Will Smith has pulled one over on us. The cover boy for Entertainment Weekly’s 50 Smartest People in Hollywood issue earns the moniker with this rigorous character study masquerading as the latest in his decade-long line of science-fiction actioners (see Independence Day, Men in Black and I, Robot ). Here, although still armed with the tricked-out cars and firepower characteristic of his previous work—in the opening scene he pursues deer through the deserted streets of New York behind the wheel of a Mustang Cobra with a high-powered rifle—his greatest weapon is the easy humor that veils barely contained despair and insanity, writ large on his expressive face.
Borrowing the setup, aspects of the structure and certain touchpoints (the canine companion, whose brief appearance in the book marks a turning point, finds an expanded role here) from Richard Matheson’s 1954 novella, I Am Legend posits a near future in which a viral cure for cancer mutates into a plague that kills 90 percent of the population, transforming most of the rest into the Infected—hairless, albino monsters who hide during the day and hunt at night.
Immune to the manmade disease is Robert Neville (Smith), a military virologist still determined to fashion a cure not with strings of garlic or wooden stakes (although is it Holy Water that he splashes on his front steps?) but through methodical experimentation in his high-tech basement lab. Three years after the infection first appeared, he is apparently alone on Earth, hunting and foraging in a city devoid of human life while his recorded message calls out to any other survivors over the AM airwaves.
Eventually someone answers—a woman named Anna (Alice Braga) and a young boy—revealing just how desperate Neville’s situation has become. “If you’re real, you better tell me now,” he screams at a mannequin, at once fearful and aware of his fractured relationship with reality. “Please say hello to me,” he pleads with another, a video-store pickup line rendered devastating.
In this way, I Am Legend, adapted twice previously as 1964’s The Last Man on Earth with Vincent Price and 1971’s Omega Man starring Charlton Heston, is a quiet film, or at least it seems that way, punctuated by scenes of thrilling action, with James Newton Howard’s spare score silenced during the most intense moments. What we’re left with are stunning set pieces (the production cleared and dressed the streets of New York for every outdoor scene) that serve as just the backdrop to Smith’s rending performance as a man struggling against guilt, hope, and God.
Distributor: Warner Bros.
Cast: Will Smith, Alice Braga and Dash Mihok
Director: Francis Lawrence
Screenwriters: Mark Protosevich and Akiva Goldsman
Producers: Akiva Goldsman, James Lassiter, David Heyman and Neal Moritz
Genre: Science fiction action thriller
Rating: PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi action and violence
Running time: 100 min.
Release date: December 14, 2007