I Am Legend (** 1/2)

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“I Am Legend,” the novel by Richard Matheson, is a brilliant story about Robert Neville, the last man on earth, and how he must contend not only with being alone but also with the legions of the undead that want his blood. The book was hugely influential (Stephen King has named it as a crucially important inspiration to his own work, indeed, ” ‘Salem’s Lot” owes a lot to Matheson’s depiction of vampires), and was the source for two films. One was called, appropriately, Last Man on Earth, and starred Vincent Price. This captured the mood of the book pretty well, and featured a strong Price performance, though it sure does look and feel like a cheesy Italian production (which it is). The other was the 1971 Charlton Heston cult classic The Omega Man. Although it’s a little dated, I think it’s still a hell of a movie, and it’s pretty damn creepy.Though both of these versions have their pros and cons, neither were true to Matheson’s original ending, which is bleak but necessary in order for the story to work to its full power. The latest version of Matheson’s work, which finally gives the story its true name, has been in the works for many years. At one point, it was to be directed by Ridley Scott and star Arnold Schwarzenegger, then Will Smith was to star and Michael (shudder) Bay was slated to be behind the camera. Thankfully, that never came to be. Instead, Francis Lawrence, who helmed the awful Constantine, was given the task, with Smith in the lead.The result is a film that works for about two-thirds of its running time, before sort of falling apart. Lawrence creates a tense, ominous atmosphere, gives Smith a chance to show his range and then, the film loses its way. But, I’ll get to that later, let’s look at the good stuff first. The production design of this film is astounding, after a brief prologue that sets up the plague that wipes out the world (Emma Thompson pops up in a cameo as the scientist responsible), Lawrence reveals the location of the film: a desolate, deserted New York in ruins. It’s quite a sight.As in the other film versions of the story, the film follows Robert Neville (Will Smith) in his daily errands and tasks, as he drives through the streets of NYC in a sports car hunting deer, gathering supplies and trying to find a cure. At night, he locks himself in his lovely Greenwich Village townhouse and waits for daylight. His only companion is his faithful dog, Sam. Through flashbacks, we gather who Neville was and what he lost.For what the script gives him, Smith is well-cast. For much of the film, it’s a one man (and one dog) show, and Smith keeps our attention. Neville is a man of order and reason living in a world of a chaos, and, as you’d expect, the isolation is a little much for him. A nice touch to the film, I thought, was Neville setting up mannequins throughout the video store, so he could try to relate to someone, anyone.The most successful sequence, I thought, was when Neville is forced to enter a dark building one afternoon. That’s all I’ll say about this scene, but man, is it suspenseful. I wish the whole film could work this well. It doesn’t help that the monsters (who aren’t so much vampires anymore as identical zombie things) look downright silly. Note to Hollywood: there are times when CGI does not equal scary.I Am Legend is disappointing in a lot of ways, but maybe most in the fact that it could’ve been so much better. The last third doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, and kind of ruins the tension that has been built so well in the first two-thirds of the film. It’s too bad, because it could’ve been a good one.

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