Director: Francis Lawrence
Starring: Will Smith
When choosing from the Netflix's recommendations, I usually pick two kinds of films: ones that I probably wouldn't have seen otherwise, or ones that I've seen in part before but never in their entirety. I Am Legend falls into the latter category, a movie that I've caught on TV a number of times but only ever the last 30 to 40 minutes. Finally seeing the film from the beginning, I had two immediate thoughts as it got underway: 1) Hey, Emma Thompson!; 2) oh hell, he had a dog at the start. This is going to be heartbreaking. And it was. Less heartbreaking and more disheartening is the fact that a film with such a generic ending turned out to have such a promising, effectively atmospheric beginning. So it goes, I guess.
In I Am Legend, cancer is cured in 2009 thanks to the research of Dr. Alice Krippin (Emma Thompson), but the celebration proves to be short-lived as a side effect of the cure ends up being a virus which turns those whom it does not kill into a cross between vampires and zombies, creatures who feast on blood and are extremely sensitive to sunlight. Three years after the outbreak, which resulted the quarantine of Manhattan, the city is deserted, reclaimed by nature during the day, and overrun by the "Darkseekers" at night. The only human being left in the city, and possibly the world, is Dr. Robert Neville (Will Smith), a virologist who was to work on a cure from the virus' ground zero before the world fell apart. Now he roams the empty streets of New York with his dog, Sam, to look for supplies, trying to stave off the loneliness for human contact, broadcasting a radio message that he hopes will reach other survivors, and working on a cure in his lab, using rats as test subjects. At night he barricades himself and Sam inside their home, while outside the Darkseekers riot and rage. When he discovers that one of the variations on his treatment seems to be having a positive effect on the test rat, he decides that it's ready for a human trial.
After coming upon a cluster of Darkseekers in a darkened building, Robert sets a trap in which he snares a female Darkseeker, but also makes contact with the group's Alpha male, who behaves in a way which gives Robert pause, as he steps out into the sunlight for a few seconds, allowing himself to get burned. Robert returns with the female back to his lab, but when he administers the treatment to her, it appears to be unsuccessful. The next day, while he and Sam are out scavenging, Robert falls into a trap set by the Alpha, who emerges from the darkness as the sun is going down, waiting for the final beam of light to disappear so that he can attack. The attack results in a devastating loss for Robert (RIP Sam), who becomes completely unmoored and goes out the next night looking for the Darkseekers so that he can kill as many of them as possible. He almost manages to kill himself in the process, but he's rescued with the arrival of two other survivors who are on their way to Vermont, where they believe a colony of survivors exists. They want Robert to come with him, but he's certain that their mission is a lost cause and that humanity's only hope is his research and the possibility that he can find a way to turn the Darkseekers back into human beings.
Adapted from the novel I Am Legend by Richard Matheson, which previously served as the basis for The Last Man on Earth and The Omega Man, the film starts out pretty solidly. It has the benefit of having atmosphere built in, because there are few things as creepy as seeing a city like New York, which due to the frequency with which it is depicted in film and television feels familiar even to those who have never been there, reduced to a ghost town, bereft of human beings and overtaken by plant and wildlife. It also has the benefit of a star like Smith, who is charismatic enough to hold the screen on his own for the first hour, with only a dog and various mannequins that he's placed around the city to express his thoughts and feelings to. That first hour or so is really good, with Smith painting a portrait of Robert as a man barely holding it together psychologically, devastated by all that he has lost and clinging to the idea that he can "fix" what has happened. His belief that he can still take control of the situation and fix it, that he still has a purpose even though society has completely collapsed and disappeared, is both the only thing keeping him just a little bit sane, and something which keeps him from behaving logically (part of the reason he doesn't want to try to go to Vermont is that he was assigned to work from ground zero and he doesn't want to abandon his territory). Smith delivers a performance that is exactly what the first hour deserves, and way more than what the final 40 minute merits.
While I Am Legend isn't a perfect movie to start with, it begins to fall apart almost immediately after the Darkseekers make their first appearance. The first shot of them - which finds a group of them standing in a circle, their backs to the camera, breathing rhythmically together - is effective for how incredibly eerie it is, but after that the film becomes just like every "monster" movie out there. Once we get a better look at the Darkseekers, they lose their effectiveness because they no longer seem scary. They're a mass of not great CGI, a hoard of creatures that, despite the fact that they used to be a human beings of various genders, shapes, sizes, and colors, now look indistinguishable from each other, all bald, pale, and muscularly built. The problems with the film's final stretch aren't merely aesthetic, however, but extend to the narrative as well, which completely stops even trying to make sense and raises a whole host of questions (such as: how, exactly, is Robert saved during his suicide mission? How did his saviors even get to Manhattan with all the bridges and tunnels out of commission? How do the Darkseekers, who are neither subtle nor quiet, manage to follow the survivors back to Robert's home? Why does Robert fortify his home by setting explosives close enough to it that detonating them in order to kill Darkseekers will cause enough structural damage to the building to allow the surviving Darkseekers to pour inside?). The finale has a "slapped together" feeling which truly does a disservice to the solid work done up until that point. I suppose that's why I could never be bothered to take the time to see the film from the beginning until now, as I sort of assumed that the finale was representative of what the whole thing was like. I Am Legend really is a mixed bag of good start, terrible finish, though Smith at least remains consistently good throughout.