What would you do if you were the last human survivor of an unstoppable man-made virus in New York City? Star in your own one-person Broadway show? Smoke in restaurants? Walk blindfolded through Central Park at midnight?
If you're Will Smith's Robert Neville, a miraculously immune military virologist who was researching a cure when panic broke out, the choices are grimmer. He speeds down Fifth Avenue in his Ford Mustang while taking aim at wild deer with his high-powered rifle. He saunters into video stores and has pretend conversations with the nonexistent help. Most important, he tries to find a cure for the virus.
"I Am Legend" is based on the famous Richard Matheson novel that has twice before been adapted for the screen: the 1964 Vincent Price film "The Last Man on Earth," and 1971's "The Omega Man," with Charlton Heston. Matheson's core idea is so powerful that it consistently canceled out the clunkiness of those adaptations. The new one is no exception. You may want to laugh at it, but the laughter catches in your throat because the film's centerpiece – a humanless New York City – is so magisterially eerie.
Neville has only his German shepherd, Sam, for company, during the day, at least. At night, the virally mutated zombies come out to play. For my taste, they show up too early, and when they do, "I Am Legend" turns into a megabudget version of "Night of the Living Dead."
We don't get enough of how Neville copes with his crushing loneliness or what it would be like to truly inhabit a humanless city, and that's a double loss since Smith seems up to the task. He's such a physically adroit actor that he can go for long stretches without dialogue and yet always key us into his thoughts. Director Francis Lawrence and screenwriter Akiva Goldsman had a chance to give this material a decidedly psychological spin but they opted for something more conventional and action-oriented. Films like "28 Days Later," for a fraction of this film's budget, already beat them to the punch.
Neville is all too obviously intended as an Everyman. His desire to reach out and touch someone – anyone – is freighted with apocalyptic meaning. He represents mankind's inherent desire for connection in a world that has lost its (fill in the blank). Since the killer virus came about as the result of a botched cancer cure, we're meant to think that man should not play God. Except, in a way, that's just what Neville is doing.
Smith, it should be noted, has compared Neville in interviews to Job. Tone down the highfalutin references. In the end, this is a sci-fi zombie movie, folks. Grade: B–