Friday, December 14, 2007

I Am Legend

After years in development, the first adaptation of Richard Matheson's chilling apocalyptic novel to share its name is the one that strays furthest from the source material.

New York, 2006: In a TV interview, smugly self-deprecating Dr. Krippen (Emma Thompson, in a flawless uncredited cameo) announces that she's found the cure for cancer in a mutated measles virus.

New York, 2009: The streets are overgrown with weeds, empty except for herds of deer and Dr. Robert Neville (Will Smith), who lives a lonely existence in his Washington Square townhouse. Neville survived the plague unleashed by Krippen's unstoppable virus, but most of the human race is dead and the rest are worse than dead: The virus turned them into subhuman, cannibalistic monsters. Profoundly allergic to the sun, they roam in howling packs by night, seeking the blood and flesh of the living. A military scientist, Neville continues to experiment in his high-tech basement lab, but an artificial version of his own immunity remains elusive. Most of his time is spent filling the empty hours: Neville watches movies, picking them up at a video store he's peopled with mannequins, scavenges for food and supplies with his dog, Sam, hunts deer and sends out daily radio messages offering shelter and food to other survivors. Without Sam, three years of solitude and the relentless battle against the living dead would have driven him mad, but the eventual appearance of a woman and a small boy (Alice Braga, Charlie Tahan) offers a glimmer of hope.

Music veteran Francis Lawrence's version of I am Legend, from a script by Mark Prosevich and Akiva Goldsman, wavers uneasily between psychological case study and a shameless rehash of 28 DAYS LATER (2002) by way of THE OMEGA MAN (1971), the second adaptation of Matheson's 1954 thriller. The first, influential black-and-white Vincent Price vehicle THE LAST MAN ON EARTH (1964), hews closest to the source material and helped spawn the modern zombie movie via NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968). This pumped-up variation has the advantage of epic scale and state-of-the-art special effects, but ironically, it's the least effective. The monsters — "The Infected" — are motion-capture bogeymen, weightless and profoundly fake, and even the surefire sight of a major metropolis reduced to desolation, as nature slowly reasserts her claim, rings oddly hollow. I AM LEGEND could be Exhibit A in the case against excessive CGI; the artificial images dilute the real ones — the production shut down parts of Manhattan for months — and rob the film of any sense of real horror. Worst of all, Matheson's bitterly ironic ending — which pivots on the nature of Neville's legend — is gutted and turned into formulaic pap. --Maitland McDonagh

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