Will Smith has a rigorous and uncompromising screening process when it comes to picking his next film project. Is this worth making? Is it doing something new? Is it going to be something people want to see? These are the kinds of questions he asks when reading a new script. It’s odd, then, that I Am Legend comes across as a confused and ultimately frustrating and unsatisfying horror.
Smith plays military scientist Robert Neville, seemingly the sole survivor of a virus that has turned the world’s population into blood hungry savages. Living in New York, Neville roams the streets by day and boards up his home by night, desperately working on a vaccine.
This is the third reworking of Robert Matheson’s novel. Existing adaptations The Last Man On Earth and The Omega Man were able to present a desolate city landscape without drawing unavoidable comparisons with Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later… and I Am Legend does not do itself any favours by following modern horror conventions over Matheson’s text.
Bringing to mind director Francis Lawrence’s previous film, the interesting but messy Constantine, the scenes at night often come across as cheap cartoons, mostly due to some awful CGI. The creatures are sloppy, rubbery, laughably lucid creations, and cannot hold a crucifix to the terrifying vampires in the recent, superior 30 Days Of Night. Why Lawrence went for digital beasts over actors will be pondered forever.
That said, the film manages a near-unbearable tension in its set pieces, and when it is operating at its peak, this is a surprisingly unsettling and upsetting experience. A sequence involving Smith hanging unconscious, upside down as the sun races below the horizon cultivates the kind of dread associated with M. Night Shyamalan pictures, while a later death scene, though inevitable, is undeniably powerful, Smith putting himself, and his audience, through a torrent of complex emotion.
Here, Manhattan is a beautiful wasteland of abandoned cars and old billboard posters, and a playground for Neville as he races cars through the streets and hits golf balls into nothingness. These lonely sequences are gripping and believable, only Neville’s interaction with the mannequins propped motionless in his local video store not quite ringing true. Smith, now as reliable a performer as any A-lister in Hollywood, manages to hold the screen for large periods of time without dialogue, while his trusty canine Sam provides a nice counter for occasional conversation and the barest hint of comedy. From Ali, via last year’s The Pursuit Of Happyness, Smith has matured considerably as an actor, and does not put a foot wrong here.
The flashbacks, providing us back-story on Neville’s family as we see them evacuated from the city during the outbreak, are expertly structured, using excellent sound bridges at appropriate junctures to great effect; a moment when two helicopters collide is as shocking as any jump scare inflicted by the film’s ‘dark seekers’.
Then, out of nowhere, the film turns an abrupt corner, with Neville meeting two other survivors and propelled into unnecessary discussions on religion by way of some Shrek-inspired bonding. From here, the film concludes in a similarly odd fashion, moving further away from the book and to a sudden intervention reminiscent of Shyamalan’s Signs, though far less convincing. It’s easy to see why, prior to seeing the film, many are encouraged to hit the stop button after the first hour. It’s incredibly jarring, and a desperate shame after such solid establishment of both character and tone.
Among the special features is a documentary, A Cautionary Tale: The Science Behind I Am Legend, which takes a detailed look at various types of virus. Though intermittently shocking, it’s a somewhat redundant inclusion, complete with montages from the film and terrible music cues, and only makes one wonder where the filmmaker’s extensive research was put to use. Much better are the detailed ‘making of’ featurettes, as well as a series of animated comics illustrating the worldwide impact of the virus. Nicely constructed and scored, they act as a far more appropriate companion piece: dark, violent stories filled with the dread of apocalypse.
Strangely, rather than including the alternate ending as an additional scene on the extras disc, the entire film is included again with this new ending intact. More often than not an alternate ending will indicate how an original script was far from perfect. Indeed, though the one included here is arguably better than the cinematic version, it ultimately serves as another sign that for all its brilliant lead-up and chilling set pieces, I Am Legend was unsure of itself from the outset. We can only wonder what Ridley Scott (once attached to direct) would have made of it. As for Smith, he still hasn’t mastered picking the right projects. Film