While many critics – particularly those based in New York – have focussed on the portrayal of the city abandoned in their reviews of I Am Legend, the remarkable feature of the movie isn’t the city or the photophobic monsters that have over-run it… it is that the movie is just not that affecting.
Robert Neville (Will Smith) is an Army scientist, working on the cure to a devastating mutation of a supposed viral ‘cure for cancer’ that has swept through the population of New York. Told in two time periods – 2009 and then 2012 after the holocaust – Neville attempts to get his family out of the soon-to-be quarantined city while at the same time being shown hunting deer and living alone in what is left. He continues to try to find a cure for the infection that has seemingly left him the only unaffected person alive, while transmitting a daily plea for any survivors to meet him at midday in broad daylight. The mutated viral cancer ‘cure’ has in fact killed 90% of the world’s population, while turning the majority of the remainder into disfigured and extremely aggressive zombies, who Neville notes seem to have devolved to the point they have lost any kind of social behaviour.
The long set-up sequences are the best of the film, with the imagery of New York after three years of neglect quite striking. Neville drives fast cars around the streets, hunts wild animals that have moved into town, raids video stores for distraction and has conversations with mannequins that demonstrate his isolation and loneliness. Smith is just so charismatic as Neville, who wins the audience over in spite of demonstrating what are clearly signs of mental instability. His ‘everyman’ quality is used to great effect in allowing the audience to consider just for a moment what this kind of isolation truly would be like.
Less effective are the horror/thriller sections in which Neville must fight the zombies to stay alive – it is in this mid-section that the film becomes a bit lost. The ‘infected’ are given confusing and inconsistent qualities – or at least their capabilities and weaknesses are never properly explained – and the actions of some hint at greater awareness of their own plight than the sole survivor (who just happens to be the Army’s expert!) gives them credit for. There is even a suggestion of emotion, planning and cooperation within the zombies, which is contradicted by their behaviour as ‘fodder’ for most of their screen time. Ultimately, it is the failure to clarify the extent of the damage to the infected – or rather, the extent of their retention of their humanity – that lets I Am Legend become so bogged down.
While the imagery of New York is quite striking, Neville’s action sequences are engulfed by the modern-day plague of handheld photography. The pacing isn’t quite right, and the failure to adequately define the zombies limits the impact of the latter stages of the film. Unfortunately, I Am Legend has all the qualities that could have made it a great science fiction thriller, yet it never achieves its potential in spite of the absolute charm of Smith.Rating: