Let me just put this on you right now. I have never read “I Am Legend,” I love the previous incarnations, I’m not a fan of Richard Matheson because I’ve never read his work, I had no bias’ going into this movie, and I looked forward to this loose adaptation of Matheson’s beloved novel. Is that all a plus or a negative? I’m not sure, really. The first hour of “I Am Legend” is fantastic, and I say this as someone who was comfortably middle ground when it came to the film and expectations.
It’s tough to disappoint me with a post-apocalyptic film, I’ll admit, and breaking all my expectations, Smith rises to the challenge and gives a wonderful performance as the last man on Earth who is forced to live and survive with his dog Samantha and find a cure. The first hour is a display of grand proportions. Francis Lawrence who is strictly a blockbuster director, gives a bang up job providing some of the most fantastic and eerie visuals I’ve ever seen providing a sweeping and haunting glimpse of New York and Times Square after a virus has depleted most of humanity. With a harder rating, “I Am Legend” could have been a hell of a horror picture, especially with the spine-tingling opening that establishes the arc and general concept of the monsters.
I was with it for the first hour, I can not emphasize that enough. It grabbed me and never let me go and it kept me glued to my seat and I did not want to stop to look away. The first hour is awfully compelling for the simple fact that we’re presented with a man whose last companion is a dog, and a German Shepherd who really seeks out Smith’s character for confidence as much as Neville looks to it. The relationship between Neville and his German Shepherd Samantha makes for some of the most gut-wrenching moments filmed, as well as the best indicators of Neville’s loneliness and longing for some form of comfort.
He just wants a friend, and he seeks it out as much as possible by propping mannequins along stores to converse with and caring for Samantha. Any dog love will connect with Neville, as he keeps the dog as a reminder of the man he once was, and she always seems to know how to remind him to come back and keep his senses in tact. In one of my favorite scenes, Neville hears the timer on his watch go off alerting him that sundown is on its way and every sound goes out except for the timer beep, until he looks down at Samantha whose barks overpower the timer reaching his fear and providing him with a sense of courage and strength to make it through another night.
Smith plays wonderfully off of stunt dog Abby, and really sucks me into his chemistry with his dog and the way he fawns over it like a child and sidekick. Smith handles the dialogue well and convinces me that he’s this man desperate for hope and slowly losing all sense of sanity and logic. He talks to the dog, he seeks advice from the dog, he sings to her, and she responds thus providing a wonderful portrait of two remaining subjects of a long gone species connecting on a higher level. People will liken “I Am Legend” to apocalyptic fare like “28 Days Later,” “The Omega Man,” and “A Boy and His Dog,” but Lawrence relies on the performance of the Smith to get us through the bumps and he pulls it off. I’ve never had confidence in Smith as an actor, but he convinces me that he has the skills necessary to carry a film when it’s him and him alone, and the dog Abby provides an excellent paradox and balance to his fading sanity.
There’s a distinct sense of cowardice that’s displayed after the first hour has passed, and this is why Francis Lawrence clearly can’t be taken seriously as a credible director in spite of his talent for amazing visuals. Right after the hour mark the writers clearly have no way to go and, perhaps through studio tinkering or demands of more characters, we’re suddenly given two more characters that appear out of the darkness for no apparent reason nor clear logic, for that matter. How did these characters get to Robert? How did they know who he was? How did they get to him at the right time? How come it took them three years to find him? Where did they live? And most importantly, why display such a sense of fear to keep this a movie about a man and one man living among monsters?
Because it’s a mainstream film. I won’t go on a rant, but I’m disappointed after the first hour, because why not just leave it up to Smith to carry the film and make this a horror film about a man in a world without options? It’s been done, it can be done, and surely enough we’re given a happy twist, a convenient set of characters, and a climax that undermines everything the title is supposed to mean. He’s not the last man on Earth, and this virus that wiped out the world suddenly has survivors undermining Neville’s incredible importance as the man with an immunity in his blood that caused him to carry the burden as the last man on Earth. It’s disappointing to see the writers, probably through studio tinkering, just include other characters and a pat ending for the purposes of keeping audiences happy and not run with the first hour and leave it as a grim portrait of one man and a world of monsters.
As for the monsters, they’re not the worst creations ever brought to screen, but they’re obviously CGI. Upon first glance they’re very animated and not as realistic as Lawrence wants us to believe even when shrouding them in shadows and darkness. I simply didn’t buy them too much, even in spite of the strong disturbing presence they held. It’s no small feat for a post-apocalyptic film to disappoint me, and “I Am Legend” doesn’t disappoint. Francis Lawrence gives some of the most fantastic visuals ever filmed, along with strong performances from Will Smith and his trusted companion Abby. While the last half hour is a weak and unnecessary pat ending typical of Hollywood, Lawrence wins me over on the first half, and I absolutely loved what was on display here.