Will Smith is about as dependable a movie star as you can find. Aside from the colossal misstep of Bad Boys II (one of the worst movies of all time in my opinion), Iíve always been able to rely on Smith to deliver the goods. I didnít even think Wild Wild West was as bad as most other people did. What fascinates me about Smith is that heís one of those people who seem to be good at everything. Heís done TV well, done music well, and done feature films well. He also excels in every genre: comedy, drama, action/adventure, sci-fi, etc. No wonder the guy boasts about himself in his rhymes Ė heís earned the right!
I Am Legend - based on the classic Richard Matheson science-fiction story Ė is another success. Smith plays Robert Neville, a military scientist who finds himself the last man on earth. A plague has infested New York City, and despite the governmentís best efforts to seal the island off, it has become airborne and spread. Neville, who has a rare immunity, previously put his wife and daughter on a helicopter to (supposed) safety, while he stayed behind to try to find a cure. Years later, heís still there, all alone except for the company of his German Shepherd and the infected, light-averse zombie creatures who continue to dwell the city at night.
Nevilleís days are divided in two: half the time he is simply trying to survive, both physically and emotionally. He even goes so far as to place mannequins at certain locations around the city so he doesnít feel the weight of his isolation. The other half of the time, Neville works in his basement laboratory, trying to find a way to treat the infected zombies. Of course, doing these experiments involves trapping one of them occasionally, which is a dangerous prospect.
Thereís a lot more that happens, but I wouldnít want to spoil some of the unexpected turns the story takes. What Iíve told you is all you need to know in advance.
The early scenes of I Am Legend are really amazing. Director Francis Lawrence (Constantine) and his special effects team have done a mind-blowing job of creating an abandoned New York City. The result creates a very eerie atmosphere that helps get you into the story. Itís interesting how the film uses that idea to generate suspense, too. Even though Neville is the last person standing (in daylight, at least), he still remains hyper-vigilant to noises or movement. In other words, he knows heís alone but doesnít know that beyond a shadow of a doubt, so a menace always exists.
I Am Legend is actually kind of a dark movie, and I like it for that. Unlike the feel-good excitement of, say, Independence Day, this film is more in-depth in the way it explores how a global threat affects the survivors. Neville is, at some level, experiencing negative psychological effects from being alone for so long. Heís depressed because heís no longer with his family. He feels responsible for not being able to find a cure before the virus eradicated the entire population. And every night when the sun sets, he has to lock himself inside his steel reinforced home so the creatures canít find him. Neville lives a life of loneliness and vigilance; if he canít find a cure to save the last remaining zombies, thereís no chance of the world ever repopulating itself. That the movie doesnít shy away from any of these darker ideas is admirable.
Will Smith is exceptionally good in this role. As with John Cusack in last summerís 1408, Smith spends a lot of time acting by himself, with no one to play off except the dog. Even with no backup, heís riveting. Smith shows us the gamut of emotions that Neville feels Ė hurt, anger, sorrow, resignation Ė with mere gestures or glances. I found myself enjoying the film more because his performance was so authentic. The fact is, you feel for this guy, which makes everything else that happens more compelling.
In the last 20 or 25 minutes, the movie becomes a little more traditional. The zombies attack en masse and we get some of the action and pyrotechnics that are common to the sci-fi/horror genre. For some people, this might come as a bit of a letdown, but it worked for me for two reasons. First, the pacing is relentless, effectively mixing exciting action with very creepy horror. (How can you not be a little freaked out by the sight of marauding, blood-thirsty zombies?) The other, more important reason is that I Am Legend manages to retain the human element even amidst all the mayhem. What Robert Neville does and why he does it are consistent with everything the story has been building up to. As the credits rolled, I found myself focusing on the right thing: the arc of the character, who has chosen to shoulder an enormous burden.
I had a really good time at I Am Legend. Itís the kind of thing you really want from a Will Smith movie. Itís exciting and action-packed, there are moments of levity and humor, and the acting is strong. Smith once again exhibits quality control. It is easy to imagine a more generic version of this picture. But Smith raises his game and insists that those around him do the same. The result is a movie thatís massively entertaining, and another jewel in its starís cinematic crown.
( 1/2 out of four)
I Am Legend will be available in widescreen and fullscreen formats on a single DVD starting March 18. A Blu-Ray version will be available on the same day, with an HD-DVD release scheduled for April 8.
The DVD does not contain the traditional special features (commentary, making-of, special effects docs, etc.) although it does have a DVD-ROM link to a website that contains those kinds of things. Instead, the disc offers something more unique: four ďanimated comic booksĒ that expand on the filmís theme. These comics Ė which range in length from 2 to 6 minutes Ė are beautifully designed. Each one is set in a different world location and tells a mini-story about how the virus is spreading. My favorite has the intriguing premise that the nationís prisons have become the new habitat for rich celebrities and politicians, who are searching for safety from the spreading plague. The central character of this tale is a terrorism suspect who is unexpectedly sprung from the joint. Another one tells a scary yet moving story about a young Indian girl whose family suspects her of being infected and consequently rejects her. Each of the four mini-comics is stylish and entertaining.
If you want to go a step better, pick up the 2-disc special edition DVD which contains an alternate version of the movie with a completely new ending. (This version is also included on the Blu-Ray and HD-DVD discs.) The last ten minutes are totally different from the theatrical cut, with Robert Neville having an encounter with the Alpha Male that shows a more human side to the Dark Seeker. (I wouldnít dream of giving it away.)
So which ending is better? Hard to say. This isnít one of those cases where one ending is good and the other is a disappointment. Instead, you get two solid endings that just happen to send very different messages and have very different outcomes. As one who loves I Am Legend - and believe me, it holds up well on second viewing Ė I love having the option of choosing between the two versions. This is a most excellent packaging of a terrific film.
I Am Legend is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi action and violence. The running time is 1 hour and 41 minutes.
To learn more about this film, check out AskMen.com: I Am Legend
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