The making of I Am Legend is practically a legend in and of itself. The novel written by Richard Matheson in 1954, had been made twice over as The Last Man on Earth starring Vincent Price in 1964 and as The Ωmega Man starring Charlton Heston in 1971. Then, in the 1990s, Ridley Scott in his post Thelma and Louise slump tried to get a highly ambitious version of the project rolling with Arnold Schwarzenegger as main (only?) character Robert Neville. But this was around the time of Batman & Robin and Schwarzenegger lost his box office mojo, while the studio was re-examining all its more expensive projects, especially the nine-figure vampire movie.
A decade later and I Am Legend has emerged from development Hell with surprising results. Under the direction of Francis Lawrence (Constantine), the film has achieved much of the promise set down in Mark Protosevich’s original script written nearly 15 years ago. The movie looks good, but it’s the convincing everyman alone in the world performance of Will Smith that is the pictures truly best effect.
We first meet Robert Neville (Smith) as he chases wild game through the streets of Manhattan, the island taken back by nature in the three years since a deadly plague seemingly wiped out all life on Earth, save for Neville. He tears down Broadway in a sports car amongst a galloping herd of deer, when he gets a lame one in his crosshairs, but loses it to a hungry lioness. Back home, Neville eats dinner from one of a number of freeze dried or canned food items he has stockpiled in his home in Washington Square. With only his dog for company, he goes to sleep listening to the sounds of bloodcurdling howls from creatures stalking the night outside.
The first hour of the film blew me away with the utter restraint exhibited on the part of the filmmakers. We see Neville twiddling the day away with his normal routine of eating, sleeping, scavenging and forging. He sits at the dock at high noon as per his radio broadcast and awaits anyone else who may have survived. He visits a video store and talks to the mannequins he’s placed there in an attempt to maintain some semblance of his humanity. He treats his dog like a child, telling him to eat his vegetables and do what he says: stay out of the dark.
Sprinkled between all the desolation are Neville’s remembrances of the moments leading up to the quarantine of Manhattan and his efforts to evacuate his wife and child (Salli Richardson and Willow Smith) from “Ground Zero” of the world destroying plague.
Unfortunately, at or about the hour mark things start to strain as the action picks up. Obviously, an hour and a half of sad sack Smith trying to hold all his marbles in does not make for a great movie either, but when Neville gets caught in a trap and is forced to face the full weight of his isolation before a couple of surprise encounters, things begin to break down slightly. At this point, I Am Legend becomes a 28 Days Later-like ferocious zombie tale with a pitched battle of survival between Neville and the creatures he’s tried so carefully to avoid for so long.
In Matheson’s book these “dark seekers” have more in common with vampires than zombies; Matheson’s Neville even grows garlic and arms himself with stakes and crosses. In this Legend, they burn in sunlight, but any other resemblance to a vampire is non-existent. The creatures themselves look totally fake, bad CGI-creations that look more like the robots of another Smith hit as opposed to any type of bloodsucker or man-eater. There’s such a wicked sense of menace about these things that you almost forget that they’re lurking, so it’s really a disappointment when you see them. It’s odd that in a monster movie that the monsters should be the weakest link.
Overall though, I found the film tremendously satisfying, especially its tension filled first hour. The other pleasant surprise is that it an excellent showcase for the talents of Will Smith, the film is literally on his shoulders, but he wears the weight well and looks good doing it. Meanwhile, director Francis Lawrence demonstrates a sure hand and a patience the likes of which aren’t usually demonstrated by filmmakers that come from the ADD battlefield of pop music videos.
Before writing this review I reread some portions of a book I have called The Best Sci-Fi Movies Never Made. In its pages are tales of the rise and fall of projects like The Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy, Fantastic Four and Thuderbirds, and of course I Am Legend. Also listed is James Cameron’s Avatar and Watchmen, both of which are coming to theatres in 2009. If these trends continue, then a serious reissue is going to be in order.