topfivefilms.com Tuesday 18th January 2022
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I Am Legend (15)
Directed by: Francis Lawrence
Reviewed by: Dave Witt

Here's an offer for you: how would you like the island of Manhattan as your own personal fiefdom, your very own playground? You can go anywhere, hop in any car for a spin, wander in and out of any house, and help yourself to anything you like from the shops. You can even play golf off the deck of an aircraft carrier, if that takes your fancy. What's the catch? Well, you'll be a little starved for company; an Alsatian and some shop mannequins you've arranged around the city will have to do as conversational partners.

"Shut up and listen to my order. Take the six nuggets, and throw two of them away. I'm just wantin' a four-nugget thing. I'm tryin to watch my calorie intake."

That's more or less the only down-side, though. Apart from the small matter of the hordes of howling, cannibalistic monster-men that roam the streets after dark, that is. But they're pussycats really.

Coincidentally enough, that's the very same situation in which Will Smith finds himself in I Am Legend, the third (fourth if you include straight-to-video) film version of Robert Mathieson's novel and the first to keep the title. However, aside from that and the last-man-on-Earth setup, the background, setting, plot and ending (and indeed, the title's significance) have all been thrown in the Hollywood dustbin. Smith plays military virologist Robert Neville, the last survivor of a man-made plague that killed 90% of the population and turned 90% of the rest into slavering, sunlight-averse zombie-beasts. While the original novel was an attempt to produce a loosely scientific basis for vampire myths, this 21st Century incarnation arrives on the heels of the New Zombie Revolution – a hundred times the speed and the strength, but just half of the calories of Old Zombies™.

Thus the film has two very distinct tones: by day, Smith lives a carefree (if desperately lonely) existence working out, trotting or driving around Manhattan at high speed (no more traffic problems, of course), hunting some of the wild animals that now wander freely through the overgrown city streets, and trying to find a cure for the disease that all but obliterated humanity in his spare time. By night however, he retreats to his heavily-fortified townhouse, covers his tracks in vinegar and spends the night cowering in the bath with his dog while the screams and wails of the infected echo through the night air. Inevitably, the boundaries begin to disintegrate, and Neville finds himself getting a little closer to his nemeses than he'd no doubt have liked.

The contrast between the desolate solitude of Neville's daytime existence, beautifully realised in the derelict downtown, and the almost insultingly generic zombie-scare-scare moments does the film few favours. Although the adrenaline level is cranked increasingly high during the film (to the extent that the noise of Smith slamming the shutters closed caused serious palpitations), it is derived almost entirely from the standard sudden shocks and loud noises, rather than any particular dramatic tension. There are notable exceptions, but by the film's third act the mystery (and much of the film's integrity) has been completely replaced by rampaging special effects.

The effects themselves are curiously mixed, considering the film's budget; the infected themselves are little to write home about, evoking memories of various other CGI-baddies of recent films (The Mummy, Voldemort from Harry Potter, just about any recent vampire film), and not favourably. On the other hand, the production design is absolutely top-notch – after the opening sequence, the background vista of abandoned New York becomes so natural that you can only assume that in order to make the film they evacuated the city and let it run wild for three years.

Considering he spends most of the film talking to a succession of things that can't talk back, Smith does a commendable job as the film's heart. A slightly more wise-cracky version of Tom Hanks in Cast Away, you might say, although Smith at least gets a dog as a companion over a volley-ball. Indeed, it is Smith who carries the film – the action set-pieces do little out of what has become the ordinary for films of this ilk, which leaves only the human side to impress. And in amongst the gung-ho gunfire and bloody snarling, there are truly haunting moments – one particular moment of tragedy is conveyed with nothing more than an extended close-up of Smith's face as the emotions tear through him.

All of which makes the film's volte-face at its ending the more disappointing. An unexpected, and unwelcome, deviation of the plot raises countless unnecessary and unanswerable questions, and ultimately a wholly superfluous religious subtext which cheapens what has gone before. Apparently the ending of the film was totally re-shot in November, and it feels like it; it smacks of focus-group revisionism for people who wanted to know what the title meant (a climactic voice-over is a big danger-sign in that respect).

I Am Legend is by turns a compelling, terrifying, evocative and clumsily derivative film, and feels like a missed opportunity in several directions at once. It has much to recommend it, not least the eerie setting and Smith's powerful performance; unfortunately, in an attempting to combine science fiction, horror, survivor drama and redemption tale, what emerges is an uneven disappointment, placed in stark relief by the few genuinely breathtaking moments that shine through.

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Length: 101 minutes
Certificate: 15
Official Site: http://iamlegend.warnerbros.com/
IMDB Link: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0480249/
Release Date: 26th December 2007

Top Five Rating: 60.0%60.0%60.0%60.0%60.0%60.0%60.0%60.0%60.0%60.0% (60.0%)
User Rating: 60.0%60.0%60.0%60.0%60.0%60.0%60.0%60.0%60.0%60.0% (60.0%)

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