Recently, I went to see Francis Lawrence’s film adaptation of Richard Matheson’s novel I Am Legend. I entered the theater expecting the same kind of action-dense, sarcastic, humorous, and vaguely amusing movie that Will Smith is famous for, and came out in a state of utter shock.
Ladies and gentlemen, I Am Legend is, by far, Will Smith’s best performance. Ever. Better than Independence Day. Better than I, Robot. Better, even, than The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.
So that I don’t ruin an excellent movie for you, I’m going to save all potential spoilers for the next section. Read on, if you want to know more.
I Am Legend takes place in post-apocalyptic New York City. In the aftermath of an epidemic, Will Smith’s character finds himself entirely alone, having to scavenge whatever he needs in order to survive, all the while being assailed by sickly “survivors.”
Now, all of this sounds fairly standard, and it is. The post-apocalyptic genre has been done to death, especially recently. The incredibly mediocre Resident Evil: Apocalypse springs immediately to mind. Add to that the tiredness of the zombie genre, and you have the makings of a very crappy film.
And that is why I Am Legend surprised me so much: the execution was excellent. The portrayal of a lonely, deserted New York felt incredibly authentic. The slow degradation of Will Smith’s character’s mind as the loneliness and finality closes in was done — and I never thought I’d be able to use this word in a sentence about mainstream cinema — artistically.
What surprised me even more than the film’s overall excellence was the quality of Will Smith’s performance. I’m used to fairly bland, sterotyped characters like those he played in Independence Day and I, Robot. So, I was very surprised — and very encouraged — by the true depth of Smith’s character in I Am Legend. Since he did away with all the silly humor and adolescent rebelliousness he tends to bring to his films, I was actually able to connect with him this time. What’s more, the character development consisted of two interleaved sequences, one from the beginning of the epidemic, and one during the aftermath. Normally, films botch this technique, but not this time. It was very impressive to see it pulled off correctly for a change.
And, as if all that wasn’t enough of a reason to love the film, there is another surprise in store for my fellow nerds: the science in the film is actually good. I mean, there is actual valid science going on in the movie! For one thing, the epidemic that left New York deserted was caused by (big spoiler in italics) an attempt at a viral cure for cancer. How cool is that? And how does Smith’s character go about finding a cure? Not by discovering some “magic bullet” at the precisely perfect moment, but by an arduous and disheartening series of trials on dozens of experimental vaccines. Even better, the zombie “survivors” are not brainless walking corpses. Although violent, they are organized, almost social organisms. And, impressively, the movie seemed to go out of its way to proved that they still had some humanity to them. Their hearts still beat. They still breathed. They weren’t mere faceless drones. Hell, they even had a female zombie, something almost entirely unfamiliar to the genre.
All that said, there are some aspects of the film that bothered me. Some of the science was a bit off. The real problems, however, were the film’s tendency towards meandering from the main point, and its occasional severe sentimentality. And something that struck me as extremely suspicious: not a single of the cars Smith’s character drives have a single scratch, dent, or smudge of dirt on them. Product placement, anyone?
There are structural problems, too. Sometimes, the film puts the cart before the horse, and the heavy philosophical messages obstruct the film’s flow. Also, somehow, the film manages to get somewhat lost towards the end, actually making the climax less engaging than the mundane, day-in-the-life survivalism that makes up the first half of the movie.
Now, if it were an independent film, these problems would make I Am Legend weak almost to the point of impotence. In a mainstream film, however (starring a well-known actor, to boot) the movie’s freshness overshadows its shortcomings. It’s definitely worth going to see at least once.
Overall Rating: *******~~~ (7/10 asterisks)