I Am Legend
* * * 1/2
Anyone who's vaguely familiar with genre films should be quite familiar with this story, and directly Robert Matheson's classic horror novel has been made twice (three times if you count the quickly made I Am Omega just last week, dang you Asylum films!!!), most famously as The Omega Man. Both adaptations left something to be desired, and The Simpsons parody was more restrained than the latter film, which, being about the end of civilization and full of explosions is a pretty good crystallization of Charlton Heston's career in the 70's.
The first thing that this film does, and does well, is that it is so remarkably understated. We don't have any long War of the Worlds like prologue. The film gives us its world and leaves it up to us to piece it together-and what a world the filmmakers have created. The detail of the film, both in its mundane tasks, and in its long shots, is mesmerizing, as we see New York devoid of humanity. For most of the film we don't have a musical score, there aren't any MTV style jump cuts, sound cues (at least at first ,and the sound design for the creatures is amazing), or monster pov's. In fact we don't see the monster's for a good portion of the film. What we do see is Will Smith and his dog, and lots of long shots. Which is such an incredible relief from the mainstream horror fare.
I mentioned the sound design for the creatures, and that may have been initially what saved the film from being a disaster. The CGI monsters were the wrong choice...a terrible choice... simply because they don't work. But the sound gives them a visceral presence that makes them a little less ridiculous.
What not only saves the film from being a disaster, but also elevates it to being the strongest horror film since Land of the Dead, is Will Smith's Oscar caliber performance. This year has had a series of amazing performances in b-movies by a-list actors, Kevin Bacon in Death Sentence, John Cusack in 1408, and now Will Smith, giving perhaps the best performance of his career. For the majority of the film all we have is Will Smith, acting by himself, and somehow he is able to pull out a nuanced and complex performance out of nothing, in long takes. Smith show's off his likability, his strength as a lead, his remarkable physical acting, his humor, as well as throwing in subtle ticks that show us a little about how much being the last man on earth can mess you up inside.
The film was written by Oscar winner Akiva Goldsman, and oddly enough he, or the powers that be, is/are the one who drop the ball, with a contrived, and ridiculous final 15 minutes, for what otherwisehad been a remarkable anti-popcorn-film-popcorn-film for the first 85.
But the ending is well intentioned, and can be mostly forgiven, especially considering that the rest of the film is, for what it is aiming to be, impeccable.