Just to get a sense for how long Mark Protosevich’s script for I Am Legend has been bumping around Warner Bros.: Bill Clinton was still president. The lead role was going to be played by the governor of California. And a $100 million budget was considered crazy enough to shut down production.
Scripts don’t hang around like that because they stink; bad scripts in Hollywood either disappear entirely, or quickly become Wayans brothers’ comedies. No, I Am Legend was a challenge because it was going to demand something from its actor, and even from its audience. Studios make post-apocalyptic thrillers because they expect them to be exciting. They do not expect a portrait of existential crisis.
But that’s really the heart of this third cinematic adaptation of Richard Matheson’s 1954 novella. In 2012 Manhattan, Robert Neville (Will Smith) appears to be the only survivor of a virus—originally a genetically engineered cure for cancer—that wiped out most of the human race three years earlier. Others reacted differently to the virus, becoming mindless vampire-like creatures that emerge only at night, forcing Neville to hole himself up in his Central Park townhouse. Fortunately for Neville—and fairly preposterously for the audience—he’s not just a military man who knows his way around weaponry, but a virologist who can spend time working on a cure in his fully-equipped basement lab.
Neville’s multi-disciplinary awesomeness is indeed pretty lame, but it pays to move on. Director Francis Lawrence effectively captures the bustling city rendered shockingly silent, but the impact comes from more than the imagery. With no one around but his faithful German shepherd for Neville to exchange witticisms with, the film as a whole stays fairly quiet. Some of his set pieces—including the accidental discovery of a “nest” of the infected—are some of the finest, most tensely crafted scenes you’ll find this year. And no one has to shout at you to let you know how thrilling it all is.
Just as thrilling, in a completely different way, is Smith as the central character. There aren’t many actors who can carry such an involving portrait of a guy trying to convince himself there’s a reason to stay alive.
I Am Legend has so much going for it for so long that it’s a shame how much it falls apart in its third act. The film ultimately becomes something you’d expect from a focus-group-approved blockbuster, but that shouldn’t negate the surprising impact of an action-drama that takes psychological realism seriously. While it may have taken a long time to wind its way to the screen, I Am Legend does deliver more than a tale of the living dead. It’s about why the living shouldn’t want to join them.