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Directed by: Francis Lawrence
Written by: Mark Protosevich & Akiva Goldsman
When will science ever learn? I Am Legend, based on the same-name novel by Richard Matheson that has been adapted directly at least twice before (including, unremarkably, as the Charlton Heston camp vehicle The Omega Man), bears a blatant similarity to 28 Days Later, another recent film about the outbreak of a virus that turns mankind into a large pack of cannibalistic zombie-like creatures. It even lifts a shot from that film directly, of the larger-than-life shadows of the approaching monsters, as a way, presumably, of paying homage. But while Danny Boyle and Alex Ross' film was a multilayered assessment, and broad critique, of the contemporary culture, one with a powerful anti-military streak, I Am Legend is a deeply conservative, religious and anti-science polemic. In short, regardless of its source material (from which I understand it liberally departs), it's a conspicuously Americanized take on its English predecessor.
Will Smith stars as the Last Man on Earth, or at least New York, the sole human populator—he has an adorably loyal German shepherd to keep him company—of a Manhattan with no bridge access to the rest of the world. I Am Legend is best in its early setting-establishing scenes, as Smith, doing an excellent job of keeping the film compelling, interacts with his canine companion as though he were a child—having one-sided arguments about eating vegetables or taking a bath—while wandering, by daylight, a stunningly desolate and decimated New York City overgrown with CGI weeds and full of CGI deer and rusting CGI cars. He does the post-apocalyptic tourist thing, of course: fishing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, practicing his golf swing off the wing of a fighter jet aboard the Intrepid, and deer hunting at a neon-less Times Square, one so dangerous, populated by lions and tigers (oh my!), that you get the sense that not even Giuliani could clean it up.
Nor could Giuliani likely take on the hungry and homicidal hellions that overtake the city at nightfall, while Smith is safely locked down in his secret (and spacious!) Washington Square townhouse. (Surely, with the world gone to such shit a year after the 2008 election, Rudy's been elected president?) Director Francis Lawrence, whose only previous film credit (music videos aside) was directing the by-most-accounts inauspicious Constantine, proves himself a surprisingly deft filmmaker, crafting a large handful of effective sequences, particularly an early scene in which Smith searches for his runaway dog in a darkened, and presumably zombie-filled, warehouse. The tension is marvelously sustained as Lawrence is coyly withholding, showing us only a quick glimpse, after much built-up anticipation, of the huddled zombies—with their backs turned, no less. (There's also a brilliantly bizarre scene in which a bit of dialogue from Shrek, recited from memory by Smith, takes on a double meaning and moves the film along.)
I Am Legend's problem is that, as well-crafted as it may be, the script is downright atrocious. (Co-writer Akiva Goldsman is responsible for penning such gems as Schumacher's Batman films and three out of Ron Howard's last four films.) Using lines like "social de-evolution is complete" and cheap (but unfortunately necessary, I suppose) techniques like having Smith keep us up on the narrative through direct address video journals is forgivable, as are the copious plot holes, but once the dog is inevitably, and shamefully, hurt in a deplorable bit of emotional manipulation around the middle of the film, it's all downhill as the film sputters on into nonsense theology blended with boilerplate action. Turns out that Smith isn't the last man on the earth, just the last black man, with the sloppy last-act introduction of some secondary characters to whom Smith can preach the Gospel of Bob Marley, like a college freshman trying to make friends at orientation, and deliver lines like, "God didn't do this, we did." Early in the film, the camera lingers on a poster still hanging on the streets of New York that reads, "God still loves us." Amidst the destruction it seems ironic, but we soon discover it's meant more as an admonishment to the audience. Take note that it isn't an accident that, from what we can gather from the quick flashbacks, the threat to America's stability begins in Manhattan, that hotbed of secular humanism.