Still miss­ing a chap­ter

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film - Ed­die Cock­rell

I Am Leg­end

( M)

A S the last un­in­fected hu­man in New York City, Will Smith fends off scream­ing mu­tants but he can ’ t beat back a tsunami of com­put­er­gen­er­ated images in the per­sua­sively at­mo­spheric yet ul­ti­mately un­der­whelm­ing film

I am Leg­end . The ac­tor ’ s sassy yet aw- shucks approach to hero­ism, dis­played in end- of- time epics In­de­pen­dence Day and Men in Black , makes him among the few stars ca­pa­ble of hold­ing the viewer ’s in­ter­est with only a dog as foil.

Yet the dig­i­tal ef­fects that so vividly po­si­tion his char­ac­ter as a re­luc­tant ur­ban sur­vivor fa­tally up­stage the hu­man el­e­ments of brav­ery and loss that should be at the heart of an em­blem­atic story such as this.

It is 2012, three years af­ter the rag­ing virus spawned by a can­cer cure gone awry has wiped out hu­man­ity — with the ex­cep­tion, it seems, of an ap­par­ently im­mune can- do mil­i­tary vi­rol­o­gist, Robert Neville ( Smith). The virus has left be­hind a noc­tur­nal army of hair­less, freak­ishly strong and in­evitably grumpy sav­ages, first seen hud­dled in a dark­ened ware­house. The gath­er­ing sug­gests a par­tic­u­larly dif­fi­cult year at Gol­lum ’s fam­ily re­union.

Neville spends the days cruis­ing an eerily empty and weed- strewn Man­hat­tan for sup­plies and dis­trac­tion from the un­re­lent­ing lone­li­ness, with a large ri­fle and a larger ger­man shep­herd, Sa­man­tha, in tow. At dusk he re­treats to a Wash­ing­ton Square Park brown­stone to bar­ri­cade him­self against the howl­ing horde, which he calls the Dark Seek­ers, while con­duct­ing re­search on a cure for the virus in the wellap­pointed base­ment lab­o­ra­tory that is de rigueur for all men of science in dooms­day sce­nar­ios.

As it even­tu­ally comes to pass, there are at least two other sur­vivors, a Brazil­ian Red Cross worker, Anna ( Alice Braga, from City of God), and a quiet boy, Ethan ( Char­lie Ta­han). They show up from Mary­land just in time to save Neville from a fool­ish, grief- in­duced rage, with the prom­ise of a sur­vivors ’ colony in the ad­ja­cent state of Ver­mont.

God told me, ’’ Anna tells the dis­traught, in­cred­u­lous Neville, still smart­ing from the loss of his wife and child ( Salli Richard­son and Smith ’ s real- life daugh­ter Wil­low).

Un­til the un­likely ac­tion se­quence that in­tro­duces th­ese pil­grims, the film proudly show­cases its spe­cial ef­fects tech­niques, show­ing the city slowly be­ing re­claimed by the el­e­ments. Neville grows corn in Cen­tral Park, hunts deer from a speed­ing sports car hurtling down Park Av­enue, and later stalks a stat­uesque buck through the tall grass of Times Square. In­deed, for all its dig­i­tally altered shots of Man­hat­tan gone to ruin, it ’ s the chirp­ing birds and whirring ci­cadas that are most jar­ring. This is a sub­tle

Now screen­ing na­tion­ally

au­ral ef­fect, but a clever and res­o­nant one.

Though not with­out the germ of an idea that could have wrapped things up with re­demp­tion and grace, the last third of the film is a rushed mess that speaks vol­umes about the con­flict be­tween siz­zle and steak faced by film­maker Francis Lawrence.

A mu­sic video di­rec­tor who brought a good eye to the labyrinthine yet agree­ably pulpy Con­stan­tine , Lawrence is at once smart enough to re­alise a de­bate about the ex­is­tence of God is not what a mul­ti­plex au­di­ence nec­es­sar­ily ex­pects, but too ham­strung — ei­ther by the shal­low dra­matic con­fines of the heav­ily worked script or lim­i­ta­tions on his dra­matic fi­nesse — to tease out the story ’s promis­ing strands of faith and legacy.

The film is based on writer Richard Mathe­son’ s terse, im­mea­sur­ably in­flu­en­tial 1954 novel of the same name, in which an av­er­age Joe plague sur­vivor fights off an army of un­dead vam­pires led by the re­vived corpse of his venge­ful neigh­bour.

The book, the ti­tle of which comes from a lastchap­ter plot twist that has yet to sur­vive in a filmed adap­ta­tion, is a touch­stone of postapoc­a­lyp­tic fiction that has in­spired, among other key genre fig­ures, pop­u­lar nov­el­ist Stephen

Night of King and Ge­orge A. Romero, di­rec­tor of the Liv­ing Dead , both of whom have done fine work in­spired by Mathe­son ’s idea.

The ma­te­rial has been filmed se­ri­ously twice be­fore: the 1964 cu­rios­ity

The Last Man on Earth , star­ring Vin­cent Price, and a 1971 cel­lu­loid car­bo­hy­drate, The Omega Man, with a scenerychew­ing Charl­ton He­ston, and that ’s not count­ing the re­cent straight- to- DVD I am Omega and the Simp­sons ’ af­fec­tion­ate Hal­loween spoof, The Homega Man.

Here, dra­matic faith­ful­ness has taken a back seat to mod­erni­sa­tion. Thus Neville has be­come a pas­sion­ate Bob Mar­ley fan, the mu­tants and zom­bies are the re­ally fast kind pi­o­neered by that

Dawn of the Dead re­make and 28 Days re­cent Later , and boogah- boogah shock ef­fects that some may find an­noy­ing de­rail the build- up of dra­matic ten­sion.

Smith ’ s play­ing of this vul­ner­a­ble, re­luc­tant hero hov­ers un­easily be­tween Price ’ s piteous an­guish and He­ston ’s hammy hubris. While there ’ s cer­tainly more of the for­mer than the lat­ter, a fact for which Smith is to be com­mended, genre fans in par­tic­u­lar may be put off by the ac­tor ’ s take on a char­ac­ter meant to sig­nify the stub­born Amer­i­can sur­vival­ist pit­ted against a god­less, macabre en­emy. Braga is sad­dled with a sus­pi­ciously one- note

The char­ac­ter as the fer­vent Anna, Dash Mi­hok ( Thin Red Line , The Day af­ter To­mor­row) is barely recog­nis­able as the Dark Seeker known only as Al­pha Male and an un­cred­ited Emma Thompson gives a crafty pre- credit line read­ing as the can­cer- cur­ing sci­en­tist who gets the vi­ral ball rolling.

On a craft level, the pro­duc­tion de­sign of David Lazan and Naomi Sho­han is dis­tinc­tive and de­tailed. Syd­neysider Andrew Les­nie ’s steely cin­e­matog­ra­phy makes un­ex­pected and of­ten dra­matic mis­chief with the frag­ile cal­i­bra­tions of shadow and il­lu­mi­na­tion nec­es­sary when shar­ing a city with blood­thirsty mu­tants whose only re­straint is light.

Though im­mensely suc­cess­ful at the Amer­i­can box of­fice, on the twin strengths of Smith ’ s pop­u­lar­ity, cer­tainly, and per­haps the pub­lic ’ s pent- up de­mand for re­cently elu­sive main­stream

I am Leg­end glosses a story that fare, in the end has yet to be done right. Bet­ter to await the fifth in­stal­ment of

Diary of the Dead , and Romero ’ s fran­chise, Aus­tralian di­rec­tor John Hill­coat ’ s adap­ta­tion of Cor­mac McCarthy ’s novel The Road , each of which prom­ises, in de­fi­antly in­di­vid­u­al­is­tic ways, fresh re­boot­ings of an un­kil­l­able con­ceit.

Don’ t go out there:

Will Smith gives a cred­i­ble per­for­mance as the em­bat­tled sur­vivor of a plague, but I amLe­gend could have been so much more

Streets of New York:

Smith as sci­en­tist Robert Neville with his dog Sa­man­tha in a near- de­serted Man­hat­tan

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