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