Monday, December 17, 2007

Review: I Am Legend

In I Am Legend, Will Smith, as a U.S. Army officer who may be the last man on earth, drives at top speeds through the concrete valleys of Manhattan, which have been deserted for so long that the cracks in the roads now sprout scruffy green weeds. For sheer eeriness, that effect — the metropolis as vacant lot — far outdoes the desolate Times Square of Vanilla Sky, and Smith is the perfect actor (maybe almost too perfect) to play a survivor who has no one to talk to but his dog and himself. Smith has always worn his self-sufficiency like a suit of armor, often treating costars as sounding boards; he brings that jaunty insularity to the abandoned canyons of a trashed Twilight Zone New York. Here, though, he also draws on the vulnerability he showed last year in The Pursuit of Happyness, suggesting a man whose sanity is beginning to fray.

Based on Richard Matheson's 1954 novel, I Am Legend is a spooky-hokey postapocalyptic thriller built around our fear of contagion (the premise is that a ''miracle'' cancer cure has wiped out the earth's population). It's a movie that might have fit snugly into the zeitgeist had it been made in the early '90s, or maybe 1971 — when, in fact, it was made as The Omega Man, a somber but colossally silly Charlton Heston thriller. Let's be honest: The peril of infectious disease, while quite real, is hardly the anxiety of the moment. In spirit, I Am Legend is caught in some abstractly doom-laden sci-fi past. For what it is, though, the film is well-done, a case of suspenseful competence trumping questionable relevance.

There's one scary sequence in which Smith follows his dog into a warehouse, but as soon as you see the prancing, gnashing, veiny mutant humanoids who have taken up refuge there, you think, ''Okay, it's a fake-demon CGI movie.'' And so it is, though at least it never becomes a soulless monster-hunt videogame like Resident Evil. Smith, who keeps the movie grounded, isn't just surviving — he's on a mission. In The Omega Man, Heston faced a cult of white-faced hippie mutants in sunglasses and medieval monks' robes. Sometimes, CGI really is an advance.

Confident in Goldsman and eager to stay in business with Lawrence, Warner Bros. soon announced that Legend was back. Very quickly, the duo hit upon a big idea: relocating the tale from Los Angeles to New York. Goldsman, a Big Apple native, felt the new setting lent it some timely resonance and differentiated it from its predecessors. By Christmas 2005, he had a script and sent it to Smith, for whom he had co-written I, Robot. The actor dug it enough to come back, even if he felt the writing wasn't quite there yet. ''It's a $100 million-plus movie where the lead doesn't talk for the first hour,'' says Smith. ''It's really just me and a dog. That's tough. We desperately had to get in there and figure out how to make it riveting.'' That took work: improvising scenes, reintroducing elements from Protosevich's earlier script (the scribe shares credit with Goldsman on the finished film), meeting with experts on infectious diseases and solitary confinement, and exploring earlier films in which an isolated soul struggles to survive. In other words, says Smith, ''we took a big hint from Tom Hanks in Cast Away.''

I Am Legend finally went into production in the fall of 2006, and for six months, it turned New York into a studio backlot. The film's congestion-causing presence wasn't always welcome. ''By the conclusion of this shoot,'' says Goldsman, ''I wouldn't tell people what I did for a living because they'd go, 'Oh, you're that motherf---er.''' During six frigid nights last January, Legend took over the Brooklyn Bridge to shoot a flashback of people fleeing Manhattan. The six-minute sequence required 1,000 extras, the construction of a fake pier, and the assistance of the Coast Guard and the National Guard. At one point, Smith warmed up the frosty extras by performing his 1991 hit ''Summertime.'' ''We had a good time out there that night,'' laughs the actor.

Six months later, Lawrence and his effects team are holed up at Sony Imageworks in L.A., eradicating all the people in New York — the Fifth Avenue rubberneckers, the workers in their skyscraper windows, the cars moving in the background — and adding animals and vegetation to create a New York reclaimed by nature. The director's visual inspiration? John Ford Westerns. ''We didn't want to make an apocalyptic movie where the landscape felt apocalyptic,'' he says. ''A lot of the movie takes place on a beautiful day. There's something magical about the empty city as opposed to dark and scary.''

Also on Lawrence's to-do list: finishing Legend's monsters. Their appearance is one of the film's two closely guarded secrets. In fact, nobody can even agree on what to call them. To Goldsman, they are ''the Infected'' (as in 28 Days Later). Smith's character refers to them as ''dark seekers,'' while the actor himself often wants to call them zombies. They're not exactly vampires either, though Goldsman will say that they have vampirelike drives. As for that other secret, it concerns the film's cryptic tagline, ''The Last Man on Earth Is Not Alone.'' A coy Goldsman says that Smith represents ''85 percent of our cast,'' and that while a Web rumor about Johnny Depp making an extended cameo is not true, another recognizable face does pop up in the film.

Even without a Depp drop-in, Smith is sure Legend hits that sweet spot he's long sought. More important, the film lives up to a new standard of his. ''With The Pursuit of Happyness, I turned a corner,'' he says. ''My movies need to mean something. I Am Legend is essentially the story of Job, the idea that life is awful if you can't connect to the possibility that there's a reason for everything. To have those ideas at work in a movie with special effects — that's magic.'' Thinking back to that day of shooting on Fifth Avenue, Smith says he didn't mind the gawkers, especially now that Legend has given him a taste of true solitude. ''As much as you wish people would just get the hell out of your face...that is so not true,'' he says. ''Because if everyone really did, that would be a miserable existence.''