The much anticipated “I am Legend” will not become one, distinguishing itself neither by excellence nor humiliating failure, but a marked lack of definition. As if intimidated, the work smothers itself with caution and ambivalence, its successes arriving in scattered moments of potency.
For much of the film Will Smith as Dr. Robert Neville, consists of a one-man show on a stage with too few props. Playing a character that lives without human company, Smith, whose skills shine most brightly in moments of interaction, is left with a German shepherd and a few mannequins as his supporting actors.
At the heart of Smith’s character lies a struggle against the deterioration of the psyche and spirit. He arises each morning facing the very real possibility that with the exception of bands of feral blood-sucking mutants, he may be the last person on earth–the end of humankind.
His daily summoning of faith, based on the wispiest of evidence and smallest of odds, raises the most profound questions of what we believe and why we believe it. The movie’s failure to exploit the dimensions of this angst, at the very least, seems curious.
Richard Matheson’s 1954 novel, “I Am Legend,” has inspired four movies. Over time interpretations of the source material has varied, ranging from science fiction to horror to the personal agony of the protagonist.
“The Omega Man” adaptation starring Charlton Heston, released in 1971, blended all three elements, adding a political overtone appropriate for an era of protests, replete with long soliloquies on the violent tendencies of modern civilizations.
In the current version, Neville, a research physician, has volunteered to stay in quarantined Manhattan developing a cure for a man-made virus gone amok, eventually killing all but a small percentage of the population .
The initial survivors demonstrated either a total immunity, with which Neville was blessed, or chronic vampirism–an aversion to daylight and a thirst for human blood. In accordance with evolutionary pro forma the latter group devoured the first.
For the approximate first third of the movie, we watch Neville negotiate the post-apocalyptic New York without benefit of human companionship.
He has the whole island of Manhattan to himself (at least during the day). He stalks deer, racing them down with a Shelby Mustang, aided by his trusty German shepherd Sam– fruitless efforts driven by sport and boredom. Tedium becomes an adversary and unfortunately visits itself upon the audience.
Despite his misgivings, Neville continues to search for humans and a cure. Each day he sends out a radio broadcast attempting to make contact with survivors.
In his search for an anti-viral agent, he occasionally captures a vampire, bringing it back to his lab for testing, his efforts a source of both hope and despair.
Eventually the movie slips into the horror genre, the pace picks up and through the sheer ferocity of confrontation with the “dark-seekers,” begins to gain traction. But it’s not until another sane human appears late in the picture that Smith demonstrates the depth and intensity of which he is capable.
The portfolio of Director Francis Lawrence lies mainly in music videos. His one feature film, “Constantine,” reflects a preference for extravagant imagery. His presence at the helm seems to indicate the basket in which the studio preferred its eggs.
Financially, excitement trumps reflection.
So we get a mixed, somewhat confused bag, more appropriate for the summer field, but with Smith on the marquee raising enough hope to place it in December derby for an Academy Awards consideration.
At this point just a decent box office would prove a blessing.