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Smith’s latest hardly legendary, but not bad

by Glen Baity

How many times can humanity be wiped out? I don’t know about you, but I’m always game for one more.

This Christmas season brings the third adaptation of Richard Matheson’s 1954 novella “I Am Legend,” and while it’s entertaining in its own right, there’s not a lot here you haven’t seen before, and seen recently.

That’s because this film mostly abandons the book’s plot. The only pieces left in place are the big ones: A virus has afflicted 99 percent of the world’s population, turning them into sunlight-sensitive monsters. Robert Neville (Will Smith) is the last man on earth, the lone survivor of a very small immune population. He spends his days stocking his pantry, fortifying his home and seeking a cure for the disease. At night, he hides out while a planet full of former humans roam around, searching for fresh victims.

It sounds a little like 28 Days Later (minus the sunlight part), and it feels like it as well. Will Smith told The New York Times that he came close to making the film years ago, but felt that 28 Days Later “snatch[ed] the concept.” Why he felt it’d be okay now, a mere five years on, is a mystery to me.

Danny Boyle’s zombie hit hasn’t faded from the public’s recollection – it had a pretty good sequel this year, even – so I’d say the concept remains good and snatched.

Still I Am Legend is entertaining, though because of the changes, it’s good for different reasons than the book. On a basic level, it’s a mostly-successful thriller. Certain scenes, like a dimly-lit sequence that unfolds in a cavernous warehouse, are scary as hell, scored only to Smith’s breathing against the heavy silence. The entire first half, in fact, is top-notch filmmaking, highlighted by long shots of an empty New York City with packs of elk running between clusters of junked cars. I realize New York gets destroyed in at least one major-studio release per year; nevertheless, I found director Francis Lawrence’s vision sad and effective.

Smith really shines in this performance, even with nobody to talk to but his dog. One of the benefits the film has over the book is that Neville is more interesting here, his motivation to cure the disease stronger and his ability to do so more plausible. Smith, who wore his character’s desperation so well in The Pursuit of Happyness does a great job portraying a formerly well-adjusted man on the brink of an epic mental unraveling.

But for all its good points, it’s not Neville, but the film itself that unravels in the third act. If you don’t want to know more, read no further.

Soon enough, another pair of survivors shows up, and they bring the déjà vu with them. According to Anna and Ethan (Alice Braga and Charlie Tehan), who enter the picture quite out of nowhere, there’s a colony of survivors just up the road in Vermont. How she could possibly know this is never explained, nor how she managed to stay alive during the three apocalyptic years after the virus took hold. She’s just here, and has this magical knowledge, and no ulterior motive for sharing it. She’s not a character so much as a plot device injected to steer a depressing story toward a more widely-palatable conclusion, and so she does. But I Am Legend’s inherent power is consequently stifled.

Also, the dumbing-down of the vampires (yes, they’re meant to be vampires) is a bit of a disappointment. In the book, they can speak, and Matheson indicates that they have their own civilization, laws and social mores. There are some mighty creepy scenes where Neville has to turn up the music in his home to drown out the sound of his old neighbor beckoning him outside.

In the film, they’re roaring, preverbal mini-hulks who can run like cheetahs, climb like spiders and jump 50 yards from a dead stop. Again, that’s not necessarily bad, but if you’ve seen it once, you’ve seen it a thousand times. This was the film’s big chance to really differentiate itself, and it turned it down.

In the final analysis, though, I did enjoy this version of I Am Legend in the same way I’m always willing to see yet another zombie picture, most of which are plotted in a very similar way. The film tries to stretch beyond the boundaries of that genre by making Smith’s a more three-dimensional character than one usually finds in a monster movie. In the end, he gets the shaft so the film can finish on a false happy note on par with 2005’s War of the Worlds.

To comment on this article, send your e-mail to glen.baity@gmail.com.

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