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Wednesday, Dec. 12, 2007 06:44 am

A compelling vision of the apocalypse

Will Smith shines in I Am Legend

I Am Legend Rated PG-13 Running time 1:39 ShowPlace West, ShowPlace East
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I Am Legend Rated PG-13 Running time 1:39 ShowPlace West, ShowPlace East

The third time’s the charm where Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend is concerned. The classic sci-fi novella has been the basis of two previous film incarnations (1964’s The Last Man on Earth and 1971’s The Omega Man) and has served as a prototype for countless other sole-survivor postapocalypse stories. However, with this latest version, Matheson’s nightmare vision of a depopulated world overrun with rabid nocturnal creatures and one man’s effort to survive and maintain his sanity comes to the screen with the same intensity that made the tale jump off the page. Credit director Francis Lawrence and his production designers David Lazan and Naomi Shohan with creating a genuinely disturbing image of a crumbling New York City that’s being reclaimed by nature and star Will Smith for holding it all together with his compelling performance as a man struggling to find a reason to go on living.
Smith is Robert Neville, an Army scientist who believes he’s the last person alive on earth. As he tears down the empty weed-strewn streets of this once-thriving metropolis in his Shelby Mustang, hunting wild deer with his dog Sam by his side, there’s little to disprove the notion. He’s on a strict schedule, knowing that he can be out and about until the sun starts to go down. At dusk, he holes up in his well-fortified brownstone in Washington Square, aware that vampirelike creatures come out to feed. Working on a cure for a mutated form of rabies that’s run rampant, Neville finds himself hanging by a thread, talking to mannequins he’s set up at a video store that he frequents daily and running old recorded newscasts simply to hear the sound of another human voice so that he can keep his sanity. Legend succeeds in immersing the viewer in a unique environment and providing one fantastic sight after another to great effect. Neville’s efforts to survive are desperate, and the fantastic sight of Lawrence’s New York City ghost town underscores this. The sight of the abandoned United Nations building effectively implies a sense of worldwide destruction, as do the numerous aircraft carriers sitting idle and the Brooklyn Bridge crumbling to pieces. Equally effective is the sense of dread that comes with each setting sun and the notion that wild animals are roaming the city, hunting as Neville does. The creatures are seen lurking in hives in one of the film’s most frightening sequences, and the sense that they’re never far away creates a palpable sense of dread Ultimately, the film becomes an exploration of the notion of faith. Neville finds that he’s immune to the creatures that hunt him and that his blood may hold the cure to this worldwide plague. However, he questions his purpose as he comes to believe that he is the last man alive, that God has forsaken him, and that all of his work is for naught. This notion lends a sense of depth to the proceedings that elevates it from other entries in the genre and makes it surprisingly rewarding.
The film does wane in its third act, when Neville discovers that he is not alone and we get a good look at the creatures. Smith’s performance has been favorably compared to Tom Hanks’ in Cast Away (yes, he’s that good here) and Smith is so compelling that we resent the intrusion of other human characters. Their appearance disrupts the rhythm of the film and threatens to derail the entire movie. Even more distressing is when the nightwalkers come into plain view. It’s obvious that they’re computer-generated, and the threat they posed when they were lurking in the shadows dissipates when they come into full view. However, the film does regain its footing and provides a rousing climax and an ending in keeping with the movie’s internal logic. Lawrence succeeds in creating an epic apocalyptic vision, and there’s no doubt that his film will influence other filmmakers for years to come, yet it’s Smith who makes it all worthwhile. His intimate turn grounds the film, lending it a sense of humanity that reminds us that our souls are the last unbreachable refuge in a world gone mad.