Tuesday 8 January 2008

I Am Legend (2007)

Tuesday 8 January 2008
Director: Francis Lawrence
Writers: Akiva Goldsman & Mark Protosevich (based on the novel by Richard Matheson)

Cast: Will Smith (Robert Neville), Alice Braga (Anna), Charlie Tahan (Ethan), Salli Richardson (Zoe), Willow Smith (Marley), Darrell Foster (Military Escort), April Grace (TV Personality), Dash Mihok (Alpha Male), Joanna Numata (Alpha Female), Samuel Glen (Military Driver), Marin Ireland (Woman Evacuee), Pedro Mojica (Sergeant) & Anthony Mazza (Evacuation Cop)

After a virus wipes out the world's population, an immune virologist struggles to find a cure for the mutated survivors...

It's another go around for Richard Matheson's seminal 1954 novel, previously filmed as The Last Man On Earth (1964) and, most famously, Charlton Heston classic The Omega Man (1971).

This 21st-century update was stuck in development hell throughout the 90s, with Mark Protosevich's well-regarded action epic once having Arnold Schwarzenegger attached. How times change, eh? It now arrives, courtesy of a 9/11-influenced rewrite from screenwriter Akiva Goldsman, with nice-guy Will Smith...

New York ("Ground Zero"), 2012. It's 3 years after a cancer cure mutated and wiped out 90% of the population. Robert Neville (Will Smith) is immune and has become the last man on earth, filling his days by cruising around the Big Apple hunting deer in a sports car, with his trusty Alsatian Sam.

By day, that it...

At night, some unlucky survivors (mutated human "vampires"; although that word is never uttered), have the post-apocalyptic world as their playground. Virologist Neville is struggling to find a cure for the infected "dark seekers" in his personal laboratory, by testing infected rats and the occasional human he snares in elaborate traps.

It's your typical end-of-the-world scenario; clich├ęs forgiven because the film's source material created most of them. But it's clear that director Francis Lawrence (Constantine) has been influenced by the films Matheson's book spawned – particularly 28 Days Later; with that film's empty London streets relocated to New York, and expanded upon thanks to a luxurious budget.

Its smaller moments are similarly indebted to dystopian films, like This Quiet Earth (1985) -- when it's revealed Neville has staged mannequins around a DVD rental store to stave off loneliness. However, despite the fact the concept has nothing new to say, it's an agreeable survival drama with some impressive visuals.

In the pantheon of desolate cities realized on film, director Lawrence's film is one of the more plausible and immersive. It's just a shame the former music video director doesn't push himself beyond doing a workmanlike job everywhere. Nothing is distractingly bad, but everything Lawrence does just reminds you of better directors' work – from Danny Boyle's aforementioned 28 Days Later, to Steven Spielberg's ferry evacuation scene in War Of The Worlds.

The decision to have the acrobatic, bloodthirsty "dark seekers" be motion-captured people is also an unfortunate misstep. Lawrence apparently didn’t think the originally-cast actors were able to give the frenzied performance he was after, so managed to get the studio to fund a CGI overhaul. I don't know how bad the human actors were to begin with, but there's no denying that en masse CGI actors still have a distancing, synthetic feel to them.

However, I Am Legend's trump card is Will Smith: charismatic, compelling and self-deprecating, he shoulders the whole film and refuses to be drowned by the production design and visuals. Indeed, the film only really begins to wobble off-track when Smith is forced to share the screen with other survivors, a development that destroys the interesting "one man and his dog" dynamic for something more homely, mundane... and an awful word-for-word rendition of a scene from Shrek!

I suppose it was a necessary move to make, but the movie was on firmer ground in its survivalist first half -- even with its Lost-style flashbacks to pre-disaster time, where Smith provides definitive evidence that he's unable to act against any child who isn't his own flesh and blood. Smith started '07 acting alongside son Jaden in The Pursuit Of Happyness, and finishes it here with son Willow!

Overall, I Am Legend is the kind of film you enjoy watching at the time, but feel disappointed with a week later – because it had the potential (and pedigree) to be something special. That said, it's polished and competent stuff -- with a top performance from Smith. It's just a shame the hardcore nightmare of Protosevich's 90s script has been diluted into a budget-busting procession of CGI-assisted jump-scares.

It's in no way legendary, but it's entertaining fun while it lasts and has a handful of effective moments.

Warner Brothers
Budget: $150 million
100 minutes