I Am Legend

Director    Francis Lawrence
Starring    Will Smith, Alice Braga, Charlie Tahan, Emma Thompson, Willow Smith
Release    14 DEC (US) 26 DEC (UK)    Certificate 15
3 stars


31st December 2007

There are two Will Smiths in this world. One is an actor of surprising depth and ability; he makes films like Six Degrees Of Separation, Ali and The Pursuit of Happyness. The other is The Fresh Prince of Bel Air; he makes films like Bad Boys, Independence Day, Men in Black and any other number of wise-cracking action hero eyewipes. So it's a pleasant surprise to find Will Smith instead of The Fresh Prince in this long-planned and troubled adaptation of Richard Matheson's I Am Legend.

Let's get this out of the way before we go any further - Francis Lawrence's version is not a faithful adaptation of the book. That's not exactly surprising, considering the book is 95% interior monologue from a man drinking himself to death and listening to classical music to drown out the sound of the vampires who lurk outside. That said, I Am Legend is a surprisingly faithful adaptation in terms of feeling and mood, at least until its final act. For an event movie featuring Will Smith, it's refreshingly downbeat and steadfastly refuses to use the obvious formula of 'One Man Vs The World'. There are deviations from the novel, but the choices that are made aren't as different or jarring as they could have been.

Robert Neville (Smith) is the last man on Earth - or so he thinks. When a potential cure for cancer goes rotten, the virus goes airborne and all but wipes out humanity, leaving New York a desolate quarantine zone. Virologist Neville, apparently immune to the virus, is free to roam around the crumbling ruins of the city. Neville stalks deer for food and checks the buildings for survivors. He broadcasts a radio message begging anybody to meet him at the dockside as he hits golf balls into the ocean. He sets out shop dummies all over the city that he talks to. This happens every single day with no change until his watch beeps and tells him it's time to get inside, where he shutters the windows and doors and spends the night curled up with the dog trying to ignore the sounds of the vampires outside. Yep - those that didn't drop dead from the virus were turned into night-dwelling killer beasties, who long to feast on the flesh of the living. Bummer.

What has been retained from the book is Neville's sense of isolation and loneliness, his adherence to a schedule to prevent himself from thinking too much about the consequences of being the last man alive on the planet. It's here that the film does an outstanding job - it's what separates I Am Legend from 99% of Will Smith's other blockbuster movies. We watch as Smith does his very best to avoid any confrontation, instead of carrying awesome weapons and kicking alien ass as per usual. When his dog Sam runs into a dark building chasing a deer, it's down to Smith to go in and get him. Cue torchlight sequences with DANGER! DANGER! music oboe-ing over the soundtrack. Only in this movie, Smith is absolutely shit-scared trying to find his dog. Instead of kicking doors down and mowing down row after row of slavering monsters, he's trying to cover his light up and panting for breath like a marathon runner being wrapped in bacofoil and guzzling weak-lemon drink, too terrified to call out and instead preferring to whisper and plead for the dog to come back. It's something we haven't seen Smith do before - fear.

Although for the most part, director Lawrence refuses to take the obvious route with the script, the final act almost destroys the previous 90 minutes of atmosphere. Without going into spoilers for those unfamiliar with the book, the movie takes a wild left turn and sinks back into standard Hollywood CG bullshit. It's frustrating, because this movie comes so damn close to being a faithful adaptation of the book in mood and emotion. The vampires are all rendered in CG and bound around the screen with great energy - not exactly what you'd expect from what's essentially supposed to be a diseased, decimated human. When they attack Neville in swarms, it's like he's being drenched in a digital wave of pixels, like the bastard-hard last level of a videogame. It's like an ending from a different movie - Smith morphs into his alter-ego and we get to see The Fresh Prince Vs The Vampires.

When you get this close to the book after this many years, the studio should have said "Y'know what, we'll stay faithful and trust audiences to find this film" instead of taking a dark, adult study of a man slowly losing his mind surrounded by a dying world and bolting some cheesy piece-of-shit ending onto it. That is the frustrating this about I Am Legend - they've all but filmed the book. The details may be changed slightly to allow for cinematic interpretation yet the core feeling remains intact. If you've managed to adapt a book about one man living by himself with zero dialogue and get it right, there's neither the need nor excuse to suddenly hire Hollywood Script Machine to write the last 25 minutes and all but crap over the last hour and a half.

Even a bullshit ending can't entirely derail I Am Legend - it's close, so close to being a classic. If the filmmakers had only had the balls to keep the book's original ending intact, this could have been the rarest of beasts - a major studio release that treats the audience like intelligent adults. Instead of which, all the hard work is rapidly undone in favour of pretty lights, explosions and a CG fuck-fest. Nice going, dumbasses.

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