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I Am Legend

USA 2007
Directed by
Francis Lawrence
105 minutes
Rated PG

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
3.5 stars

I Am Legend

Synopsis: The setting is New York City. 2012. Dr. Robert Neville (Will Smith), is an ex-military scientist, the sole survivor of a deadly virus that had killed most of the Earth’s human population and caused the remainder to mutate into murderous ghouls. In the company of his faithful dog, Neville tries to find an antidote to reverse the effects and save the human race.

I Am Legend is the third movie based on the 1954 Richard Matheson book of the same name. The first, The Last Man on Earth was filmed in 1964 and starred Vincent Price and has deservedly gone the way of most Vincent Price movies. The second version in 1971, The Omega Man, with Charlton Heston in the lead, is a minor classic of the sci-fi/fantasy genre as much valued for its exploitational qualities as its credible portrait of a Los Angeles wasted by plague.

This latest version was originally slated to star Arnold Schwarzenegger and be directed by Ridley Scott and after he pulled out, Michael Bay with Will Smith in the lead, although they in the interim made Bad Boys II (2003) . Finally it has made it to the big screen with Smith, sporting designer stubble and fab abs, as Dr Robert Neville and helming the shoot Francis Lawrence, a seasoned music video director.


Music video? Should you worry? Well, not over much. I Am Legend is slick, pop cultural entertainment (the film’s title is made to refer to Bob Marley’s greatest hits album, Legend, which in a glaring piece of cross-promotional marketing, Smith’s Neville identifies as “the best album ever made” (!?), whilst Shrek gets extended exposure, once again via Neville’s hipster imprimatur) but, if largely superficial, is far from completely vacuous.

The first half of the film is largely given over to establishing Neville’s character and his daily routine through a mixture of flashback and contemporary scenes as the good doctor variously hunts game, chats to shop mannequins and jousts with The Infected. The creation of a post-apocalyptic Manhattan is marvellous with a combination of very expensive location photography (thanks to Peter Jackson’s cinematographer of choice, Andrew Lesnie) and impressive post-production CGI effects. For my money however this went on a little too long, and the psychological effects of isolation on Neville, which have made him master of nothing, simultaneously omnipotent and impotent, are not anywhere near as effectively handled as they were in the 1971 version. Here the slickness of the film works against its success. With his souped-up sports car, fortress-like apartment and panoply of technology, not to mention his highly buffed physique Neville is your standard action hero battling the usual twin demons of such solitary figures – the internal memories of shattered family life and the external attacks of an ruthless predator.

In the final third of the movie Lawrence lets the audience have the anticipated fast and furious action sequences. These are handled well with a more–impressionistic-than-usual style that recalls his first feature, the reasonably effective 2005 sci-fi/supernatural/action/thriller, Constantine. Although this version, which makes The Infected an anonymous horde of vicious killers, far removed form any recognizable human traits, once again reduces the richer text of the 1971 version, which gave Neville an articulate opponent in Matthias, the head of “The Family”, it is the interweaving of the physical and metaphysical at both the levels of plot and visual style which is at least one of the features which lifts I Am Legend above the stock standard bangs-and-bullets fare which characterizes the action genre. Here the introduction of Alice Braga’s Anna provides the light-into-darkness leavening which gives the film a broader resonance. Of course, in the best Hollywood tradition this is annoyingly literalized with a Norman Rockwell ending that leaves the photogenically-coiffed-and-attired Braga and her showroom-spotless four-wheel drive outside a timber-framed New England house of God. But that’s hardly a surprise is it?

I Am Legend is not likely to displace The Omega Man in the hearts of sci-fi aficionados but if you’re in the mood for an action thriller that does not require you to dumb-down too much, this is worth the effort.

 

 

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