Last man stand­ing

Un­til its weak finale, I Am Leg­end is a splen­didly eerie thriller, writes Don­ald Clarke

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - Reviews Film -

I AM LEG­END Di­rected by Francis Lawrence. Star­ring Will Smith, Alice Braga, Salli Richard­son-Whit­field, Wil­low Smith, Char­lie Ta­han 15A cert, gen re­lease, 101 min,

THE man or wo­man who had the in­spired idea of cast­ing Will Smith as the (ap­par­ent) last per­son on earth de­serves an ex­tra large bas­ket of gift muffins. Few other hu­man be­ings have ded­i­cated them­selves so sin­gu­larly to the en­ter­tain­ment of the masses and, thus, to see Smith plod­ding about a de­serted Man­hat­tan is to view a man stripped of his rea­son for be­ing. Imag­ine watch­ing Rod Hull with­out Emu or en­coun­ter­ing Keith Har­ris with­out Orville.

Okay, I Am Leg­end is not quite that un­set­tling, but the lonely Smith still cuts an im­pres­sively eerie fig­ure. A less friendly ac­tor might have seemed right at home in the echo­ing av­enues. Will con­vinc­ingly adopts the an­guished gaze of a man driven crazy by the with­drawal symp­toms that re­sult from peo­ple de­pri­va­tion.

I Am Leg­end, the third (loose) adap­ta­tion of Richard Mathe­son’s great spec­u­la­tive novel, be­gins with Dr Emma Thompson ex­plain­ing how a cer­tain ge­net­i­cally mu­tated virus might help to cure tu­mours. Some years later, can­cer rates have, in­deed, greatly de­creased, but in­ci­dents of slaver­ing vam­pirism have gone through the roof. As the film be­gins, Robert Neville (Smith), for­merly a sol­dier, now an ama­teur re­search sci­en­tist, finds him­self – with apolo­gies to Paul Si­mon – the only liv­ing boy in New York. While the grey un­dead mur­mur out­side his down­town apart­ment, Robert works to de­velop an an­ti­dote.

The first half of the pic­ture con­tains some of the most ef­fec­tive post-apoca­lyp­tic footage ever com­mit­ted to cel­lu­loid. Smith’s pur­suit of gam­bolling deer through the grass­lands of Times Square re­minds us that com­puter- gen­er­ated im­agery can, when used with re­straint, still have the power to as­ton­ish, and the film also finds sur­pris­ing things to do with the Metropoli­tan Mu­seum, Wash­ing­ton Square and the USS In­trepid.

The dig­i­tal vam­pires look, it is true, a bit ar­ti­fi­cial when set be­side the sprint­ing ex­tras in the su­per­fi­cially sim­i­lar 28 Days Later, but Francis Lawrence, pre­vi­ously di­rec­tor of the unlovely Con­stan­tine, has worked hard at cre­at­ing a wor­ry­ingly be­liev­able al­ter­na­tive uni­verse.

Sadly, less ef­fort – less pro­duc­tive ef­fort, at least – has been ap­plied to mak­ing sense of the film’s fi­nal act. Hav­ing se­duced us with Smith’s solo ad­ven­ture, the film-mak­ers sud­denly, jar­ringly, in­ex­pli­ca­bly spring two new hu­man char­ac­ters on us. Alice Braga of­fers a per­fectly ad­e­quate per­for­mance as an op­ti­mistic South Amer­i­can ac­com­pa­ny­ing her son to a ru­moured haven in New Eng­land, but it is hard to shift the no­tion that, ap­pear­ing so un­ex­pect­edly, she must be a fig­ment of Neville’s al­ready trou­bled imag­i­na­tion.

Mathe­son’s novel ended by sug­gest­ing that, in a world over­run by the in­fected, the hero him­self could be seen as the mon­ster. Lawrence’s film, which, at just 100 min­utes, feels some­what fil­leted, closes with a scuf­fle in the base­ment and an un­con­vinc­ing out­break of forced op­ti­mism.

Still, I Am Leg­end of­fers a sur­pris­ing amount of in­tel­lec­tual fi­bre to bal­ance its ac­cu­mu­lat­ing com­pro­mises. Though shorter on broad thrills than 1971’s The Omega Man – hith­erto the most fa­mous adap­ta­tion of the book – Lawrence’s ver­sion is the most thought­ful and vis­ually ar­rest­ing yet made. The di­rec­tor’s cut might prove to be a real cracker. OPENS WED­NES­DAY

Thanks for the mem­o­ries: Will Smith and pooch wan­der through the rub­ble

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