Author Richard Matheson's "I Am Legend" has been adapted for movies a couple times before, but they haven't exactly been world-beaters.
It's a little curious that it's been adapted at all, let alone three times, seeing as it's a 1950s sci-fi vampire story with all of one human character in it. As a book, it's pretty much awesome, but as a movie, it's been a little boring ("The Last Man on Earth"), stupid and jam-packed with Jesus Christ Poses ("The Omega Man"), and now, with the latest version starring Will Smith, a confused film that seems to get what's so good about the book but cops out on that three-quarters of the way through, as if its makers thought the original was super cool except for that downer of an ending -- never mind that its unforgettable conclusion gave the book its title and is responsible for making it such a classic in the first place.
The new "I Am Legend" opens with a news report of a woman who's cured cancer, then cuts to three years later to a desolate, silent New York. That silence is broken by Smith, perhaps the last man on earth, tearing around the empty city hunting deer from the window of a charged-up sports car.
At night, the survivors come out: mutated, sun-sensitive vampires who've murdered everyone who wasn't killed or changed by the initial outbreak of the virus. Smith, with a med lab in his basement, believes he can cure the virus, and splits his time capturing vampires as test subjects, searching for uninfected humans, and goofing around the city with his dog, Sam, who might be the only thing keeping him from going crazy.
And that's pretty much it. Smith's existence is one of long stretches of tedium broken up by life-and-death encounters with the vampires, and the movie makes the most of both, alternating Smith's efforts to keep up a routine after mankind's passed on with ultra-tense escapes from the monsters.
Is it wrong to love movies whose plots hinge on the death of billions of our fellow humans? Well, too bad, because I don't know which I like more: watching the apocalypse happen or seeing how people deal with it after everything and everyone's gone. In a clever bit of cutting that gives us insight into both Smith's character and what happened to ruin society, Smith's dreams flash back to the day he tried to evacuate his family from a city descending into chaos. There's a lot to like here.
I liked the book, too, but I've got a friend who loves it. I mean, unnaturally. Sometimes I catch him whispering to it when he thinks I'm not looking. He wears gloves in public to cover the papercuts. Last summer, he sailed out to international waters with 600 copies of the book and a bilge full of rum. I don't know what happened. I don't want to know. Let's just say I wouldn't be surprised if, a few months from now, the nation's orphanages are flooded with mass market paperbacks with little tiny arms and legs.
Even he, a man whose loathing for the movie's altered ending was so great he actually went home and woke up his sick wife to complain to her about it some more, admitted "It was a giant shitpile, but they shoveled it fast."
That cuts right to it. Mostly, "I Am Legend" is good -- maybe even kind of great. For its first three quarters, it's scary, atmospheric, well-paced and smartly directed by Francis Lawrence. Smith is charming -- I think he's 85% charm by weight -- but projects vulnerability, too. His relationship with his dog and some mannequins he's set up for company is funny, yet there's a sadness to it, and Smith makes it hard to tell how much he's playing around and how much he's a person who is insane.
But the final act undoes it. It's not just that it departs from the dark and unsettling ending of the book for something way more safe and predictable, exasperating as that may be. It's that the movie's careful sense of isolation and a man on the edge of despair is sucked right out of it. Its payoff will probably connect with some people, but for me, a film that had been doing so many things right became just another horror movie.