I am Legend (2007) dir. Francis Lawrence
Starring: Will Smith
“I am Legend” is (so far) the most entertaining blockbuster of the holiday season. I had doubts where another version of Richard Matheson’s famed novel from the 50’s could be made new and fresh today. After all, it gave birth to countless zombie and ‘last man on earth’ films. But sophomore director Francis “Constantine” Lawrence and leading man extraordinaire, Will Smith, pull it off. It’s worth all its mondo box office bucks.
Manhattan is a wasteland. Three years ago an airborne virus rapidly spread and killed most human life. Those who didn’t die were transformed into rapid blood hungry zombies. And apparently only one human was immune – Robert Neville (Will Smith). The fame monuments, buildings, and streets of New York City have grown over with weeds and animals roam free among the desolate cars and empty buildings. The opening scene is an adrenaline pumping sequence featuring Neville and his trusty dog Sam cruising the streets of Manhattan in a sportscar chasing a herd of deer. By day Neville has a daily regiment to retain the last sense of order in his otherwise bleak life. By night he hides in his apartment from the evil nightwalker zombies that roam the streets looking for blood.
In solitude Neville’s only conversations are with his dog and a group of mannequins he has placed around the city to keep him company. To keep his sanity he conducts scientific experiments on animals in a laboratory in his basement - his last glimmer of hope that a cure for the deadly disease could be found and eventually bring human life back to the planet.
It’s a remarkably high concept with grand themes, but the heart of the story – both the novel and the film – is the character of Neville. Will Smith is a marvel in the role. For most of the film it’s Smith, alone, acting with a dog. Smith plays Neville as teetering on the brink of insanity. With few words we get the sense of this constant struggle. When he’s not pulling back to frame the immaculately designed deserted city, Lawrence’s camera is up close in Smith’s face. Smith’s determined eyes and mouth quivers say as much as his monologues. Smith’s performance is Oscar-worthy.
For a film about a man alone in the world "I am Legend" has more dialogue than it should. I had the same problem with “Cast Away”. A bold and risky move would have been to the play the film no dialogue at all. But with $100million dollars on the line – 'bold' and 'risky' are dirty words. It’s a shame. No worry though, because Neville’s trusty German shepherd is infinitely most interesting than a volleyball. As the main supporting character, Sam is not just played for cute. Much of the action and emotion comes from the relationship between the two. There are a few humorous scenes as they go about their domestic life together. But there’s also moments of heartpounding suspense and emotion during their adventures.
The action is fantastic and there are several bravura sequences that had the audience in shock. As mentioned the opening deer hunt is incredible, and the first encounter with the zombies in the darkened building is a great set piece of suspense. Though James Newton Howard composed a score, music is virtually non-existent. Much of the film is played in complete silence, which adds to the eerie effect.
The flashbacks in the film are structured like an episode of “Lost”. We see the evacuation of New York three years ago played out in Neville’s serialized memories. It’s one scene which gradually reveals itself over the course of the film. There’s some fantastic epic action and scope (spoiled in the trailer), but unfortunately it fails to reveal anything in Neville’s character we didn’t infer already. There’s a missed opportunity here.
The one major fault with the film is a 20mins chunk of time at the beginning of the third act. A new element to the story is introduced and unfortunately it stops the film dead in its tracks. It’s a shame because it was running on high momentum until this break. By the end the momentum is quickly built up again and we are given a satisfactory conclusion. I heard some grumblings in the audience, “that’s it?” Though the climax wasn't better than the beginning of the film, I’m glad Lawrence didn’t overcomplicate the story and push it over-the-top. It remained Robert Neville’s story to the end. Enjoy.