In Lawrence’s 2007 adaptation of Matheson’s I Am Legend, our first real sights are desolate, empty streets – flooded underground roadways. There are lions and deer roaming the cracked, disregarded pavement. And, then – quitely, from the bottom the frame, the red Jaguar streaks inward, it’s engine ruining the almost sacred silence that had preceded its presence.
The film never does achieve the grace of those first few minutes, but there are moments, here and there, that do their best to follow. Francis Lawrence, who had previous directed 2005’s Constantine, gives this dead New York a very tangible feel – even in the film’s more hare-brained scenes, and there are a few, there’s an over-arching feeling of emptiness all around, and perhaps the film has a sort of built-in cheat, with this, although it comes to it by executing this concept so well, initially – that feeling of pure, inescapable loneliness. For the first hour and ten minutes of the film, this is primarily where the film succeeds, tracking the loneliest man in the world and his only real companion, his dog, through the their day-to-day rituals – harvesting corn, raiding abandoned houses for salvageable food, and trying to evade and capture the weird, roaming not-humans that populate the city’s underground.
But, the film doesn’t refrain from showing us Smith’s character trying to milk enjoyment out of his predicament. Indeed, how many of us could say we haven’t imagined what it would be like to be the last man on Earth, with all the food we might need, and the ability to go anywhere, and say, do, or have anything we might choose. And, so to does Smith’s character Neville follow suit – we see him sailing golfballs off the back of a derelict aircraft carrier, fish in the Temple of Dandur, and nick Spam (because who doesn’t love Spam) from the cupboards of some poor couple’s home.
Lawrence employs a broad lens for the most part, but in times of urgency, he adopts a handheld sensibility, and it’s usually a very fluid transition that works well in the context of the scene – Smith’s character Neville and his dog hunting for game, or being chased through an abandoned development by the not-humans. That last shot in particular is actually a little interesting – it’s hampered only by the presence of the not-humans in the daylight, and I’ll come to them in a second.
This film bares resemblance not only to past adaptations of Matheson’s novel (well, one of them), but also to The Quiet Earth, New Zealand director’s Geoff Murphy’s 1985 film, which has a similar premise. While it’s nowhere near as bleak as that film, there are several scenes that reveal that Smith’s character Neville has taken the liberty of arranging store-room mannequins throughout the city that he might have conversations with. There’s a quiet insanity here that Smith carries well – I wouldn’t feel it an exaggeration to call this his best performance so far. Near the middle point of the film, Smith returns to one of the stores filled with prearranged people after having had to kill the only friend he’s had and quietly intones to one of the female mannequins, his eyes red and ranging – “I… I promised a friend I would say hello to you today. H-hello. Please say hello to me. Please, say hello to me.”
This film also kind of epitomizes the weird, up-and-down career of Akiva Goldsman, who wrote the screenplay. Here’s a guy who can somehow manage to write things like this and A Beautiful Mind, but who’s also the mind behind Batman Forever, Batman & Robin, and even A Time To Kill. I can’t quite figure out how someone can do that – is it some sort of cognitive dissonance, or something? I mean, I don’t think there is any other screenwriter out there who’s career has had such a weird trajectory. However there are scenes, here and there, that bare his more unintentionally melodramatic finger-prints, especially in the third act, but these are relatively minor – the Shrek scene between Anna’s son and Smith’s character works much better than it should, although I want to credit that more to Smith than I do to Goldsman.
If there is anything holding this film back outside of the weird mechanics of its third act, it’s the not-humans. These not-humans bare little resemblance to the vampires of Matheson’s novel, looking and acting more like the traditional zombies of Boyle’s 28 Days Later – and, this is where the film seems to trip over it’s own shoes. There’s a subplot building throughout the film gradually, concerning the not-humans and their cognitive capacity, and Neville’s role among them, that doesn’t really come together. The film opts instead to present them fully as – well, okay. Let’s say it. They’re zombies. Zombies that are a little more intelligent, but zombies all the same. At the end of the day, they’re still trying to smash through the glass with their heads to try and get at you. This subplot did culminate in the abandoned ending that can be found on the DVD, but even then it’s a remarkably spare thing. There’s a good ending between the two, somewhere – both seem to have about half of it right, and if the two could be smashed or stitched together, there might be something salvageable out of the two of them.
But, they’re not just a mark on the film mechanically, but visually as well – after several months of shooting with actors in prosthetics, Lawrence decided that they didn’t capture the kind of realism that he wanted to achieve and went back and replaced them with what amounts to weird, stilted mannequins with a flesh-sheet over them. They move in a very rubbery fashion, like the worst of the CGI work in Raimi’s Spider-Man films, and they’re not of a high enough quality to match everything else in the shots they’re present in, which becomes very obvious and much more of a problem as the film goes on, whenever they share the screen with Smith – or, alternately, his dog.
One of the better scenes – or, I shouldn’t say better, but one of my favorites, if only for Smith’s performance within it, because contextually it is a little awkward, as well as the just-plain-illogical notion that somebody would know who Stephen Marley is, but not Bob Marley – in that ill-mentioned third act is when Smith character explains to Anna Bob Marley’s philosophy in terms of a virologist –
“He had this idea. It was kind of a virologist idea. He believed that you could cure racism and hate… literally cure it, by injecting music and love into people’s lives. When he was scheduled to perform at a peace rally, a gunman came to his house and shot him down. Two days later he walked out on that stage and sang. When they asked him why – He said, “The people, who were trying to make this world worse… are not taking a day off. How can I? Light up the darkness.”
Not knowing who Bob Marley is – but, you know who his son is? That’s got to be a crime, somewhere.