“I Am Legend” is already a huge hit, grossing $77 million in its first weekend, and not without reason. Will Smith turns in a pretty good performance, mostly all by himself. Its shots of a deserted New York City overgrown with weeds and wildlife are haunting and its atmosphere leaves a palpable sense of dread and isolation. By the end, though, it may leave the viewer unsatisfied and thinking, “So what?”
The movie is based on the 1954 Richard Matheson novel of the same name, which has been filmed previously as 1964’s “The Last Man on Earth,” with Vincent Price, and 1971’s “The Omega Man,” with Charlton Heston. In the new version, the main character of Robert Neville, played by Smith, is a scientist who struggles alone to find a cure for a plague that has seemingly killed all of humanity. The plague started when a cure for cancer backfires. Those who didn’t die became creatures similar to zombies, except that they are quite fast and resourceful at hunting down their prey. For unknown reasons, Robert is immune to the disease that grips the ravenous creatures.
The aggressive demon-like “humans” are scalded and destroyed by sunlight, so Robert can walk the empty streets of the city during the day hunting deer that aren’t snatched by lions, searching for canned goods and going to the record store to pick up some DVDs. Obviously, this idea appealed to me, although I certainly wouldn’t spend as much time watching “Shrek” as Robert does. At least it was the first installment of that series. The only company he has is his beloved German Shepherd, Samantha (Sam for short).
I have to admit that I’m immediately intrigued by any movie that presents a post-apocalyptic Earth, especially if we get to a big city after everyone except the survivors are gone. Whether it’s the Stephen King miniseries, “The Stand,” the last scene in “A.I.: Artificial Intelligence,” or “28 Days Later,” I’m automatically interested. Of course, “I Am Legend” most resembles “28 Days Later,” although there are fear fewer survivors in that movie. But like that film, there are plenty of zombies to worry about. At least Robert can roam the streets carefree, unlike the characters in that 2003 movie. Setting the movie in New York was a great choice, since the empty streets are a lot eerier than if it had been in Los Angeles like its source novel and in “Omega.”
While the director, Francis Lawrence, does a good job at setting a tone and placing the audience in the setting, the pacing is a bit slow at first, and the zombies themselves aren’t quite as realistic-looking as they probably could have been. It’s also a little hard to care whether or not Robert finds a cure, since it isn’t at first apparent what good it will be. He has also transmitted a message over all the AM stations in hopes that some survivor out there will find him. Once someone does, it isn’t clear what good he is to them, either to Robert or to the audience.
The biggest problem with the movie, other than its pacing, is probably the ending. It wraps up a little too neatly, even if it isn’t a typical happy ending. It definitely left me thinking, “That’s it?” As implausible as the ending to “The Mist,” another recent release with apocalyptic themes, was, it at least closed with a bang.
I will say this, though. The movie is miles above the dreadful “Constantine,” the 2005 Keanu Reeves movie that marked Lawrence’s directorial debut. At least I cared somewhat about the characters and the dialogue isn’t written with such a tin ear. Of course, that’s not so surprising when the only main character spends the majority of the movie either talking to his dog, himself or saying nothing at all.
“I Am Legend” is rated PG-13: Parents strongly cautioned.