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  I Am Legend

Starring: Will Smith, Alice Braga, Charlie Tahan, Dash Mihok, Willow Smith

Directed by: Francis Lawrence

Produced by: David Heyman, Neil H. Moritz, Akiva Goldsman, James Lassiter

Written by: Akiva Goldsman, Mark Protosevich

Distributor: Warner Bros.


     Francis Lawrence’s I Am Legend is a Hollywood picture of the rarest breed: one that uses its mega-budget and impressive visual-effects to enhance its considerable brains, not to destroy them. To great success, Lawrence mixes and mashes directorial styles, crafting a film with the bleak intelligence of George A. Romero, the climactic loudness of Michael Bay, and the refined glossiness of Ron Howard. I Am Legend recalls the great action films of the 1950s and the 1970s, in which external and internal plot existed harmoniously and contributed to works admirable for both the pure exhilaration and thoughtful introspection that they evoked in the audience. 

     Still, as clever and successful as Lawrence’s assembly of I Am Legend is, his committed work strikes the viewer as secondary to that of lead-actor Will Smith… and for good reason. The film is very much a One Man Show, as its “last man on Earth”-premise would suggest. Smith’s performance as protagonist Robert Neville is something of a miracle for the star: he abandons all of the conventions of his usual work in Hollywood (“Will-isms,” as he called them when promoting last year’s The Pursuit of Happyness). As good as we all knew Smith was at doing this in dramatic roles (in fact, Ali and the aforementioned Pursuit earned him Oscar nominations), it is a pleasant surprise that he found the same ability to do so in the more-typical I Am Legend. Smith’s combination of strong gusto and sympathetic likeability as an actor fits Neville’s character perfectly, and is much of the reason why the film succeeds to the extent that it does.

     As I Am Legend’s heavy advertising campaign suggests, Neville assumes himself to be the last living human survivor of a massive plague on Earth, caused by a virus spread by a premature cure for cancer. Neville lives in Manhattan, which, like the rest of the world, is ruled by mobs of infected zombies that come out at night. An ex-military scientist who worked on an antidote for the virus before it became the devastating polemic that it was, Neville quite literally conditions himself to become a living version of Nietzsche’s Übermench. He does pull-ups each morning to ensure that he is a muscular human-machine. He lives with his dog Sam in a house in Greenwich Village, which he has crafted into a fortress to protect him against the flesh-hungry zombies during the night. He believes, just as Nietzsche did, that God is dead, that no Supreme Being would ever choose to inflict so much horror on the world as the one that envelopes him.

     As I Am Legend progresses, Neville continues to work to find an antidote for the virus out of the hope that he will be able to save himself and/or any other possible living survivors. Said survivors emerge, against all odds, at the call of a radio-announcement that he plays back continuously. They are the twentysomething Anna (Alice Braga) and the grammar-school-aged Ethan (Charlie Tahan). Anna informs Neville that she has heard other radio communications mentioning a survivors’ colony in New Hampshire. Neville doubts this—he didn’t believe that any survivors existed until coming into contact with the two—but she vows to travel to the rumored safe-haven, with Neville or without him.

     I Am Legend is based off of the same science-fiction novel by Richard Matheson that spawned 1964’s The Last Man on Earth and 1971’s The Omega Man. I haven’t read the book, but I would assume that screenwriters Mark Protosevich and Akiva Goldsman have altered the tone of the source-material significantly, given how contemporary the film feels. Despite this change, they presumably do not alter Matheson’s central themes, considering that the fear of scientific innovation going overboard vocalized by the movie was just as much a concern for people in the 1950s as it is for those living now. I was also particularly impressed by the religious themes conveyed by Protosevich and Goldsman’s adaptation; whether these were transplanted from Matheson’s original work or created anew for this version, I dunno. Either way, they come across as highly thought-provoking and appreciably respectful of Christian doctrine.

     For me to write a review of I Am Legend and not mention the movie’s jaw-dropping visuals would be an unforgivable mistake. The opening shots, which take place in a digitally-recreated version of mid-town Manhattan, are particularly striking. The viewer is instantly immersed in Neville’s world as they observe him zoom past a Times Square overrun by wild flora and fauna in a sports car. All of the billboards and skyscrapers are still intact, but the asphalt on the ground is hardly visible. Some of the other special-effects in the film aren’t as realistic as those in the first scene, but they come across as equally-fitting for the material. Many have critiqued the look of the zombies in I Am Legend, but I thought that it was perfect, reminding the viewer of those seen in the older apocalypse pictures that so clearly inspired Lawrence’s vision for the movie.

     As far as action films are concerned this Holiday season, I Am Legend is by far the cream of the crop. In terms of thoughtful dramas, the film also ranks among the best. It represents a complete package of cinematic glory, both riveting and enlightening for nearly every one of its short 101 minutes. Surprising as this fact may be given the usual ineptitude and derivativeness displayed by the genre to which it belongs, I Am Legend is unquestionably one of 2007’s most flat-out engrossing motion pictures.

-Danny Baldwin, Bucket Reviews

Review Published on: 12.22.2007

Screened on: 12.15.2007 in IMAX at the Edwards Mira Mesa 18 in Mira Mesa, CA.


I Am Legend is rated PG-13 and runs 100 minutes.

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