I Am Legend

December 26th, 2007 Film, Film Reviews, Xpress

You might have read some negative reviews of this, the third movie version of Richard Matheson’s classic novel. Here’s what none of them can tell you; like Ray Bradbury, Harlan Ellison and other golden age science fiction writers, Matheson’s book simply isn’t very cinematic.

The screen story of I Am Legend also has nothing to do with the kind of lenged Matheson was talking about, where the hero finds he himself has become the monster in the new world. In the hands of Hollywood, it becomes just another post-apocalyptic survival movie.

So your best bet if you want something just like the book is to read it. If you want to appreciate the movie for what it is, forget everything about Matheson’s novel except the premise, because as a piece of cinema, I Am Legend is among the two or three best science fiction movies of 2007.

The story is simple. A mutated cancer treatment has ravaged humanity and society has broken down. Three years later, the single man immune to the strain — army virologist Robert Neville (Smith) — lives in the ruins of New York, eking out a living while he searches for a belated cure. Every night, he has to lock himself in while the remainder of humanity, transformed into hungry zombies by the mutation, prowl the streets.

The triumph of the movie is all in the details. Using a blend of seamless CGI and everything from trucked-in plants to fleets of burned out cars, director Francis (Constantine) Lawrence has created the most convincing post-apocalyptic city ever as deer herds roam the streets and plastic quarantine shields covering skyscrapers flap in the breeze. As night falls, downtown Manhattan sounds like a Louisiana swamp with frogs and crickets signing, and the effect is as eerie as it is technically brilliant.

The rest of I Am Legend’s power is down to Smith. Present in almost every frame, he keeps his usual schtick to a minimum and plays a man haunted by loneliness and impending insanity so well it’s not unthinkable he’ll be acknowledged come Oscar season.

It’s also much smarter than the average blockbuster, heavy with subtextual symbolism and making us feel more than just thrills at the inevitable monsters and action — which are ironically the weakest point of the movie.

Creative liberties are taken and the ‘hope springs eternal’ third act and wrap-up is cack-handed, but the vision is brilliant and Smith lives and breathes the role to a degree we’ve never seen before.


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