December 18, 2007
"Hell is other people," said Jean Paul Sartre. In the new movie I Am Legend, Will Smith is in Sartre Heaven: the deserted island of Manhattan. Wouldn't that famous borough be even better if you could hunt deer from the driver's seat of a Mustang and hit a few drives over the Hudson from the tail fin of an abandoned Air Force bomber? Ah, but if only a man could be truly alone. That way you'd never have to share your hoarded bacon.
I Am Legend is at least the third film to be made from Richard Matheson's 1954 novel of the same name. There was 1964's Vincent Price vehicle The Last Man on Earth, followed seven years later by Charlton Heston's lonely turn in The Omega Man. Along the way minor adjustments have been made to the plot device that kills off Manhattan. This time out it's all Emma Thompson's fault, messing with genetically engineered viruses. By the time she issues an official "oops," it's too late. Suddenly there are empty taxis everywhere, and damned if you still can't get one.
Smith plays Richard Neville, a military scientist who was still hard at work on licking the pesky bug when time ran out, the picturesque bridges were blown up (rather dangerously with rescue ferries still in the water), and the island was evacuated. Now he continues to work in his basement lab, seeking a cure.
The one-mile diet
Considering that the source material is 53 years old, is it unfair to say the concept will remind you very strongly of 28 Days Later? It's pretty much a greatest hits of the Home Alone genre, with everything but Celine Dion belting out All By Myself. Director Francis Lawrence (Constantine, Britney Spears' Greatest Hits) doesn't seem to worry too much about details, though. There's a family of lions wandering the streets, but no stray cats. Neville fishes in an indoor koi pond, but who's been looking after the fish? And what's with the ever-present bowl of fresh fruit on the scientist's kitchen table? I know there'd be plenty of Spam and spaghetti sauce around, but fresh apples and pears? Has the city been colonized by zombie truck farmers?
Sorry, hope that wasn't a spoiler. You know there's going to be zombies. They're called Darkseekers, sunlight-shunning viral victims who have eaten the remaining healthy folks and in the process truly cemented New York's reputation as the City That Never Sleeps. The scene where we finally meet some of the big pink flesh-gobblers may be the movie's best, a tense haunted-house search for Neville's beloved dog Samantha. Sam the Dog seems set to be the movie's own counterpart to Wilson the Volleyball from Castaway. But the real Wilson turns out to be Fred the Mannequin, Neville's very best buddy who hangs out at a local DVD shop. Until we meet Fred we have really seen nothing from Dr. Neville except sober, rational, thoroughly dedicated behaviour, which makes the DVD store scenes seem jarring and out of place.
Abandoned by God
Eventually Neville gets some genuinely interactive company in the form of a mother and son (Alice Braga from City of God, and young Charlie Tahan) drawn by his repeating radio broadcasts. Only then does Smith get the chance to effectively demonstrate his character's wacky anti-social side. Happy to have real human guests, Doc? "I was saving that bacon," he pouts.
Here I Am Legend inserts a double-shot of warm fuzziness, first with Will Smith's elegy to Bob Marley, then with a God-is-real speech from Braga's character. "There is no God," Dr. Neville replies -- not even Haile Selassie, apparently. In the context of the movie the doctor makes a damn fine case. But of course the movie doesn't believe it. Cue a completely unnecessary Christ-figure plot twist, and fade out.
In the end you'll be left with a few jolts, some cool scenes of an empty city, and a renewed determination not to eat genetically-engineered viruses. Next time they remake this, maybe it will be bad HMOs or inadequate health insurance that kill off New York. It would've made this one more topical.