Still missing a chapter
I Am Legend
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