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Saturday, 20 December 2014

REVIEW - I AM LEGEND (2007)

Directed by: Francis Lawrence
Written by: Mark Protosevich, Akiva Goldsman
Starring: Will Smith, Alice Braga, Dash Mihok
Music by: James Newton Howard
Release date: December 14, 2007



Richard Matheson's 1954 horror novel "I Am Legend" is considered a landmark work in the genre, influencing countless novels, movies and other forms of media that preceded it. Sixty years later, it has seen three feature-film adaptations: The Last Man on Earth (1964), The Omega Man (1971), and now 2007's I Am Legend. I can't tell you how much this interpretation does or doesn't deviate from its source material, however. All I can do is judge I Am Legend purely based on its merits as a movie. 

A virus that mutates humans into bloodthirsty beasts dubbed "Darkseekers" has engulfed the planet. As far as he can tell, colonel and scientist Robert Neville is the sole survivor. With his expressive German Shepherd Sam as his only company, he scours New York City daily, desperately trying to find a cure for the disease and reaching out to any possible survivors.


Will Smith comfortably carries this movie almost singlehandedly, which is good because he's the only person in it most of the time. I Am Legend is at its best when it's presented as a relatively character-driven piece that depicts Neville and Sam as they wonder the bleak, desolate streets of Manhattan. During these moments, the movie is unique and captivating with its stunning setpieces and an effortlessly strong performance by Smith (if you had any previous reservations concerning his acting ability, wipe your feet and leave them at the door). Neville is clearly a broken man, desperately trying to stay alive in a beaten and broken world without hope. He repeatedly reassures himself by singing or listening to Bob Marley's "Three Little Birds", has full-on conversations with Sam as if she can answer him and re-arranges and converses with mannequins in abandoned stores to compensate for his state of loneliness. It's seeing Neville's persistent attempts to survive and stay strong in the face of adversity that makes I Am Legend truly soar, and it still manages to provide comic relief during these scenes without sacrificing its emotional weight. Seeing Neville gun down a mannequin apparently named Fred for not replying to him may be amusing, but it's also disheartening.

Some people categorise I Am Legend as an action movie, which is debatable. If it is an action movie, then it's the best kind, as it doesn't beat you over the head with excessive masculinity and one-liners. In fact, despite the flesh-craving mutants/vampires/zombies, it's actually relatively quiet and many action scenes at least partly take place without a score in the background. Whether he's out deer-hunting speeding through the empty streets in his Shelby Mustang or going head-to-head with a Darkseeker, James Newton Howard's simple and poignant compositions are used sparingly and at the right times. You'll also get some backstory through flashbacks shedding some light on Neville's family and an impressive destruction of Brooklyn Bridge (which remains one of the most expensive movie scenes of all time, costing $5 million).


Unfortunately, some events that occur in the third act drag I Am Legend down from being a near-classic to a very good movie. When Neville is eventually found by some rather uninteresting survivors, a few flaws in the plot begin to rear their ugly heads and the movie takes a slight turn to more conventional Hollywood-style storytelling, featuring explosions and armies of CGI Darkseekers among burning cities. That's not to say it isn't still entertaining, however. Smith remains compelling throughout and ensures that there are still some great moments here, but it is a noticeable step down from before and some of the magic is frustratingly lost.

The Darkseekers themselves are also a mixed bag. Despite the movie generally looking great thanks to its aforementioned setpieces, some terrific shots and director Francis Lawrence's ability to convey simple and striking effects, the mutant prosthetics were traded in for computer-generated creations quite late in production, and it shows. They still possess the ability to be pretty spine-chilling at times, and the Darkseeker dogs are a nice touch. But when you see them clearly they look a bit like something out of a videogame cutscene, and aren't quite up to par with the rest of the movie's visuals.


Despite its annoying flaws, when I Am Legend delivers, it really delivers. Lawrence and co probably could've done with a little more time to iron things out, but it's still a heart-wrenching and, for the most part, wonderfully-made exploration of human psychology with a commanding central performance. When it comes to Smith's extensive list of summer blockbusters, this is up there with his best.