I Am Legend

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I Am Legend, hear me roar

Apr 15, 2008 (Updated Apr 15, 2008)
Review by  
Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:Smith, Neville, Visuals

Cons:Not really

The Bottom Line: The bottom line is an unfortunate mutant.


Casting is always important. Always. The right person in a role and it seems written just for them; the wrong person and the whole tone of a film can tilt and miss the mark. Especially precarious is the job of casting the only role in a film. The only role. Sure, there may be a scene or three with others, but when 90% of the screen time is taken up by a single actor, you’ve got yourself a casting nightmare. It has to be exactly right or the movie will fail, it’s really that simple. Casting Will Smith as Dr. Robert Neville in I Am Legend was either really, really smart or really, really lucky. It doesn’t matter which, because it really, really works.

You see, Dr. Robert Neville is the last person on Earth. He lives in New York City, ground zero for the virus that killed everyone else, and the only other living creature he has is his dog. There are other creatures, but only Sam is a companion. The others are either wild animals or, well, others - mutants infected by the virus and changed (and not for the better). I Am Legend follows his journey to find a cure for the virus that, as far as he can tell three years after the fact, killed mankind.

Actually, that’s just the skeleton of I Am Legend. It’s what forms around that skeleton that makes the film succeed. Neville is our focus, and he provides the meat of the story. Themes and concepts abound, from hell being paved with good intentions to the butterfly effect (one thing affects everything) to the resiliency of the human spirit and on to what happens to a city when there are no longer people around. All are interesting, valid and make for lively discussion points after the film. But as an audience we’re drawn to Robert Neville and the life he leads as the last man in the world.

Neville has fashioned a life of sorts from the remains of New York City. He talks to Sam, watches old news broadcasts, visits his local video store and even does some hunting as the city’s deer population has flourished since the demise of man. But he does all of these things in a desperate, hungry way, forcing himself to be “normal” when in truth he isn’t and can never be. That he has to lock himself down in his home at sundown to avoid the wrath of hungry mutants really doesn’t help.

He has taken upon himself the burden of finding a cure for the mutants. As one of the military medical personnel in charge during the initial infection, he has been working with this virus for years. Curing it has become his mission, he seems to feel the failure to stop the disaster as a personal failing - he didn’t fix it. It was his assignment and he didn’t fix it. He needs to fix it. Does he need to fix it because it has become his obsession, his reason for being, his curse – or does he need to fix it for different reasons? Is he so starved for some sort of human companionship – companionship that does not seem to be coming from anywhere else despite his constant radio broadcasts – that he will risk his life to capture and try and cure the violent, hungry mutants just to have someone to talk to?


So it is Neville, his past (shown in dream sequence flashback), his motivations, and most of all his evolving (and devolving) psyche that most capture my interest and pull me into the drama inherent in the situation. Will Smith proves more than capable of shouldering a part of this magnitude and intensity. His comic past does not haunt him to nearly the extent suffered by other actors and he is able to give Neville both some light moments and the much needed gravitas to adequately express his horrifying predicament and the trauma that led him there. What most surprises me is Smith’s ability to channel unfathomable loneliness, discouragement and grief with very little dialogue and almost none that is two sided. He needs to (and does) use posture, facial expression and offhand comments to his dog to create a character with depth, with whom we sympathize and for whom we care. It’s a terrific performance.

I Am Legend also looks fantastic as a piece of film. The city is amazing, showing signs of the inevitable decay of human creations when humans are no longer around to provide maintenance. The herds of deer are not the only things flourishing, as we see foliage and flocks of birds taking over once busy city streets. The CGI mutants are suitably creepy and quite frightening in the way they screech and move. Their swarming behavior and persistence in their bloody quests adds to the scare factor and makes them a worthy foe for Neville. They’re scary enough that it further calls into question Neville’s motives in trying to affect a “cure”. They most certainly do not engender sympathy; his quest must be driven internally.

I Am Legend is at turns an effective action thriller and a melancholy look at a world destroyed by the best intentions of its citizenry. Director Francis Lawrence lays it all on the line and lets Will Smith do his job, which is to carry the film on his shoulders. Smith does an excellent job creating depth without dialogue and giving us insight into what this character experiences as the last man on earth. The themes and conflict contained within the basic storyline are interesting, but on their own that can’t make us care. It’s the character of Dr. Robert Neville and his portrayal by Smith that take I Am Legend from interesting idea to gripping and emotionally affecting film. Well acted, beautifully filmed and richly characterized, I Am Legend is definitely a film worth seeing.


Recommend this product? Yes

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