FILM REVIEW: I Am Legend
15 • 100 mins • 26 December
Director: Francis Lawrence
Starring: Will Smith, Alice Braga, Charlie Tahan, Salli Richardson
Classic SF book, big-budget studio adap, Will Smith toplining… we’ve been here before, haven’t we? Back in 2004 20th Century Fox cheekily riveted the name of I, Robot onto a generic evil-robot script, which was great as a feature-length ad for Converse All Stars, adequate as a multiplex SF flick, but woefully off-beam as an homage to Isaac Asimov. I Am Legend flaunts its lack of respect for the source material with similarly mediocre results.
This is the fifth time someone’s set out to shoot Richard Matheson’s 1954 novel (a Hammer version was vetoed by the British censors and a Ridley Scott/Arnie team-up never escaped the gravitational pull of Development Hell), and the third time it’s come to anything. Every version has made changes, but I Am Legend merrily chucks the baby out with the bathwater.
We expected them to add a trite happy ending. We expected more action. We could even have predicted they’d half-inch the “panicking crowd” scenes from Spielberg’s War of the Worlds. What we didn’t expect was for them to turn a book about vampires, with all the associated paraphernalia – garlic, mirrors, crucifixes – into a zombie movie… no, scratch that: a not-quite-zombies movie. What we have here is 28 Months Later in all but name, a very belated attempt to ride the coat-tails of the Danny Boyle franchise, populated by mute, barely-distinguishable CGI creations who unleash Resident Evil zombie dogs. They provide fast-moving, snarling menace, but inspire no sympathy or pathos. The major knock-on effect of this change is that they have to chuck out the book’s central image: a lonely man who exists as a prisoner in his own home, besieged every night as the hordes outside howl his name.
As Last Man Alive Robert Neville, Will Smith follows in the footsteps of Vincent Price (star of 1964’s The Last Man on Earth) and Charlton Heston (1971’s The Omega Man). Smith is an extremely capable actor – a screen turn as a gay hustler 15 years ago proved that – and he brings utter conviction to a scene where Neville explores a pitch-black zombie nest, shaking with fear. Sadly, the gap between the standard of his performance and the quality of the script renders much of his good work laughably camp – although it’s difficult not to suspect Will’s partially to blame, since two of the most teeth-grindingly awful sequences (a pass-the-barf-bag paean to Bob Marley, and a bit where Will recites the dialogue from Shrek, doing his best Eddie Murphy), stink of “Hey guys, I’ve got an idea…” Even they’re less risible than the film’s attempts to sketch Neville’s fractured mental state, which leave him awkwardly hitting on mannequins and shooting at the sky like a loon. Perhaps it’d work if Neville hadn’t previously acted like he’s having a high old time, blasting out “Don’t Worry About a Thing” and driving golf balls off the deck of an aircraft carrier like Big Willie on vacation.
I Am Legend has one good idea, setting the film three years after its deadly viral outbreak, and makes a decent fist of showing a New York in the process of being reclaimed by nature – it certainly beats The Omega Man’s mysteriously tidy streets, cluttered only by the odd wind-tossed piece of paper. Sadly, even there they get carried away, sending herds of CGI deer stampeding through the streets for Will to hunt down in his bright red sports car, seemingly reluctant to actually shoot one ‘cos it’d put the handbrake on the videogame-styled chase action.
So, if it’s I Am Legend you want, re-read the book and let your imagination project the pictures. If it’s a decent film adaptation you want, which retains more of the melancholy of the original, rent the Chuck Heston film. This version is so far from legendary that it’ll be all-but forgotten by the time the next remake rolls around.
Reviewer: Ian Berriman