I Am Legend: Francis Lawrence’s Apocalyptic Sci-Fi Starring Will Smith

In the apocalyptic sci-fi I Am Legend, Will Smith gives a commanding performance as Robert Neville, a brilliant scientist who believes that he’s the sole survivor of a catastrophic plague that has killed most of humanity, while turning the few survivors into mutant vampires.

Accompanied by his loving and loyal dog, Smith looks astounding, and he treats the material seriously as an actor, not as a schlocky actioner or effects-driven sci-fi. He’s well-aware that the credibility of the whole saga depends entirely on him. In this and other respects, “I Am Legend” is engaging, representing the closest thing to a one-man show, not seen on the big screen since Tom Hanks in Robert Zemeckis’ “Cast Away,” in 2000.

Problem is, Smith presides over two disparate movies that compete for our attention, a stark, existential L.A.-set apocalyptic tale that occupies the first half of the movie, and a more conventional B-level zombie flick, marked by all the visual and thematic clichs, that dominates the second part. I wish I could say “I Am Legend” is two movies for the price of one, but it’s more the case of a film with schizoid identity, one that feels obligated to deliver all the goods expected from the two genres on which it is based.

Even so, adapted from the 1954 novel by Richard Matheson, the sci-fi author of “Twilight Zone” and other works, “I Am Legend” is Hollywood’s third and best rendition of the honorable source material, first made in 1964 as “The Last Man on Earth,” a cheesy Italian flick with Vincent Price in the lead, and then in 1971 as a Charlton Heston vehicle, “The Omega Man,” which was set in L.A. Interestingly, despite mixed reviews when it opened, over the years, “Omega Man” has achieved a minor cult status.

The previous versions of Matheson’s book, which was called “I Am Legend,” took a more conventional horror approach, but, made in 2007, Francis Lawrence’s “I Am Legend” aspires toward a more timely and relevant take in the wake of the post 9/11 zeitgeist–with existential plight, xenophobia, and dirty bombs, all in the news lately.

In a brief prologue, a TV report, a scientist-doctor (Emma Thompson) describes how the long, torturous fight against cancer has been won, which makes the next scene all the more powerful. Three years later, Manhattan has become a desolate and empty island. In brief, impressive strokes, the gifted cinematographer Andrew Lesnie shows how a once-glamorous city has turned into a depressing place, with shattered skyscrapers, abandoned vehicles (some upside down), and neglected parks. We quickly identify the landmark of Times Square, or what’s left of it, with billboards for musicals like “Hairspray” and “Wicked.”

The first, eerie sounds are those of birds (tribute to Hitchcock’s “The Birds”), and lions chasing and killing a herd of deer that run for their lives in Manhattan’s deserted avenues. Robert Neville is introduced driving a Shelby Mustang GT 500, with a big rifle in hand trying to hunt down a deer for dinner. Unsuccessful, he returns to his house, in the Village’s Washington Square, which is disorganized and full of supplies.

Neville’s family life is conveyed through flashbacks, interspersed throughout the story, depicting Neville as a military scientist, who had lost his wife and daughter, when the Island was quarantined, with him as the only immune person of a threatening virus.

Depressed, scared, and alone, Neville spends the rest of the saga just trying to survive, looking for a possible cure. While scavenging for supplies wherever he can find them, Neville continues to send out radio messages, desperate to find other survivors out there.

Neville, of course, is not really alone. He’s surrounded by the “Infected,” victims of the plague who have mutated into nocturnal carnivorous and devouring creatures. The “Infected” lurk in the shadows, watching each and every move of Neville, waiting for him to make a fatal mistake. Meanwhile, Neville continues to be motivated by his obsessive goal of finding a way to reverse the viral effects, using his own immune blood, which is a hot, scarce commodity. Considering that he’s outnumbered by his enemies and running out of time, the crisis is quite urgent.

Screenwriter-producer Akiva Goldsman (who won an Oscar for “A Beautiful Mind” in 2001) has tried to conceive the film as an “intimate epic,” a film large-scale in scope and style, but intensely dramatic in terms of the central figure and his predicament. However, end result is mixed

During the film’s first reels, Smith doesn’t speak much–except when he communicates with his dog. He’s mostly seen with his reliable companion, a German shepherd named Abby that has already achieved famed on its own. The interaction between Neville and his dog recalls that between Tom Hanks and his volleyball in “Cast Away.” The dog plays such a crucial character that, toward the end, when Neville realizes Abby is also infected, his immediate, tragic action translates into one of the picture’s most emotionally touching scenes.

Like most sci-fi, this saga is nocturnal, but this one benefits from being set in Manhattan rather than Los Angeles, the locale of most apocalyptic tales, including “Omega Man” and “Blade Runner” (which, by the way, is in current theatrical release).

Ultimately, Goldsman and director Francis Lawrence, rejoining forces after their equally flawed “Constantine,” are only semi-successful in making a fresh movie that deviates from “28 Days Later” and “28 Weeks Later,” one that’s less pf a monster-horror-zombie flick and more of an allegorical character-driven feature.

“I Am Legend” has been in development hell (to use Hollywood parlor) for a long time. Over the past decade, stars Tom Cruise and Michael Douglas and directors James Cameron and Guillermo del Toro have been attached to the project. Then, in 1997, Ridley Scott and Arnold Schwarzenegger were about to start shooting the picture, when the studio pulled the plug under due to its then inflated budget. Warner tried again in 2002, with Michael Bay directing a script by Mark Protosevich (“The Cell”) and Smith starring. But the following year, Danny Boyle’s “28 Days Later,” a British flick about a zombie virus, became a cult hit and made the producers nervous about their picture.

Will Smith, who continues to develop as an actor, is at the right age and career phase for this role-and he may be one of the few bankable stars right now to pull it off. Over the past decade, with the exception of Michael Mann’s “Ali,” and “Wild Wild West,” no movie starring Smith has lost money, and many, including “The Pursuit of Happyness,” brought prestige, money, and even Oscar nomination.

Much in the vein of “Enemy of the State,” “I, Robot,” and “Pursuit of Happyness,” “I Am Legend” represents Smith’s new “movie philosophy,” a big-budget, special-effects, mass-oriented fare that’s also socially-conscious, or at least not mindlessly popcorn entertainment.


Robert Neville – Will Smith
Anna – Alice Braga
Alpha Male – Dash Mihok
Ethan – Charlie Tahan
Zoe – Salli Richardson
Marley – Willow Smith


Warner release presented in association with Village Roadshow Pictures of a Weed Road/Overbrook Entertainment production. Produced by Akiva Goldsman, James Lassiter, David Heyman, Neal Moritz.
Executive producers: Michael Tadross, Erwin Stoff, Dana Goldberg, Bruce Berman.
Co-producers: Tracy Torme, Jeffrey “J.P.” Wetzel.
Directed by Francis Lawrence.
Screenplay: Mark Protosevich, Akiva Goldsman, based on the screenplay by John William and Joyce H. Corrington, based on the novel by Richard Matheson.
Camera: Andrew Lesnie.
Editor: Wayne Wahrman.
Music: James Newton Howard.
Production designer: Naomi Shohan.
Art directors: Patricia Woodbridge, Bill Skinner, Howard Cummings.
Set decorator: George DeTitta.
Costume designer: Michael Kaplan.
Sound: Tod A. Maitland.
Sound designer: Jeremy Peirson.
Supervising sound editor: Skip Lievsay.
Re-recording mixers: Lievsay, Peirson, Rick Kline.
Visual effects supervisor: Janek Sirrs.
Visual effects and animation: Sony Pictures Imageworks.
Visual effects: CIS-Hollywood.
Special effects supervisor: Conrad Brink.
Creatures designer: Patrick Tatopoulos.
MPAA Rating: PG-13.
Running time: 99 Minutes.