Did anyone think when it sneaked into theaters in 2002, 28 Days Later would completely re-wire the world of science-fiction? With apocalyptic zombie movies consistently eating their way into theaters, I Am Legend marks the greatest evidence of this lo-fi victory. Here's Will Smith, the star of all those late-nineties special-effects behemoths like Independence Day, doing the stripped-down drill.
It would be easy to pass off these films as increasingly derivative, recycling storylines and narrative ideas. I would suggest that these films are having a subtle, relevant conversation about human nature, using similar cinematic language and small differences in approach. Take 28 Weeks Later and Children of Men. The two films essentially share a plot but come to radically different conclusions, disagreeing on the hope we invest in children and, consequently, the prospects for the future. Children of Men views children as a seed of positive possibility. Yet where children go in 28 Weeks Later, death follows. The movie twists the natural human desire to protect them.
There's a film studies thesis in here somewhere. And it will take I Am Legend into account. It's the eerie, Christian-themed horror film that M. Night Shyamalan would like to make. Its other message is the danger of drowning in the spilled milk of a tragedy. The heroic act in I Am Legend is letting go.
The proverbial spilled milk runs from a vial of cancer-killing medication, a cure that ends up killing more than the disease. Three years after its introduction, New York collapses into a muddy, weedy ghost town, with deer and other things loping through streets of abandoned cars and billboards. Small bands of pale, feral human leftovers rule the night.
The last (immune) man on this earth is Robert Neville, an army virologist who lost his wife and child during an evacuation of the city. During the early stages of the virus, he was seen as the best hope to stop the spread. Now, he hunts deer with a dog and a fast car, sleeps in a bathtub for protection, and makes humorous daily visits to a music store, one filled with mannequins that are his last vestige of conversation.
Not the type of man to leave his post, Neville remains behind the desk of dead silence of New York, thinking he can fix what has already been done. In a makeshift lab, he continues his experiments on lab rats in hopes of reversing the disease. Even three years later, he's fighting a battle that seems already lost.
Using convincing CGI effects, director Francis Lawrence creates a satisfying vision of loneliness and desperation. Yet when you create such a realistic sense of isolated dread, it must pain a director to be so poorly served by unconvincing cartoons like these roving, cannibalistic ex-friends and neighbors. The second they appear, you swing out of the film's spell. The only people they should please sit on the ratings board - even when all other human instinct is lost, they still wear clothes around their privates.
Also removing you from the action are a couple of Will Smith moments, when he cheerfully does something geared for the audience and not the story. Otherwise, he uses his considerable screen charisma and gives a haunting performance. Meanwhile, his dog Sam is a revelation, the best onscreen pet in a long while. She's probably signing a deal to star in the Lassie origin story as we speak.
I'm not a big fan of the co-screenwriter Akiva Goldsman (A Beautiful Mind, Cinderella Man). I Am Legend slips into his usual faults. First, over-explaining the obvious. At one point, after watching more than an hour of depopulated cityscape, Smith vocalizes that a virus has eliminated most of the human race. The only reasonable response is, "No shit." Second, the sappy soft landing. No disappearance of human civilization is so bad that we can't be reminded of the special magic of children.
Yet while imperfectly rendered in many ways, the film touches on a current American dilemma - scarred by a tragedy, in a nation still manning its station, when is the appropriate time to look to the future and let go? For that, I find it's not a lost cause.