Will Smith as Dr. Robert Neville
Alice Braga as Anna
Charlie Tahan as Ethan
Salli Richardson as Ginny
Willow Smith as Will Smith’s kid
Directed by Francis Lawrence
It's hard to imagine anyone could screw up such an easy home run like updating Richard Matheson's influential classic, but this slow Will Smith vehicle merely bunts... and then trips on its way to first base.
In 2009, Dr. Robert Neville (Will Smith) is the last man alive in New York City, after it's struck by a virus that turns men, women, children and animals into bloodthirsty nocturnal creatures that feed on the remaining living. Three years later, Neville with his dog Sam as his only companion tries to find a cure for the virus, while locking themselves away whenever the sun goes down.
Richard Matheson's 1954 novel "I Am Legend" is considered by many to be a literary classic, one that set precedents that inspired many horror and sci-fi authors and filmmakers for over five decades. It's been adapted twice with Vincent Price as "The Last Man on Earth" and Charlton Heston as "The Omega Man," and yet oddly, the one time Matheson's original title is used is where a film adaptation strays furthest away from the nature of the book. Anyone scared about the thought of the novel turned into a 21st Century Will Smith vehicle, especially after the "Big Willie-fied" version of Isaac Asimov's "I, Robot," has reason to worry.
With a weak script by Akiva ("I, Robot," "The Da Vinci Code") Goldsman and Mark ("Poseidon") Protosevich that has very little to do with Matheson's novel besides the title, the character's name and the concept, director Francis Lawrence ("Constantine") has taken the premise and turned it into a post-"28 Days Later" thriller with very little real exposition or action.
The film opens with a doctor being interviewed on television about her cure for cancer using a powerful virus. We then cut to three years later to a completely abandoned New York City overgrown with vegetation with no human life to be found until we see Will Smith's Robert Neville zipping through the empty streets in a sports car with his dog Sam on a hunt for the computer-generated deer that have populated the city. Any New Yorker will be impressed by the way the city has been turned into an overgrown wasteland, and over the course of the movie we get a few flashbacks to see the last days before the city's bridges were blown-up leaving those left behind to fend for themselves against the virus and the infected.
Even with such a strong premise to work from, this quickly turns into "The Will Smith Show," Smith taking center stage to do all his normal routines, mostly for his dog and the mannequins that have replaced any human contact. Instead of constantly cracking jokes, he takes things far more seriously, as one might expect if one found themselves in his situation, being completely alone and isolated. Smith lacks any credibility as a scientist, however many times we see him in the lab working on a cure for the virus, and even less so as one of those rare scientist-slash-soldiers who is as skilled with various forms of firearms as he is with genetics. Smith tries hard to embellish the character with a range of emotions as he deals with the grief of being separated from his wife and child to going completely mad from being isolated for so long, but this isn't Smith's best work and often, the dog companion out-acts his master, showing why it's so important to have a decent supporting cast... and I'm not just talking about another one of your cute kids either, Mr. Smith!
At a certain point, the movie almost literally turns into "Cast Away" as Neville and his dog Sam go through their normal daily routine before shutting themselves away at night when the infected come out to feed. About halfway through this cycle, there's a major twist that potentially leaves Neville in mortal danger, but nothing is done with that. Things pick up only slightly once Brazilian beauty Alice Braga shows up as another survivor, giving Smith the audience he needs to ham it up, but by that point, any humor seems out of place due to the gravity of the film beforehand. (It's not exactly clear why two survivors from Maryland might make an effort to get into New York City when the situation there has gotten bad enough for the government to isolate it, but that's just the kind of logic we're dealing with here.)
We only really see the infected humans a few times and when we do, they're not particularly impressive, more silly than scary, as played by creature performers goosed up with sub-par CGI that makes them look worse than the low-budget zombies in the "Resident Evil" series—and I'm not even referring to the movies here, but the actual video games. Considering how much money and time was put into everything else, it seems strange that corners would be cut so sharply on the most important part of the movie. Lawrence tries to make up for it by building suspense with the time it takes before we see the creatures, throwing in a number of cheap scares before putting Smith in a dark space full of the infected, but as effective as this scene may have been, as soon as we see the creatures in daylight, they lose their effectiveness.
After the film has dragged along with very few developments, the new twist of Neville having human companions is quickly spoiled by a home invasion by the infected leading to a disappointing ending that stays in line with Matheson's novel, but then ruins it with one of those "Terminator 2" voice-overs that tells us that everything will be alright. With a stronger director—originally Ridley Scott was meant to tackle it—this could have been a sci-fi classic, but so many bad choices went into this movie, from the shaky handheld camerawork to the weak creature design, that it just never really takes off despite how many curve balls it tries throwing at the viewer.
The Bottom Line:
While one can see the reasoning behind this adaptation (and I use that term loosely) existing, coming after much-better variations on the premise like "Children of Men" and "28 Days Later," this seems like little more than retread. Combining the poor choice of Will Smith in the lead role with some of the worst CG work since "Van Helsing" and this dog makes the recent "The Invasion" come across like a masterpiece.