I AM LEGEND
Running Time 100 minutes
Written by Mark Protosevich and Akiva Goldsman
Directed by Francis Lawrence
Starring Will Smith and Emma Thompson
In I Am Legend, Will Smith plays the last human survivor of a worldwide plague caused by an incurable man-made virus, alone and at the mercy of carnivorous, blood-sucking zombies that prowl the empty canyons of New York City after dark. This is the third time around the track for the lurid sci-fi novel of the same title by Richard Matheson, first filmed as a cheesy Italian-made potboiler called The Last Man on Earth, with Vincent Price (1964), then remade on the streets of L.A. as The Omega Man, with Charlton Heston (1971). Refurbished as a doomsday fantasy, this is the best of the batch, with intriguing effects, riveting scenic designs and a terrific central performance, but beware. The bloody carnage is gory and gruesome enough to turn your stomach bile green.
An unbilled Emma Thompson appears on a TV screen in 2009 to announce a cure for cancer. Three years later, when the planet is depleted of human life, her medical “breakthrough” has led to the true meaning of the words “apocalypse now.” Times Square is overrun with grass inhabited by wild rats the size of buffalo, foraging for food, while herds of maleficent Bambis with antlers leap over graveyards of smashed cars left behind by millions of rampaging human escapees. Somehow immune to the plague, Mr. Smith is a scientist who lives in a townhouse on Washington Square with his best friend and companion, a dog named Sam. (One of the best animal actors since Lassie, Flicka and Flipper; you don’t want anything to happen to Sam.) But look at things on the bright side. Gas is free. You can drive any car you please without gridlock. And you can practice golf swings on the wings of abandoned airplanes. Still, the perks wear off when you’re lonely.
Through archival materials, we learn that everyone injected with the poisonous vaccine developed symptoms of rabies. Despite a military quarantine to stop the spread of the lethal bacterial virus, 5.4 billion died, leaving 588 million monsters and only 1 percent of the population uninfected. Devoting his life to finding a way to transfer the immunity in his own blood to the already infected, he sends daily messages to any other survivors who might be hiding in “safe zones,” telling them they are not alone. But the mutants, who can only move at night, watch his every move, waiting for the one mistake he might make in the darkness. The choices Mr. Smith is forced to make in order to stay alive are ghastly enough to leave you limp. There’s one scene, guaranteed to fry your nerves, in which a hive of flesh eaters advance on his apartment building and he’s forced to blow up Greenwich Village.
A quintessential story of one man against the unknown, I Am Legend curdles the blood, but under careful analysis, it lacks credibility and isn’t half as frightening or imaginative as Ranald MacDougall’s brilliant 1959 The World, the Flesh and the Devil, an impressionistic variation of the same theme with Harry Belafonte, Inger Stevens and Mel Ferrer as the last three survivors of a nuclear war, alone in the same soundless Manhattan landscape. The post-pandemic New York in I Am Legend is a stark contrast to the massive evacuation of the city involving thousands of screaming extras, helicopters, Humvees, riverboats and chaotic infantry personnel. I marveled at the eerie sight of an empty, haunted Fifth Avenue, and I still don’t know how they lit the water beneath the Brooklyn Bridge and filled the South Street Seaport with mobs of people in peril without an accident. The epic scope of the production design is something to see, but under the busy traffic signals of action maven Francis Lawrence (Constantine), the human journey of charismatic Will Smith as the decent hero who might save the world is sometimes overwhelmed. I Am Legend is a grenade that goes off when least expected. It has more horror than heart, but it is never boring.