiments at finding a cure, his one hope for perpetuating recognizable human life.
Unfortunately, the more the film dwells in — for lack of a better term — zombie territory, the more director Lawrence resorts to stock-in-trade shock cuts designed expressly to rattle the viewer. Sometimes there’s a payoff, sometimes not, but the tenor of the picture steadily declines the more this sort of thing is indulged in.
On top of that, no matter how skillfully the CGI creatures have been rendered, they’re also tiresome (all they do is run and roar), familiar (in their hairless hideousness, they resemble Ralph Fiennes’ Voldemort in the “Harry Potter” series) and implausible (their inhuman speed, strength and agility are unbelievable even in context). Bad villains bring any genre film down several notches.
Eventually, Neville encounters two more uncontaminated humans, the young Brazilian Anna (Alice Braga, “City of God”) and Ethan (Charlie Tahan), a boy she’s minding, giving rise to the hope there may be more like them out there somewhere.
Although Smith’s role may not be as difficult in certain ways as Tom Hanks’ was in “Cast Away” — Smith gets to move around a lot, indulge in eye-catching action scenes and interrelate with a wonderful dog rather than a volleyball — they are comparable in that both parts required the actors to carry their films virtually singlehandedly, with long silent passages. Smith manages it very well, showboating only briefly to show off his newly trim physique and intermittently displaying the incipient madness that would surely come from being alone against an unrelenting threat.
Thesp’s greatest scene, which reps an inspired staging choice on the director’s part, consists of a prolonged, agonizing closeup of Neville dealing with his dog after it’s been contaminated; you’re thankful not to have to watch what he’s doing, and the powerful emotions Smith expresses are riveting to behold.
Casting of the little-known Braga, and the spectacular gravity and calm she brings to the surrounding chaos, reps another major plus, even if the immediately ensuing zombie attack returns things to a B-picture level.
What remain most memorable about the picture are the images of a stark, uninhabited New York City; to this end, production designer Naomi Shohan, the large art department and visual effects teams and lenser Andrew Lesnie contributed much imagination and expertise. Tech side is all high-end.