Saturday, December 15, 2007

I Am Legend

I AM LEGEND (Francis Lawrence, 2007)

In 2012, three years removed from the devastation wreaked by a man-made virus that may have left him the planet's lone human survivor, scientist Robert Neville (Will Smith) continues to search for a cure. The basement laboratory experiments give purpose to his days even if there may be no one for him to save except his pet dog Sam. (Canines are immune to airborne strains but susceptible to the virus via contact.) Of course, Sam is a desperately needed companion in I AM LEGEND'S cripplingly lonely New York City. If Robert were to lose her, one senses his will to live would end.

Robert follows a regimented routine of exercise, research, hunting and gathering, and waiting at a post for potential fellow survivors. When the sun sets, he barricades himself in his Washington Square home to keep out the monsters. The dogs and humans not killed by the virus have mutated into bloodthirsty creatures vulnerable to light.

I AM LEGEND is set in a world undone by Babylonian-like folly. The collective human knowledge in science has made practically nothing impossible--even cancer is curable--but such wisdom can also bring about terrible, unintended consequences. Since I AM LEGEND is primarily an atmospheric action film than an exploration of contemporary scientific ethics, the questions it introduces tend to be mere set dressing for the commotion in the foreground. When the climax forces taking a position on the faith versus science debate, the film lays claim to a safe middle ground that would make Presidential candidates proud.

Despite not fulfilling its thematic potential, I AM LEGEND is effective escapist entertainment, albeit something of a somber piece. A desolate and overgrown New York City looks pretty cool if you can put aside the fact that all but one man may be dead. The film boasts four solid action sequences. Director Francis Lawrence manages the obligatory trip into the dark chamber where the beasts live with strong composition and spare use of light to heighten the tension. Robert's race against the setting sun to get to his vehicle crackles with nervous energy as the shadows disintegrate.

As good as the action scenes are, the humanity in Smith's performance is most responsible for I AM LEGEND'S success. Likable as ever, he conveys Robert's deep pain in believing he has outlived everyone else yet still needs to save the lost. His fatherly banter with the dog and shyness in introducing himself to a female mannequin express a longing for human interaction that can't help but break one's heart. Being a savior is all well and good, but what difference does it make if there's no one to rescue?

Grade: B

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