I Am Legend

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Movie review by Greg Carlson

Richard Matheson’s 1954 cult novel “I Am Legend” makes another big screen appearance this week, and like its cinematic predecessors, it fails to capture the essence of the original story. Trading vampires for poorly designed, super-powered zombie creatures that look like they are on loan from a videogame is only one of the mistakes. The movie’s biggest crime is a flagrant refusal to believe in Matheson’s sobering apocalypse and see it through to the end. With films like “Children of Men” and “28 Days Later” already demonstrating dazzling retro-futuristic design in the tradition of “Blade Runner,” the bar has been set too high for “I Am Legend” to clear.

Following a sensational first section that vividly renders Manhattan as a weed-infested wasteland, director Francis Lawrence totally chokes, piling on the carnival ride shocks without the smallest hint of finesse. Old-fashioned suspense would have better served the material, but Lawrence seems incapable of believing in the intelligence of the viewer. As a result, the monsters are never scary, and the movie’s reliance on sub par CG imagery makes the whole enterprise feel half finished. “I Am Legend” is good until the night seekers turn up. The early, off-screen suggestion of their power, evidenced in the way Neville nervously checks his watch as daylight slips away, is more ominous than phony villains hewn mostly out of pixels.

At least Will Smith is a terrific choice to play Robert Neville, transformed from the “Average Joe” protagonist of the novel into a super-fit military scientist whose immunity to a plague of biblical proportions has made him a likely candidate for last man on earth. Whether he is working alone, interacting with a German Shepherd, or playing opposite others, Smith makes the most implausible of scenarios feel credible. His typical grit and determination suit Neville, whose mental struggle with the psychological implications of his predicament adds a thoughtfulness often missing from action heroes. Smith’s presence will undoubtedly secure substantial box office returns.

Despite being the first film version of the story to use Matheson’s super cool title, “I Am Legend” essentially ignores the meaning, opting instead for a diluted conclusion that deletes the book’s most essential plot element. Neville’s neighbor Ben Cortman (one of the novel’s cleverest touches and most interesting characters) is replaced by the boring Alpha Male (Dash Mihok), a ghoulish cue ball left with nothing to do other than writhe, shriek, and leap around unconvincingly. Practically all of the novel’s other surprises are excised in favor of less satisfying battles between Neville and the horde.

Two scenes that do not appear in Matheson’s story stand as embarrassing examples of damage that can be done by misguided additions. In one, Neville conveys the strain on his sanity by imitating the voices in “Shrek.” The odd moment is at best a grotesque display of product endorsement and at worst an amplification of the minstrelsy of Eddie Murphy’s Donkey. In the other scene, Neville delivers an embarrassing lecture about the power of Bob Marley. Someone should have mentioned to Lawrence that nothing is worse than being told about the emotional importance of something. To paraphrase the old saying, if you need to explain, they wouldn’t understand.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 12/17/07.

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