I’ve never been prouder of Hollywood. They’ve taken a dark, eerie, and emotionally shattering post-apocalyptic script and turned it into a big budget blockbuster starring Will Smith, without compromising any of the challenging, gut-wrenching content that made the whole thing so tragically beautifully haunting in the first place. I Am Legend is an absolutely uncompromising film, the solitary and hopeless story of one man, staying alive and refusing to surrender even when there’s no longer any reason to continue. It sticks with that too, not as a setup to some big action set piece, but as a genuinely moving, horrifying, and thrilling journey into one man’s lonely, desperate hell.
That man, the last man, is Will Smith as military scientist Robert Neville. I guess he’s also technically speaking, mayor of New York and president of the United States, since there’s no one else left to fill the jobs. Three years ago, the population of planet Earth was wiped out by a plague, and as far as Robert can tell he’s all that’s left. Except that is, for the mindless, vicious, vampire-like, sunlight allergic creatures which scream, hunt, and bloodlust just outside his front door each and every night.
Robert has survived for two reasons, and neither of them have anything to do with his natural immunity to a world-killing disease. That only helped him survive the first wave of dying. He’s lived this long because he’s smart and because he’s utterly focused, unwavering in his determination, no matter how ludicrous or far-fetched, to “fix this”. Each day he follows the same, specific, carefully thought out routine. He gets up, he eats, he hunts, he looks futilely for other survivors, and he looks for a cure. When the sun goes down, he bars the windows and hides in his bathtub with his only companion, a German Shepherd named Sam, praying that tonight won’t be the night that his carefully planned precautions fail, and the monsters find him.
Much of the film is spent watching Robert toil under these conditions, as the already dead world around him starts to crumble even further. The monsters he’s been avoiding are getting worse, he’s no closer to finding a cure, and he’s long since run out of hope. It soon becomes clear that Robert keeps working and living not because he really thinks he’ll succeed, but because there is quite simply nothing else for him to do. It is what’s kept him sane and strong so far, but soon what little strength he has left is put to the test.
Will Smith is quite simply commanding as Robert Neville. Unlike his other big-budget efforts, he’s calm and restrained as Neville, remaining not only catchphrase free, but also managing to be utterly broken and vulnerable beneath a complicated veneer of determination and strength. We knew Will Smith could act, we just haven’t seen him do it in anything with a major Hollywood budget. Finally though, he’s fully cast off the Big Willie persona that earns him all those paychecks and turned in something deep and mesmerizing. And he has to, because the movie rests entirely on his shoulders. For most of its running time, there are no other characters. Will simply is the movie, his only sounding board an expectedly silent canine companion.
Meanwhile, this is still a big-budget, Hollywood action movie… of sorts. It’s full of all the usual, splashy (and sometimes bad/unnecessary... what ever happened to animal trainers and prosthetics?) CGI and eye-popping set pieces. The film would be worth seeing just for its opening scene alone, in which Will Smith pops a rifle out the window of his “borrowed” Ford Mustang and goes high-speed deer hunting through downtown New York. Warner Brothers got their money’s worth. Except where other action movies would be loud and jittery, I Am Legend is still and quiet. It looks glossy, but director Francis Lawrence makes his movie zig when all the big money behind it might normally urge him towards zag. The movie takes chances, assuming its audience is up for more than ear-splitting explosions, zombie retreads, and happy, catchphrase laden endings; even if this is an effects heavy, tentpole Holiday pic. I can't however, help wishing the film's final script had taken it even further. It ends almost too abruptly, where earlier drafts of the script went even further in putting Neville through the wringer. But perhaps that's asking too much. Even as it is, it's hard to say if it’ll pay off, smart and downbeat rarely plays mainstream (just look at the fast disappearance of Frank Darabont’s The Mist), but if you’re up for melancholy and contemplation in an action-thriller; then it just doesn’t get much better than I Am Legend.