STARRING: Will Smith, Alice Braga, Salli Richardson-Whitfield, Willow Smith, Charlie Tahan

2007, 100 Minutes, Directed by:
Francis Lawrence

Description: Robert Neville (Will Smith) is a brilliant scientist, but even he could not contain the terrible virus that was unstoppable, incurable, and man-made. Somehow immune, Neville is now the last human survivor in what is left of New York City and maybe the world. For three years, Neville has faithfully sent out daily radio messages, desperate to find any other survivors who might be out there. But he is not alone. Mutant victims of the plague-The Infected-lurk in the shadows...watching Neville's every move...waiting for him to make a fatal mistake. Perhaps mankind's last, best hope, Neville is driven by only one remaining mission: to find a way to reverse the effects of the virus using his own immune blood. But he knows he is outnumbered...and quickly running out of time.

While you may balk at the very idea of civilization when faced with overcrowded shopping malls over the holiday season, the reality is that civilization is a bit like oxygen and money: you only miss it when there isn’t any left . . .

So it is with Robert Neville (Will Smith), who is seemingly the only human survivor left on planet Earth after a manmade virus wiped out humanity. Or make that, almost wiped out. You see, while the virus left 90 per cent of the population dead, the remaining 10% were either immune or were turned into . . . zombie vampires?

It is never clear exactly what the monsters in I Am Legend (they are referred to as “Dark Seekers”) can be classified as. They seem to be a cross between the rage-fuelled infected “zombies” in 28 Days Later..., your standard light-averse movie vampires and the CGI Gollum from Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. They are scary creations though pure unadulterated murderous rage and impossibly lithe even when their CGI’ness are too obvious at a few points in the film.

During the day Neville keeps himself busy by finding a cure the disease, trying to contact other living survivors and simply staying alive. Incidentally, the virus began as a potential cure for cancer, but hey, that’s what one gets in the pessimistic universe of celluloid science fiction for tampering with nature by, um, trying to cure deadly diseases.

If the story seems vaguely familiar it is because it is based on a well-known novel I Am Legend by, um, legendary Twilight Zone alumnus Richard Matheson. (Matheson also wrote the screenplays for The Incredible Shrinking Man and Somewhere in Time.) It was filmed twice: in 1964 as the B&W The Last Man on Earth and The Omega Man with Charlton Heston in 1971.

"Will we all just mew like babies when our credit cards can no longer buy us stuff?"

It is understandable why Hollywood is attracted to this material, even though it makes notable changes to the original story and actually misses the point of Matheson’s novel and the book’s title altogether in both this version and in the Heston flick. (The Price movie got it right more or less, even though Matheson disowned it.)

After all, there is something about the End of the World As We Know It that exerts some morbid fascination on the human imagination. This is why End of the World scenarios permeates both the religious (The Second Coming, etc.) and the secular (ecological disaster, nuclear war, etc.) world. Maybe deep down we do want it all to end so that we don’t have to go to work again on Monday morning. Or maybe we’re all just morbidly obsessed with whether we’d be able to survive a scenario in which we are no longer protected by civilization. What will you do if you’re the last person on Earth? Would you be able to hunt down animals to kill and eat? Build power generators? Would we be able to rough it out like our ancestors did? Or will we all just mew like babies when our credit cards can no longer buy us stuff?

These are the sort of concerns that I Am Legend effectively addresses in its first half. Slowly, without explaining too much, we are drawn into Neville’s nightmare world. No human contact for three years with only a dog for company. At night you have to be cloistered inside your home out of fear for your life (something which crime-ridden South Africans can identify with, come to think of it). By now most tinned foods have gone bad, so you had better be out there hunting for food.

It is in these scenes in which I Am Legend works the best and where the movie makes some unusual choices. For Will Smith, who has proven with the box office success of this movie that he is definitely one of the few remaining Big Names in Hollywood, it is a bold career choice.

Instead of the 1980s-style wise-cracking macho action hero, we get a more humane character. Neville is an over optimist who has just run out of cause for any optimism after three terrible years in which everything has been taken away from him. As much as it galls us to say this after all, we still have unpleasant memories of the cocky, obnoxious Fresh Prince of Bel Air swirling around in our collective memories Smith gives a great performance in I Am Legend. In The Pursuit of Happyness Smith has shown that he interested in being more than the matinee action hero of Independence Day and Men in Black. I Am Legend confirms this.

The first half of I Am Legend packs quite a punch. The empty desolate New York cityscapes are hauntingly effective and the viewer is slowly, but surely drawn into Neville’s dilemma. But before things get too depressing and hopeless this is after all a multi-million dollar Hollywood production I Am Legend predictably veers away from the source material into action movie territory.

I Am Legend is let down by its weak second half, but this still doesn’t altogether destroy whatever goodwill the movie the movie has engendered by then. (Unlike Will Smith’s previous sci-fi effort scripted by notorious Batman & Robin scribe Akiva Goldsman, I Robot, which was irreparably let down by a poor second half.) The action in the second half of the film thankfully isn’t too over-the-top and has an Aliens quality to it. The last thirty seconds of the film is alas pure The Postman mawkishness and fans of Matheson’s novel will bridle at the changes made.

While it is a pity that I Am Legend couldn’t sustain the impact of its first half, the truth is it is much better than any self-respecting science fiction fan could have hoped for. Unexpectedly good actually and while I Am Legend isn’t by any stretch the most loyal adaptation of Matheson’s novel, it is the best. Check it out.



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