I Am Legend (Lawrence, 2007)

Part bold character study, part mindless Hollywood action bonanza, I Am Legend doesn’t require prior knowledge of any past artistic incarnations to be successful as pure entertainment. No, neither Richard Matheson’s harrowing source material from the 1950’s nor the previous two film versions of I Am Legend look or sound anything like director Francis Lawrence’s epic disaster film, which rightly flaunts Will Smith (in a wonderful performance) as the end of the world hero hell bent on saving mankind from eternal damnation as vampires. The time is 2012 and Lawrence introduces a desolate, hollow New York City landscape, then Smith’s Robert Neville racing through the dense and quiet mise-en-scene in a glimmering red Mustang. Neville, a military scientist and lone survivor of a terrible outbreak three years prior, goes about his solitary daily life with only the companionship of his German Shepherd Sam. At night, he barricades himself from the Night Seekers, the infected populace which has taken over the Earth. We get glimpses of Neville’s family and the initial panic of the outbreak through flashbacks, but nothing resembling deep insight about why he’s survived (no hard science here) or his past responsibilities as the chief military officer in charge of the global quarantine. The mystery behind Neville’s plight makes the first half of I Am Legend a beautiful exercise in dramatic minimalism framed through spatial emptiness, giving the viewer just enough of his past trauma’s and fleeting shadowy glances of the blood thirsty vampires. Also, Smith’s interaction with his canine makes for some fascinating scenes of friendship and devotion amidst the most strenuous and self-defeating circumstances. But Lawrence and screenwriter Akiva Goldsman can’t resist taking the movie toward a life-affirming conclusion, singling out themes of faith and sacrifice which don’t feel half as honest as images of Neville and Sam playing ball or picking corn. I Am Legend has always been about the loneliness and regret Neville feels when faced with his own failures and those of the world around him, and the final third of this latest version plays it safe with these tense emotions. Sure, I Am Legend delivers the goods as a surface level adventure film, displaying a fine star presence and gripping apocalyptic set pieces, but somehow the familial demons which plague Neville and make him a fascinating character in the first place get left behind for schmaltzy hopes and retrograde sympathy. While the legend lives on, it does so seeped in sap.

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