Perhaps Christmas is an apposite release date for I Am Legend – if you have ever wandered a major city in the heart of the holidays and marvelled at the lack of cars or signs of life, or been spooked at the deserted streets in the early hours after an office party, then I Am Legend’s vision of an eviscerated New York city might have extra seasonal impact. Manhattan hasn’t been this intimidating since After Hours.
This fourth screen adaptation of Richard Matheson’s novella opens with TV footage of cocky scientist Emma Thompson being interviewed about a viral cure for cancer with a 100% success rate. Cut to three years later, and Will Smith is driving an adapted hunting-vehicle through the ruined and empty streets of New York, trying to shoot his dinner from a very sprightly flock of deer who weave between the rusting traffic jams and into the safety of the underground passages that Smith knows well to avoid…
New York is the star of Legend, as it has been the star of many films; but you have never seen Broadway like this – abandoned to decay and flourishing weeds, haunted by zoo-escaped tigers and lions, blasted, empty and silent. Though much of Manhattan was brought to a halt to film key scenes in Legend, clearly a great deal of CGI work has been used to help mortify the city, and this combines with documentary-style cinematography and a well-judged scarcity of music to create a truly awe-inspiring mise en scène.
Smith’s tragically lonely and increasingly mad soldier-scientist forages with his trusty dog by day and battens down the hatches at dusk as legions of feral, virus-created vampires emerge to scour the city for an ever-decreasing supply of food.
Somehow Smith has furnished his apartment-fortress with electricity and water (better-explained in 1971’s The Omega Man, of whose script Legend is a remake), and lives a solitary and tormented existence, though he forces himself to go through the same half-naked fitness regime of I Robot and spends his nights in a basement laboratory continuing his quest for a cure for the ‘LV’ virus.
Huddled in a tin bath, with the streets outside echoing to the howls of the numberless monsters that used to be the human race, the conveniently virus-immune Smith dreams of the last days of New York, and his decision to send his family away in order to stay on and research a cure.
You probably want to know what happens next, and here’s where this visually-stunning and superbly atmospheric film falls down; after a dazzling set-up, it proves to have no second act and only the last part of a third act.
Admittedly, the poignant mental decline of Smith’s survivor is fascinatingly detailed –he positions shop-window dummies in his favourite DVD store, to which he makes dutiful and nostalgic trips; he eats breakfast to the banal strains of old recorded news shows; he has lunch at the ruins of the Brooklyn Bridge, where, in a constantly broadcast radio message, he has instructed any survivors to meet him; he spends far too much time with his dog.
When, in his most desperate hour, some survivors finally turn up in the form of a Brazilian nurse and her 10 year-old ward, the film is already racing to the inevitable vampire showdown, and you may find yourself –as I did- checking your watch in confusion as Legend plays out its uncommitted, semi-unhappy ending about 45 minutes early. There’s nothing wrong with tearing up a formula to good effect, but in this case it feels more like that the film-makers ran out of money or script. Maybe the WGA strike kicked in early, because Legend leaves you with the feeling of not only a great city but a great motion picture abandoned in its prime.
With little competition or support, Will Smith must inevitably carry I Am Legend, and he isn’t always up to the task. With the trademark wise-cracks subdued in deference to the somnolent tone of the piece, Smith has to dig deep for a tragedy and complexity that he isn’t normally hired for, and to his credit he improves a lot as the film progresses.
Smith’s dog seems useful in the posters but is a terrible liability in practice; no match for vampires, speedy deer or escaped lions, the pooch leads his master unwittingly into one of the vampire hives, where we finally get a look at the villains of the piece. And blood-chilling they are, huddled together like penguins with their backs to us, doing something unspeakable to their latest victim.
Unfortunately they soon turn round and reveal themselves to be unconvincing CGI creatures that instantly destroy Legend’s costly verisimilitude. Since they have no special powers or particularly challenging physiognomy (basically they just run about and bite a lot), there is no practical reason for the monsters here not to have been prosthetically created. Except that CGI –like Will Smith- gets big-budget films green-lighted.
It’s amusing to see videogame scare-devices fed straight back into the film narratives that inspired them, and the torch at the end of Smith’s rifle is pure Doom in the first vampire sequence; Gears Of War fans will also laugh to see Smith flush out a domestic vampire by firing at a gas canister that is near the hidden creature.
Legend seems to contain two intrusive product endorsements, though since the items, namely the original Shrek and Bob Marley’s Legend compilation album (a redundant explanation of the film’s title) are so out of date, it jars less than the outrageous shoe commercial that was I Robot.
This movie is a sensory experience that it’s hard not to recommend, so enveloping is the production design and sense-of-scene. I can only suggest the compromise of staying for the first 75 minutes. That’s all the film-makers seem to have done.