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  I Am Legend last man standing
Year: 2007
Director: Francis Lawrence
Stars: Will Smith, Alice Braga, Dash Mihok, Charlie Tahan, Salli Richardson, Willow Smith, Emma Thompson
Genre: Horror, Action, Science FictionBuy from Amazon
Rating:  6 (from 3 votes)
Review: Robert Neville (Will Smith) is the last human being left in New York City. A brilliant scientist, even he could not contain an unstoppable, man-made virus that transforms victims into bloodthirsty mutants. Somehow immune, Neville has roamed the city for three years, sending out radio messages every day, desperate to find any other survivors who might be out there. Tortured by memories of his late wife (Salli Richardson) and daughter (Willow Smith, the actor’s real-life daughter) and his own aching loneliness, Neville is driven to reverse the effects of the virus using his own immune blood. Yet his experiments continually fail. Meanwhile, the Infected lurk in the shadows, watching, waiting for Neville to make a fatal mistake.

Richard Matheson’s novel is a masterpiece of SF-horror, and was a major influence on George A. Romero. A screenplay written by Matheson for Hammer Films was rejected by the British Board of Film Censors, robbing British horror cinema of a potential classic. Since then the story has been twice filmed with lacklustre results. Drive-in legends, American International Productions gave us Vincent Price in The Last Man on Earth (1964). Charlton Heston played a gutsy Neville in Boris Sagal’s, counterculture-influenced, The Omega Man (1971), which ditched the vampires in favour of albino religious fanatics and was memorably parodied on The Simpsons as “The Homega Man”. Several years back, Ridley Scott was preparing a $100 million epic to star Arnold Schwarzenegger until a cost-conscious studio pulled the plug. Industry insiders have long held Mark Protesevich’s screenplay in high regard, although one doubts the Austrian Oak would have done it justice.

I Am Legend finally appears under its original title, directed by Francis Lawrence, who made the interesting, underrated Constantine (2005). Unfortunately, Protesevich’s script has been rewritten by co-producer, and genre fan bête noire, Akiva Goldsman; writer of Batman & Robin (1997), Lost in Space (1998) and too many missteps to mention. The resulting film presents a step in the right direction, if ultimately no more definitive than Last Man on Earth or Omega Man. Things get off to a rocky start when Emma Thompson appears onscreen and solemnly announces she has cured cancer. Never trust a Brit. Particularly an Oscar-winner, with an in-joke character (Dr. Krippen).

The film is strongest in its early scenes, depicting Robert Neville’s loneliness and burgeoning paranoia amidst a desolate New York. Panoramic views of these deserted cityscapes remain awe-inspiring, but lack the gritty despair of 28 Days Later (2002). Will Smith is especially strong in the lead role, particularly during moments where Neville simply breaks down. Amidst the melancholia, there are hints of Charlton Heston’s messianic streak (a Time magazine cover bills Neville a ‘saviour’). Here in the post-9/11 climate, Neville is a wounded messiah in search of a flock to save and Lawrence plays up the religious symbolism (floods of light, crucifixes). Referred to as the Infected throughout the film, the CG vampires are far too cartoony. It is hinted they retain some intelligence, maybe even have a society, but this intriguing aspect of Matheson’s novel remains unexplored. Robbed of articulate speech the Infected are merely a physical, rather than an ideological threat. Similarly discarded, is the novel’s most memorable moment, wherein Neville stumbles upon an actual vampire who has nothing to do with the virus. Presumably its inclusion would have raised too many questions.

Lawrence and Goldsman parallel Neville’s struggle with issues of racism and conformity. The anti-fascist undercurrent is there in the novel, even though with humanity evolution into a new society sometimes makes Neville seem like the out-of-step oppressor. Smith’s warmth helps somewhat, but this dichotomy remains. Bob Marley is invoked as an inspiration, with Neville citing the singer’s philosophical stance (“Light in the darkness”) and Redemption Song playing over the end credits. This pop cultural reference makes sense when Neville explains himself, though it jars somewhat.

Head vamp Alpha Male (Dash Mihok) wears such a self-satisfied smirk you really want to see him get his comeuppance. I Am Legend avoids the Seventies nihilism of Omega Man (whose villain got away) and climaxes with a satisfying payoff, but still seems less epic than Matheson’s novel. Veteran stunt co-ordinator Vic Armstrong contributes a striking sequence with Neville in a sports car chasing down a herd of deer, and Lawrence conjures one scene of magnificently sustained dread where Neville explores a dark warehouse in search of his dog. These expert sequences, coupled with Will Smith’s star turn make this worth your time.
Reviewer: Andrew Pragasam

 

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