Saturday, December 15, 2007

I Am Legend by Nick Schager

I Am Legend's finest scene, military scientist Robert Neville (Will Smith), the last human survivor of an apocalyptic virus, visits a Manhattan video rental store and begins talking to mannequins, all of which have been carefully arranged in a facsimile of an everyday social scene now extinct in the desolate metropolis. It's an unsettling vision of both Neville's desperate craving for interpersonal interaction and his budding psychosis, sold by Smith with his usual brand of engaging larger-than-life emoting. His character's monumental struggle to remain optimistic and sane in an empty world is hauntingly complemented by eerie panoramas of deserted New York City—grass growing through cracks in the asphalt, abandoned cars crowding streets, remnants of efforts to combat the deadly contagion—yet it never quite gains the traction that it should, in part because director Francis Lawrence is more interested in the hungry nocturnal creatures known as "dark seekers" who crave Neville and his trusty dog Sam's flesh. The film takes noteworthy liberties with the influential Richard Matheson novel upon which it's based (and which set the solitary-man-under-siege template for everything from Night of the Living Dead to 28 Days Later), changing Neville's enemies from vampires to mutants and moderately shifting the story's focus from internal to external struggles. These alterations aren't the disaster they might have been thanks to the big, pulpy ominousness of early passages, in which Neville hunts deer in Times Square and attempts to locate Sam in a pitch-black building crawling with infected beings. Yet the decision to make the dark seekers wholly computer-generated proves ill-advised, as it causes them to seem not like corrupted vestiges of our race but, instead, like monsters from another time and place (or movie, like The Mummy). Their unreal insubstantiality saps the eventual assault on Neville's heavily fortified home of any visceral ferocity. But unwise use of CGI is eventually no more debilitating a defect than I Am Legend's wayward third act, which begins with Neville cornily reciting lines from Shrek (whose titular, lonely character he relates to) and crooning Bob Marley, and then swiftly devolves into a morass of shabby, barely developed spirituality in which Neville learns to believe in God's plan and, as a result, finds the strength and courage to transform himself into a modern-day Jesus.

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