In the third stab at bringing Richard Matheson's 1954 post-apocalyptic novella to the screen, director Francis Lawrence (Constantine) and screenwriters Mark Protosevich and Akiva Goldsman have delivered two-thirds of a great movie. But much like the earlier versions (1964's The Last Man on Earth and 1971's Omega Man), they botch the final act, sacrificing a crackerjack character-driven plot for B-movie action-horror clichés.
In 2010 mankind finds the cure for cancer. Unfortunately, the vaccine has a nasty side effect: It wipes out 97 percent of the world's population and turns the majority of the survivors into savage, vampire-like ghouls. Three years later, the population of New York City has been reduced to one: Robert Neville, military scientist (Will Smith).
By day, Neville and his trusty dog Sam roam the deserted streets of Manhattan, scavenging supplies, waiting for someone — anyone — to answer their radio broadcast call for survivors and struggling to find a cure for the vampiric disease. By night, man and dog retreat to their fortified townhouse to listen to the howling bloodlust of starving cannibals rushing past their door.
This daily shift from hunter to prey and profound loneliness has started to erode Neville's sanity. He wakes to recordings of television morning talk shows, chats with his dog like a person and in one of the film's best scenes, visits a video rental store where he chats with carefully arranged mannequins. Smith's character is desperate for human connection, which is what drives him to find a cure. If he can save just one vampire — turn it back into a human being — he'd no longer be alone. But Neville isn't alone. He's surrounded by the carnivorous "infected," living in the dark places, waiting for him to make the mistake that will leave him vulnerable.
Smith and director Lawrence do a terrific job of communicating the solitary and hopeless story of one man struggling to stay alive in a shattered world. Manhattan is convincingly depopulated and haunted; a place where cracked sidewalks sprout weeds, empty streets are crowded with abandoned cars and ragged quarantine banners flap from crumbling skyscrapers. It's an amazing transformation of the nation's liveliest city and the effect is unnerving.
What makes the first part of the film work so well is Lawrence's ability to capture Neville's well-thought-out survival routine and how quickly it can all go wrong. In an extended early scene lit only by flashlight, Neville must put aside paralyzing fear to rescue his dog from a cavernous building filled with mutated "dark-seekers." The savvy juxtaposition of desolate vistas and claustrophobic dark spaces generates both visceral dread and terror. Even better, the mutations are, at first, seen only fleetingly, which adds to their menace.
It also helps that Smith treats the material seriously. Though he's too self-possessed an actor to convincingly wear the psychological strain of a man who refuses to surrender even when there's no reason to continue, he grounds Neville's superhero skills (he's both a brilliant scientist and kick-ass soldier) with unassuming vulnerability.
Unfortunately, the Hollywood blockbuster gears eventually kick in and a poorly conceived CGI spook-show rolls out. As if a switch had been flipped, the film shifts from character- to plot-driven, dealing Neville a crippling loss, then forcing him to lash out in an irrationally hackneyed fashion. This, of course, necessitates the arrival of more survivors and a highly predictable showdown with creatures that look more like cast-offs from The Mummy than biologically corrupted humans. If it all starts to feel like you've seen this movie before, it was called 28 Weeks Later.
Even worse than I Am Legend's final-act onslaught are the messianic quasi-religious overtones that suddenly invade the narrative. What started as an introspective and existential tale of a lone human left to stalk the ruins of society like a vampire descends into visual and thematic clichés about hope, faith and heroism. You can't help but get the feeling that some studio head became worried about the film's appeal to teenagers and demanded a rewrite.
Despite the film's disappointing last act, the rest of I Am Legend provides both thrills and thought-provoking material, albeit some of it quite unintentionally. Stuck in development hell for many years, the film has had more than a few leading actors attached, from Michael Douglas to Tom Cruise to Arnold Schwarzenegger, who're all, of course, white. In casting Will Smith as Neville, this apocalyptic vision of freakishly pale skinhead hordes assaulting a lone black hero brings with it a fascinating subtext. It makes one wonder how multiplex teens will view Neville's sacrificial cries of "I can save you! I can save all of you!" to the attacking mob, suggesting that Christ was, indeed, a brother.
Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.