Director Francis Lawrence (Constantine) was clearly not the best choice to helm the latest adaptation of Richard Matheson’s 1954 classic sci-fi/horror blender. Will Smith plays super-buff military virologist Robert Neville, the last man alive after a cancer-cure virus wipes out all of civilization—at least in and around Manhattan, where Neville hunts deer from his Mustang GTO and holes up inside his West Village home fortress.
With his German shepherd Sam as his sole companion, Neville works in his home lab to find a cure for the pandemic that has turned infected people into flesh-eating vampires that come out nightly to feed. Once you get past the film’s impressive visuals of a desolate Manhattan moldering amid asphalt-breaking weeds, the story settles into a run-of-the-mill chase movie punctuated by Neville’s emotional pain.
Absent is the level of social allegory that make Stephen King’s The Mist the best horror movie to come along in years. Even A Boy and His Dog in 1974 carried a stronger punch than this visually transformative but thematically weak movie.
I Am Legend kicks off with a promising flashback television news interview where an uncredited Emma Thompson plays a doctor demurely confirming that she has discovered a cure for cancer. The cure turns out to be a man-made virus, but it proves to be a narrative ruse as the scene cuts to Neville hunting hordes of deer. The damning thing is that he never even manages to shoot one.
When Neville finally gets an easy target in the middle of abandoned Times Square, he gets beat out by a lioness and her male companion. Neville settles for opening up a jar of pasta sauce and canned vegetables. There’s insult added to injury when Sam refuses to even eat the vegetables put on a plate the same size as Neville’s dish.
Dream sequences transport us back to Neville’s reality some three years earlier when his wife and daughter attempted to escape New York before its bridges fell along with the population of the city. Now, Neville broadcasts an invitation on AM radio for any survivors to meet him at South Street Seaport where he goes every day at noon to wait for any sign of life.
With the city crawling with infected zombies Neville excels in capturing rabid test subjects for his research. He straps the toothy hairless creatures down on his examination table to howl at the effects of trial medications he pumps into them while taking copious video notes and keeping a Polaroid bulletin board file that makes him seem like some twisted serial killer.
For a movie made up of a few genuine shocks and some memorable special effects, it’s surprising how little suspense there is and how little story the filmmakers expect to coast on. Like most American movies, this one has a revenge theme that runs a mile wide.
If our fearless protagonist comes up a little short when he acts irrationally out of rage, it’s all right because a ghost in the screenwriting machine can rescue him. That kind of mechanical device might have worked for filmgoers 50 years ago, but it doesn’t cut it now. By the standards of I Am Legend, humanity was wiped out before the movie was made. MTW