Author Richard Matheson's "I Am Legend" has been adapted for movies acouple times before, but they haven't exactly been world-beaters.
It's a little curious that it's been adapted at all, let alone threetimes, seeing as it's a 1950s sci-fi vampire story with all of onehuman character in it. As a book, it's pretty much awesome, but as amovie, it's been a little boring ("The Last Man on Earth"), stupid andjam-packed with Jesus Christ Poses ("The Omega Man"), and now, withthe latest version starring Will Smith, a confused film that seems toget what's so good about the book but cops out on that three-quartersof the way through, as if its makers thought the original was supercool except for that downer of an ending -- never mind that itsunforgettable conclusion gave the book its title and is responsiblefor making it such a classic in the first place.
The new "I Am Legend" opens with a news report of a woman who's curedcancer, 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 acharged-up sports car.
At night, the survivors come out: mutated, sun-sensitive vampireswho've murdered everyone who wasn't killed or changed by the initialoutbreak of the virus. Smith, with a med lab in his basement,believes he can cure the virus, and splits his time capturing vampiresas test subjects, searching for uninfected humans, and goofing aroundthe city with his dog, Sam, who might be the only thing keeping himfrom going crazy.
And that's pretty much it. Smith's existence is one of long stretchesof tedium broken up by life-and-death encounters with the vampires,and the movie makes the most of both, alternating Smith's efforts tokeep up a routine after mankind's passed on with ultra-tense escapesfrom the monsters.
Is it wrong to love movies whose plots hinge on the death of billionsof our fellow humans? Well, too bad, because I don't know which Ilike more: watching the apocalypse happen or seeing how people dealwith it after everything and everyone's gone. In a clever bit ofcutting that gives us insight into both Smith's character and whathappened to ruin society, Smith's dreams flash back to the day hetried 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 thinksI'm not looking. He wears gloves in public to cover the papercuts.Last summer, he sailed out to international waters with 600 copies ofthe book and a bilge full of rum. I don't know what happened. Idon't want to know. Let's just say I wouldn't be surprised if, a fewmonths from now, the nation's orphanages are flooded with mass marketpaperbacks with little tiny arms and legs.
Even he, a man whose loathing for the movie's altered ending was sogreat he actually went home and woke up his sick wife to complain toher about it some more, admitted "It was a giant shitpile, but theyshoveled it fast."
That cuts right to it. Mostly, "I Am Legend" is good -- maybe even kindof great. For its first three quarters, it's scary, atmospheric,well-paced and smartly directed by Francis Lawrence. Smith ischarming -- I think he's 85% charm by weight -- but projectsvulnerability, too. His relationship with his dog and some mannequinshe's set up for company is funny, yet there's a sadness to it, andSmith makes it hard to tell how much he's playing around and how muchhe's a person who is insane.
But the final act undoes it. It's not just that it departs from thedark and unsettling ending of the book for something way more safe andpredictable, exasperating as that may be. It's that the movie'scareful sense of isolation and a man on the edge of despair is suckedright out of it. Its payoff will probably connect with some people,but for me, a film that had been doing so many things right becamejust another horror movie.