Mark Reviews Movies


2 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Francis Lawrence

Cast: Will Smith, Alice Braga, Salli Richardson, Charlie Tahan, Willow Smith

MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for intense sequences of sci-fi action and violence)

Running Time: 1:41

Release Date: 12/14/07

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Review by Mark Dujsik

I suppose it's appropriate that a movie set in a world in which most of humanity has been wiped out is absent of a sense of humanity. I don't mean a feel-good-about-ourselves sentiment, but any kind of attitude about what it means to be, what's important about being, or why we continue to take inventive ideas and sap the creativity from them even though we are human. I Am Legend is an adaptation of Richard Matheson's novel about the last man on Earth surviving amidst monsters. It should sound familiar, as it was adapted in 1964 as The Last Man on Earth with Vincent Price and, more famously, in 1971 as The Omega Man with Charlton Heston.

This version stars Will Smith as the final man, and while he does his best to inject some real emotional connectivity to his character—and hence the story—he's sideswiped by screenwriters Mark Protosevich and Akiva Goldsman, who set up an intriguing first act, lessen it with a hollow, unexciting, special-effects-heavy game of cat-and-mouse in the second, and completely blow the whole thing with the third. Ultimately, the movie feels like a false start allowed to run the length of the track. There's an effort, but nothing is really accomplished.

A health news report introduces a doctor (a thankless, uncredited cameo by Emma Thompson) who goes through a long-winded explanation of vaccines (Anyone with a basic knowledge of medicine has tuned out by now). The kicker to the story: She's created the cure to cancer (This, by the way, would be the lead to that story). Three years later, New York City is in ruins, overgrown with plant life. Robert Neville (Smith) is driving the abandoned streets in a sports car with his dog. A herd of really digital bucks runs through the streets, and he begins to hunt them in his car.

That doesn't work, so it's on foot to Times Square, which is also overgrown with grass and still overpopulated with advertisements. A really digital lion (Apparently the Central Park Zoo is full of incredibly fakey animals, which escaped into Manhattan when the world ended) wins out on Neville's prey, but that doesn't matter much, as the alarm on his watch goes off. It's back to his house before night falls. He secures and locks the doors and windows, lies in the bathtub with his dog, and listens as something inhumanly screeches outside.

This has been Neville's life for about 1,000 days—monotonous boredom, survival tactics, scavenging apartments for supplies, discovering remnants of life before the cure turned into an infection. He's set up mannequins throughout the city at his usual haunts, primarily the video store (where he's going through movies alphabetically). He goes to the dock every day at noon, hoping that anyone might hear his radio broadcast calling for survivors. He also works in his lab, where he tests possible antidotes to the disease, to which he is immune, on rats, which either die or turn into really digital monsters.

Speaking of monsters, the screeching outside at night comes from the rest of the population of the city. The movie calls them "Infecteds," which might bring to mind that intelligent, scary, British zombie thriller 28 Days Later. These creatures are basically the same concept: They run really fast and mostly live in the dark. They are also rather dull. They're sort of zombie/vampires that look like something out of a Diane Arbus photographic study or, better yet, a Resident Evil game. Their leader is a tall mother of a man, whom Neville thinks shows no signs of human behavior, but who eventually manages to outwit our hero.

The second act is all about this face-off between Neville and the infected vampire/zombies. He needs a human subject to test his antidote; they're apparently getting sick and tired of being caught in traps, tested on in a lab, and killed by Neville's failed experiments (There's a dumb naïveté to Neville's belief that he'll be able to distribute this cure to the monsters). The problem is that these things aren't frightening. Neville stumbles into their lair while hunting, and director Francis Lawrence accomplishes his one tense scene as Neville wanders through a dark, abandoned building with only a flashlight. Once he spots the zombie/vampires, though, the tension is gone as swarms of really digital hordes chase him.

The leader sics a trio of really digital infected hounds of hell on Neville, and Neville's really digital SUV plows into the really digital infected vampire/zombies. These creatures aren't discernable from any other we've encountered in similar fare, and their digital nature forgoes a personality to make them truly fearsome. It's all rather generic until the second act ends on a cheap deus ex machina that leads into a third act that stumbles into a disposable discussion of faith vs. nihilism that eventually turns into a shoddy faith-based solution that ends on a copout.

Smith is likeable and solid as Neville, but even he can't avert us from an over-reliance on obvious scare moments, even more obvious special effects, and blatantly obvious attempts at thematic (the whole third act) and contemporary (Neville constantly refers to Manhattan as "ground zero") relevance. I Am Legend could have accomplished both, but it tries too hard where it doesn't need to and doesn't try nearly enough where it counts.

Copyright © 2007 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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