Friday, December 14, 2007

I Am Legend

Review in a Hurry: Will Smith grapples with existential angst and cannibalistic vampire-zombies (in that order) as, apparently, the last man on Earth after a bioengineered plague. Maybe not the most uplifting choice for a holiday flick, but Smith's riveting performance and tight action scenes make this a smart, gripping view of the end of the world.

The Bigger Picture: Smith plays Lt. Col. Robert Neville, a military medical researcher living in the wasteland that used to be Manhattan. He fills his days doing the Last Man on Earth Workout™—dude is cut—and hunting for a cure with his faithful dog. At night, he locks down his brownstone and hides from what the rest of the world has become.

This version of Richard Matheson's sci-fi classic owes more than a little to Charlton Heston's campy classic The Omega Man (the screenwriters of that 1971 movie get a credit), with mannequins filling in for real people as Neville goes through his daily routine.

But for the most part, Neville is left to interact with an empty planet as a blank canvas. And Smith's performance knocks it out of the park. His considerable charisma turns inside out as he starts to fall into despair, and it helps that the dogs playing his canine costar are good enough for a best supporting actor nod.

Neville refuses to give up on the world, even as he gives up on himself. He captures members of the Infected—although they terrify him—to test his various cures. (Another mark of Smith's ability: He seems genuinely scared, even with his action-hero cool.)

The big problem is Neville's descent makes the chance of hope at the end seem false. There's probably a whole nerdy grad thesis in all the recent apocalypses out there, starting with 28 Days Later through Cormac McCarthy's The Road. But the bottom line is, despite the sci-fi setting, the implications are a little too real to be wrapped up so neatly.

Still, Will Smith gets to kick some vampire-zombie ass, and really, who doesn't want to see that?

The 180—a Second Opinion: We're okay with 94 percent of humanity getting wiped out. We can stomach what hits Neville's family. But things happen to dogs in this movie that are seriously not cool. Seriously.

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