In "I Am Legend," Will Smith takes a crack at apocalyptic sci-fi in the third adaptation of Richard Matheson's 1954 novel (previous iterations were "The Last Man on Earth" in 1964 with Vincent Price and "The Omega Man in 1971 with Charlton Heston). In this modern update he plays military scientist Robert Neville, a soldier/scientist who inhabits a post-humanity Manhattan in 2012. Three years earlier an anticancer vaccine mutated into a viral plague that decimated most of the world's population and turned the majority of survivors into cannibalistic mutants who shun daylight and roam the streets at night in ravenous packs. Only a spare few like Neville harbored immunity to the plague. Neville patrols the empty streets during the day with his faithful dog Samantha, searching for survivors and foraging for necessities. At night he hunkers down in the basement laboratory of his Washington Square townhouse, searching for a cure that will transform the rabid mutants back into humans.
Smith turns in a lean, serious performance as Neville; gone is his typical cool-cat insouciance from "Men in Black" and "Wild, Wild West." He conveys a delicate balance between hope and madness as he tries to find a way forward in a blighted, savage world. As the centerpiece of the story he has to carry the film, and for the most part he succeeds. In the film's final chapter, when (spoiler alert) two other survivors find him, some of his screen power is diluted, with mixed results for the film. The resolution lacks the power of the first half, where the audience is drawn into Neville's hazardous urban jungle, yet the film has built up enough momentum to coast through over the finish line.
The highlight of the film is witnessing an overgrown, empty Manhattan; the art design seems straight out Alan Weisman's bestseller "The World Without Us." The zombies are appropriately creepy, though at times they seem transplanted straight out of a shoot-em-up video game. In one of the film's creepiest scenes, Neville's dog chases a deer into a zombie hive and Neville has to tiptoe inside to save her. Smith does an excellent job of conveying terror in a way that defuses Hollywood's tough-guy affectations. "I Am Legend" adds little new to a genre that's already been defined by "A Boy and His Dog," "28 Days Later," and "The Road Warrior." Still, its visions of a vacant Manhattan with deer and lions running loose is worth checking out. "I Am Legend" may not be legendary filmmaking, but it's commendable for its bold vision.
Julian Wise is a freelance writer whose articles frequently appear in The Martha's Vineyard Times.