I Am Legend (2007)

Review by Throwback

Will Smith is a good actor. No, really. He is. He just has a nasty tendency to get caught in roles that turn him into a caricature. I once heard the typical scene for him described as: Will Smith enters; Will Smith says some Will Smithian stuff (“Aw, hell naw!”); Explosion; Will Smith walks away. In other words, his talents are usually wasted. That being said, when he was cast as the lead in I Am Legend (PG-13), there was enormous potential for something special because it’s not your ordinary horror/action movie.
I Am Legend is actually the name of a book by Richard Matheson about a plague that turns the whole world into pseudo-vampires, except for one man, Robert Neville. While Neville’s role as vampire slayer is prominent, there’s a tremendous psychological element to the plot. Imagine being the only human left in a world of inhumans and the amount of stress, loneliness, etc. that would entail. Other film adaptations have attempted to capture this balance with Vincent Price starring as the Neville character in The Last Man on Earth and Charlton Heston taking on the role in The Omega Man. These were both different angles on the Neville persona, so I was curious about what Smith would bring to the table.

He actually did a fairly decent job, which shows that he still has legit acting skills. Without a whole lot of supporting cast (basically zero), he moved quite ably from the near-psychosis of loneliness to the fear and anger of dealing with his monstrous adversaries. It was the latter that proved the main issue. One of the big things that made the prior film incarnations work was that the vampires were real actors. This added another layer on top of Neville’s isolation. All these things trying to kill him look and act just like people, in most ways. Smith’s version takes that whole element out (and with it much of the depth of the original story) and replaces the vampirish humans with CGI beasts who are humanoid in form but that’s about it. In other words, this becomes a lot more of a monster hunter movie than its predecessors. In Smith’s case, his talents are adequately displayed. The set-up really doesn’t appreciate them all that much, though.

That doesn’t go for the rest of the atmosphere. There have been a lot of apocalyptic wasteland barren cities in movies, but I have to give I Am Legend the award. The initial sequences of Neville in what’s left of the city are as effective a tone-setter as any opening item since the Circle of Life in The Lion King. It’s that powerful. I just wish Francis Lawrence (the director) could have played off that realism a bit more, instead of going for the cheap CGI enemies and action scenes. When viewed against the bleakness of the landscape, they look even more out of place.

There are no concrete Catholic items to speak of, which is unfortunate. I definitely found undertones in The Last Man on Earth, and even The Omega Man, but all of that relied on the analysis of Neville vs. the “humanity” of the vampires. These made for far more intriguing questions of “What is it to be human?” than your standard sci-fi. These other movies, especially Last Man on Earth, made the point that what deprived a person of their humanity was their level of corrupt behavior. I don’t want to say more for fear of spoilers. Anyway, the point is that in making the switch to more bestial mutant-types, all of this marvelous subtext is forfeited in favor of bigger scares. Maybe bigger scares. I’m still really not sure what the alleged benefit of this was.

Content-wise, there are a goodly number of intense scenes and some graphic violence. This is a monster hunter movie more than anything else, so it’s to be expected. Sex? Nope. Language? Very, very minor. I think I counted four occasions of mild profanity. Keep in mind that there’s not a whole lot of dialogue in the first place, so the opportunities are limited. A warning though - this movie is, in some sense, legitimately frightening at parts. There is a part where Smith goes into a dark warehouse searching for his dog that uses suspence masterfully to ramp up the fear factor. If you've seen the film, you know what I mean. It's certainly not for younger viewers.

Having been a fan of the earlier films, I had a lot of hopes for this one. Given how well some parts worked, I almost believe that they got halfway through production then decided that there wasn’t enough “kewlness,” so they switched to straight action fare from that point on. The decision to re-cast the vampires was a disappointment that detracted greatly from the overall effort. It’s all a big shame, considering the awesomeness that was left on the table. If you see it on TV, it’s not that long and entertaining enough to be worth your time. Otherwise, I wouldn’t make any special effort to see it.

I give it 1.5 tiaras.