The last man is a ‘Legend’
“I Am Legend” is ostensibly based on Richard Matheson’s much-adapted 1954 science fiction novel about the last man on Earth living among vampires, but the latest version, written by Mark Protosevich and Akiva Goldsman, directed by Francis Lawrence and starring Will Smith has a lot more in common with Danny Boyle’s “28 Days Later.”
In fact, “I Am Legend” is “28 Days Later” on steroids. Or on Hollywood, which amounts to the same thing. A doomsday scenario wrought by scientists trying to cure cancer (those meddling do-gooders), the movie imagines apocalypse in the form of a genetically engineered virus that mutates, becomes airborne and infects the entire world population, starting with ground zero -- New York City.
The virus, much like the one in that other movie set in London, turns those infected by it into some very angry, very hungry, very fast zombies. Conversely, the good guy here is no incidental plebe -- he’s Robert Neville (Smith), thank you very much, decorated colonel, brilliant scientist, fortification specialist, booby trap whiz, moneybags, babe magnet, art collector, dog lover, hunter, gatherer, officer, gentleman, you name it.
Neville and his dog stake out a grim life together, making the rounds of ghostly apartments and the local video store, which Neville has peopled with mannequins he pretends are real. (Beats a volleyball, I guess.) They are able to do this because the zombies -- gray, hairless things that resemble gargoyles -- can’t expose themselves to sunlight. But Neville has a higher purpose too. Still convinced that he can “fix this,” he hunts them and brings them back to his fortified basement lab, where he’s diligently working on a cure.
Of course, it was precisely the helpless plebe factor of the main characters in “28 Days Later” and the sequel that made those films so easy to identify with, and scary in a visceral, it-could-happen-to-you way. “I Am Legend,” by contrast, is a big, beautiful machine, and it prefers its hero super. The last man on Earth turns out to be the best man on Earth. Gracious, what are the odds?
That’s not to say that “I Am Legend” isn’t slick, adrenaline-fueled fun, however. The first third of the movie is a high-octane joy ride through post-apocalyptic Manhattan, and you can’t stop asking yourself how they did it. How did they do it? Endless swaths of Fifth Avenue are cleared out and rendered feral, with grass poking through the concrete and herds of deer galloping through the canyons. The city has literally become a jungle, reclaimed by wild beasts.
Despair proceeds agreeably apace until a couple of fellow immunes show up on the scene, dangling a crucifix from their rearview mirror and spouting moony-eyed homilies about faith. This alone, one would think, would be enough to send the brilliant scientist diving off a pier, but, luckily, the boring people consist of a Brazilian babe (Alice Braga) in a tank top and a kid who doesn’t say much (Charlie Tahan), and they’re not half as lovable or complex as the dog.
For a guy who’s been hitting on mannequins, Neville’s first reaction to them is kind of surprising. You’d think he’d at least be civil, if not charming. Eventually, he warms up enough to lecture them on various topics, but it’s at these moments you wish the action would speed up again. Frankly, it doesn’t serve “I Am Legend” to give you too much time to think. Better when it’s galloping forward at top speed, dodging caribou and translucent zombies and putting the dog in peril. Never, by the way, have I so longed for a leash.
“I Am Legend.” MPAA rating: PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi action and violence. Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes. In wide release.