Movie Review: I Am Legend
By Matthew Huntley
December 27, 2007
I Am Legend is a film of pure craft. It ultimately holds our attention through style, pacing and atmosphere, and that's good since the story isn't exactly original. Using classical techniques -namely visuals and suggestive sound - director Francis Lawrence elevates his narrative to something beyond our expectations and sets himself up to be a raw filmmaker. He has an intuition for knowing when the audience has seen and heard all they need to, while at the same time giving us a lot of credit to gather things for ourselves.
This is the fourth film adaptation of Richard Matheson's 1954 novel, I Am Legend, the most famous being The Omega Man with Charleton Heston. John William Corrington and Joyce Corrington's screenplay for that film serves as the source for this updated version, which stars Will Smith as Robert Neville, a doctor and researcher in 2012 who may be the only survivor of a widespread virus that has wiped out the rest of mankind.
During the day, Neville roams a decrepit New York City with his dog Sam. At night, he hides from mutant, zombie-like creatures who used to be human beings. Since the mutants can't be exposed to UV rays, they only come out at night, which is when Neville barricades himself inside his apartment. In his basement is a research lab where he conducts tests on rats to find a cure for the infection.
How did it come to this? In the film's opening scene, a doctor (Emma Thompson) appears on the news and proclaims she's found a cure for cancer. Within three years, her "cure" has backfired and created an infectious virus that killed 90% of the Earth's population. Neville is a part of the 1% immune to the disease, while the rest of the population has mutated into nocturnal creatures with psychotic and cannibalistic tendencies.
The film begins in its own present and flashes back to the events that caused Neville to be the last (seeming) healthy human on Earth. I'll not give away any juicy details, but one of the lasting qualities of the film is the way it shows, ever so subtly, the psychological effects Neville's loneliness has on him. To avoid going crazy, he sets up dummies at the local video store and watches old television broadcasts of The Today Show. Neville was once married and had a daughter, but a tragedy has left him with only the family dog.
What's so engaging about I Am Legend is the way it stimulates us visually and aurally. The screenplay contains mostly screen direction, with little dialogue. Its effects come as a result of what we see and hear, not about what is said. We see a barren New York City where deer and lions run wild; we see and hear Neville go about a daily routine of preparing canned food, washing his dog and locking down his windows and doors; we see him look for his dog in a dark, creepy building and hear water dripping and heavy breathing in the background. The film generates an uncommon visceral reaction; it's scary, threatening, and exciting.
What verbal exposition we do get is handled cleverly by writers Mark Protesevich and Akiva Goldsman. They make Neville's credible dialogue a part of the plot and justified by his behavior rather than forcing it. With the exception of a hokey speech towards the end, it all sounds natural, spontaneous and unaffected, and we believe Neville would really be talking to himself this way given his current situation.
There's also a genuine emotional level to the film, thanks to Will Smith's convincing performance and James Newton Howard's haunting score. All this is supplied through visuals and performance, not dialogue. This is all the more impressive since so many movies today like to make sure the audience knows exactly what, how and when they're supposed to feel something.
Will Smith has not only become Hollywood's most bankable superstar; he's also become an important actor. Ever since his Fresh Prince of Bel Air" days, he's grown as an actor, and I Am Legend illustrates this because it call for him to be on-screen by himself. He doesn't have the opportunity to lay on his charm and humor with a co-star (well, maybe if you count the dog). Notice in one of the film's most heartrending scenes how the camera simply holds on Smith's face, and only cuts away when necessary. I can't reveal what's happening in the scene, but Smith's facial expression moves us. Again, it's something we see.
A film like I Am Legend is a Hollywood enterprise in every sense, but Lawrence's style and Smith's acting make it something more. Its intelligent design generates tension and unease, and its deeper moments do a fine job of making us care about this man and his journey. The violence in the film is also well-staged, including the climax. With such a simple and derivative story, it's the confidence and style of the filmmakers, as well as their faith in the audience to know what they mean, that make it work as well as it does.