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I Am Legend
by Richard Matheson
(In Paperback from Amazon)
"I Am Legend"
"10,008," comes the precise reply.
"And, of those, how many were cured?"
"10,008," the doctor again replies, restraining any sign of pride.
As the last human still breathing in the great city of Manhattan, with its weedy, overgrown streets littered with destroyed vehicles and downed lampposts, Robert Neville (Will Smith, "The Pursuit of Happyness," "Men In Black") can pick up and drive the hottest car he can find and race it up and down streets and avenues trying to nail at least one deer out of the swift foragers. Four-legged animals have staked out a claim on Manhattan real estate.
Free to pick and choose just about anything according to his needs, Neville has taken up residence in a posh, multi-storied apartment off Washington Square, probably because of its security doors and windows. As the medical officer in charge of this area, he has set up an experimental lab in the basement in search of a cure, using infected rats, until he captures one of the ex-humans. A female, she exhibits the new instinct to bite anyone still alive, in the normal sense. These inhuman creatures have become freakingly animated zombies -- on steroids, if you will.
Based on Richard Matheson's 160 page novella of 1954 (it has since been expanded) , Francis Lawrence ("Constantine," "Britney Spears: Greatest Hits - My Prerogative from the video "I'm a Slave 4 U") directs from a screenplay by Mark Protosevich and Akiva Goldsman whose adaptation strongly echoes "The Omega Man" of 1971 with Charlton Heston. That screenplay was written by John William Corrington from the same source novella, in which the experimental vaccine caused an apocalyptic war with biological weapons. Either way, the decimation of mankind as we know and cherish it is the conceptual point.
While the production is first rate and the visual elements update the prior version to fulfill expectations (a blasted away Brooklyn Bridge), the key to success for a movie with a single personality on screen for most of it wouldn't be better realized than by Smith. He brings a warm dimensionality to everything he does, with the physical assets to make the most of it.
Flashbacks tell us of the events surrounding the attempts to flee the island when the seriousness of the outbreak became evident. We see how he carted off his family for sanctuary in New Jersey and stayed behind as the medical officer in charge of finding a cure -- and his commitment to take his charge very seriously. This, while he was unable to project the extent of the danger. Smith gives full expression to the range of emotions he goes through as he adapts to his evolving and desperate circumstance.
This writing of "I Am Legend" does good work in establishing the terror a survivor finds hiding in dark places. An emotional high point is attained in a horrific sequence in which Neville must fight paralyzing fear in attempting to rescue his dog from a dark, cavernous building inhabited by the monstrous mutations -- which is when we become aware that the good scientist is living among a horde of cannibals.
One may empathize with the residents and workers of the Big Apple. The bare streets, the wreckage, the implanted greens and the sheer scope of destruction on its normally teeming streets tells us something about New Yorkers grumbling over the inconveniences of a film crew and its equipment, even though a good share of it was the work of the CGI boys and girls. Imagine the freaked-out phone calls to 911 about Black Hawk helicopters, tanks, swarming military activity, hundreds of extras rushing about in a panic, lots of lights near the Brooklyn Bridge and what all this does to traffic congestion.
Camerawork by cinematographer Andrew Lesnie ("King Kong," 2005) is a major contribution; and there's a very nice appearance by Brazilian actress Alice Braga in her first big American film. This very promising talent (niece of Sonia) was last seen here in the sensually splendid "Lower City."
Editor Wayne Wahrman does the only cutting without bloodletting and gives the action an increasing, survival pace. The score by James Newton Howard ("The Interpreter") feasts on the eerie destitution and the biting terrors.
Which reminds us that this isn't a character study of a nobel prize-winning immunologist who loves his dog, but a zombie movie. The good news, though, is that it's one of the more creative presentations on that very worn theme despite the usual pathology to devour or infect humans. This production may, in fact, make some fans thirst for more, but they'd have a hard time finding a match for Matheson's futuristic take on the genre within the film crypts of the undead.
~~ Jules Brenner
Death As a Gift, Isolation, Sacrificing the Few for the Many, Shelter