On Screen: “I Am Legend”


OMEGA MAN | Will Smith in “I Am Legend”

I’ve not read the Richard Matheson book upon which the new Will Smith vehicle, “I Am Legend,” is loosely based. My primary familiarity with the story is the 1971 film “The Omega Man,” which starred Charlton Heston and a very creepy Anthony Zerbe.

I’m not sure which of these two films more closely mirrors the book, but I remember watching “The Omega Man” and loving it. I can’t say I absolutely loved “I Am Legend,” but Smith’s performance makes this worth watching. Let’s just say I loved most of the movie. You can watch a mesmerizing trailer here…

Smith is such a charismatic actor, and so believable, that you forget about the minor plot holes and other distractions in this version (the third; the first, “The Last Man on Earth,” in 1964, starred Vincent Price) of Matheson’s book, which was written in 1954. Smith portrays Robert Neville, a brilliant military scientist living in New York City who believes he’s the sole survivor of a virus that had its origins in a cure for cancer developed in 2009. The entire island of Manhattan was quarantined when the virus began to turn bad, but Smith is immune. Now alone, save for his dog, Sam, he spends his time scavenging for food, trying to find a way to reverse the virus’ effects, and making sure he and Sam are safe at home by sundown, the time when “the infecteds” come out. The “infecteds” are vampire-like victims of the virus. They can’t be out in sunlight, but they come out at night to feed…and to kill.

Smith’s acting and the scenes of an abandoned New York City are worth the price of admission alone, but I can’t tell you that you’ll be thrilled with movie as a whole. You can check out a wide variety of views of the film here on the Rotten Tomatoes website. Here’s a portion of one of them, from critic Carina Chocana of The Los Angeles Times, that I thought was slightly harsh, but pretty direct:

“The first third of the movie is a high-octane joy ride through post-apocalyptic Manhattan, and you can’t stop asking yourself how they did it. How did they do it? Endless swaths of Fifth Avenue are cleared out and rendered feral, with grass poking through the concrete and herds of deer galloping through the canyons. The city has literally become a jungle, reclaimed by wild beasts… Frankly, it doesn’t serve ‘I Am Legend’ to give you too much time to think. Better when it’s galloping forward at top speed, dodging caribou and translucent zombies and putting the dog in peril.”

Chocana sums up with this: “Never, by the way, have I so longed for a leash.”

The Kansas City Star’s Robert W. Butler had only a slightly more agreeable take:

“The buzz on ‘I Am Legend’ is that (director Francis) Lawrence (“Constantine”) filmed the movie’s conclusion only a month ago after two others had been rejected. Actually, I’m not too sure about this one. So go for the thrills, for some nerve-gnawing suspense, for the wonderful production design and for the opportunity to spend some time with Will Smith. But this one is not the stuff of legend.”

And here, from Philadelphia Weekly’s Sean Burns:

“The first two-thirds of I Am Legend are an exercise in pure craftsmanship. Lawrence, a music video director who made his feature debut with the nifty Keanu Reeves comic adaptation Constantine a couple years back, has a sharp eye for composition, as well as one trait rarely found in contemporary action directors: patience. As Smith has nobody he can talk to, save for a few mannequins and his trusty dog Samantha, a hefty amount of exposition must be conveyed in strictly visual terms.

“It’s refreshing to bask in the quiet city, watching Neville go about his business without some sort of narration track yammering away, describing what you’re looking at. How flattering that the movie assumes we’re smart enough to put everything together on our own, albeit with the aid of some brief, nightmarish flashbacks to the night Manhattan was evacuated, parceling out the back-story in slow, satisfying bursts.

“And as for that ending … sigh. I Am Legend is so good for so long, and Lawrence so adept at dragging out the tension of ingeniously devised, small-scaled suspense sequences, not even a massive flurry of explosions, fake-looking CGI and treacly Hollywood nonsense can undo the goodwill. Two thirds of a great movie is better than nothing. ”


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