I Am Legend is a 2007 American post-apocalyptic science fiction horror film directed by Francis Lawrence and starring Will Smith.
This movie is the third feature film adaptation of Richard Matheson’s 1954 novel of the same name, following 1964’s The Last Man on Earth and 1971’s The Omega Man.
Virologist Robert Neville (Will Smith) is immune to a man-made virus originally created to cure cancer that has wiped out most of the Earth’s population. He works to create a remedy while defending himself against humans mutated by the virus.
Warner Bros. began developing I Am Legend in 1994, and various actors and directors were attached to the project, though production was delayed due to budgetary concerns related to the script. Production began in 2006 in New York City, filming mainly on location in the city, including a $5 million scene at the Brooklyn Bridge, the most expensive scene ever filmed in the city at the time.
I Am Legend was released on December 14, 2007, in the United States and Canada, and opened to the largest ever box office (not counting for inflation) for a non-Christmas film released in the U.S. in December. The film was the seventh-highest grossing film of 2007, earning $256 million domestically and $329 million internationally, for a total of $585 million.
In September 2012, military virologist Lieutenant Colonel Robert Neville (Will Smith) is the last healthy and immune human in New York City. A genetically-engineered variant of the measles virus created by Doctor Alice Krippin (Emma Thompson), meant as a cure for cancer, had mutated into a lethal strain. It spread throughout the world, killing 90% of humanity. Most survivors became predatory, vampiric beings called “Darkseekers” that emerge after dusk to prey on those immune to the virus. In December 2009, Neville had lost his wife Zoe (Salli Richardson) and daughter Marley (Willow Smith) in a helicopter accident during a chaotic quarantine of Manhattan.
Neville’s daily routine includes experimenting on infected rats to find a cure for the virus and trips through a decaying Manhattan to collect supplies or hunt for deer. He keeps vigil each day for a response to his recorded AM radio broadcasts, which instruct any survivors to meet him at midday at the South Street Seaport. Neville’s isolation is broken only by the companionship of his pet German Shepherd Samantha and interaction with mannequins he has set up as patrons of a video store…
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The apocalyptic Robinsonade I Am Legend had been a long-in-gestation blockbuster, based on the 1954 Richard Matheson horror novel. For many years it was crafted as an Arnold Schwarzenegger action vehicle. When that unpromising deal fell apart, the property mutated into the 1999 Peter Hyams-directed occult actioner End of Days, in which Terminator-tough cop Arnold actually battled Satan in NYC. Yes, he did.
What sort of premise did Matheson dream up that bumps the Lord of Darkness to a second-tier substitute? It was the classic last-man-on-Earth idea, of one human holdout in a vast, dead modern city, having the run of the place by day, but after sunset besieged by an army of nocturnal ghouls, mutated remnants of a global population cut down by a weird plague. You could trace Night of the Living Dead (1968), and all that followed back to I Am Legend. That roster includes 28 Days Later and the last couple of Resident Evil outings, which also traded on the imagery of zombie-strewn deserted urban landscapes, metropolis-turned-necropolis.
Even though we’ve seen all that done now with London, Las Vegas, and bits of Pittsburgh, the gimmick can still evoke impressive shudders. Better moments in the new I Am Legend aren’t the monster attacks – the CGI “dark-seekers,” as the plague creatures are called, are sufficiently maniacal but look rather disappointingly like the homogenous goblin-types seen in Lord of the Rings, The Descent or the Blade franchise. Rather, it’s the foreboding vision of Manhattan of “future” 2012 as a deceptively peaceful ghost town, all bridges to the island destroyed to enforce a long-failed quarantine.
Weeds sprout up between abandoned cars, gas prices hover around $7 per gallon, and the movie poster in a silent Times Square heralds a Batman-meets-Superman epic (which at the time had been a long-in-discussion Warner Brothers project).
That’s clever and eerie enough in equal measures. And even in the dead city, down these mean streets, a man must go. No, not Conan the neo-barbarian but Doctor Robert Neville, essayed by Will Smith. It’s a part that requires an actor capable of holding audience attention for a solo show most all the time, and Smith is certainly up to it, even if the script has to furnish him with a pet pooch and flashbacks the rest of the time to the playoff. Neville was an army scientist at “ground zero” (9/11-meets-AIDS zeitgeist abounds in the script) when the plague broke out, brewed from a genetically-engineered virus initially foisted on the “future” world of 2010 as a foolproof cancer cure.
Now, Neville and his German shepherd maintain a military-discipline daily routine of going around town, chasing deer herds through Central Park, listening to Bob Marley music, gathering supplies and home-entertainment (not even the collapse of civilization stops product-placement, as there are plugs for Shrek and Apple everything). He also still poignantly experiments in a hidden lab setup for a vaccine cure, even though the fight seems long over, and the ever-hunting goblins rule the night.
Writer Matheson’s prose reached the bitter conclusion that when the rest of the world has turned into monsters, any normal person would, by definition, end up being the freak outcast, the hated misfit. Only the Vincent Price version, a cheap Italian job that Matheson disowned, reiterated the bitter theme. I Am Legend leans closer to The Ωmega Man-hood, with Neville a martyr-Messiah figure, the impact ultimately compromised a bit by a narrative cheat that he’s not really the last uninfected survivor at all. But Smith has more humanity and vulnerability that one might imagine a Schwarzenegger version might have (one cannot see Arnold doing an enthusiastic cover of Bob Marley’s ‘I Shot the Sheriff’, especially).
If it feels like audience focus-groups may have chosen the direction the story went in, it still rates enough powerful moments to make it worth seeing. When faced with healthy box-office returns, Warner Brothers somehow resisted the temptation (so far) to do a sequel, and there must be some reward due for that. The notion of a “next” omega man in oxymoronic indeed.
Charles Cassady Jr., MOVIES and MANIA