Remember when Will Smith’s name in the center/top/left/whatever of your poster was enough to guarantee a hit? 2007 sure does.
Director Francis Lawrence has a way with the frayed melancholia of an apocalypse, and his star in I Am Legend has a kind of soul to embody it, and to rage against it. The film they’ve produced never actually ignites, but it attains a solid simmer for a good hour or so as lone-human-in-New-York Robert Neville desperately fends off encroaching demons both external and internal in this adaptation of Richard Matheson’s oft-filmed novel of the same name. Not a carbon-copy of prior adaptations of the book (it’s more like an embellished replica), the tone of I Am Legend is, for a while, corrupted pulp in the best way, with the emphasis on low-slung filmmaking kinetics and a refreshingly intimate performance radiating char-broiled humanity.
Things do go awry in a final sequence that overheats the tensile strength of the ominous early goings and transform the film into a inflated (and thus deflated) blockbuster-like-object, an unknowing host for special effects doomed to be absorbed by them. Main man Will Smith and his handler Lawrence (one presumes this project afforded him the clout to become the quasi-auteur behind the later Hunger Games films) do what they can do assuage the film’s failures though. And although blockbuster size is always skulking undertow, for a while I Am Legend is sufficient to doodle in the margins of the blockbuster format with compositional whimsy and unmoored fear taking center-stage over conventional thrills.
The vestiges of humanity do make themselves known, of course, both in the form of not-quite-tactile-enough CG ghouls and in mannequins imbued with faded memories of human populace by Smith, who speaks to them in a video rental store (time really did stop when the plague hit) in one of the film’s most unnerving scenes. With a touch of camp (all the better to suggest the discomfited world around us) boiled down to menace, he waxes poetic about how to not hit on the plastic facsimile of a woman he has erected in the store out of clothing, a wig, and his unwavering hope for contact in a world devoid of it. It’s uncanny, and although the film’s mise-en-scene lacks the vicious vacancy and minimalism of the earlier adaptations of Matheson’s book (which whipped up a terrifying sense of emptiness), this film’s replacement vision of a rotting, nature-reclaimed post-metropolis is no less evocative in a different way.
It’s easy to curtail Will Smith’s untamable charisma and reduce it to a puppy-dog whimper in his eyes and pout on his mouth. But his galvanic, untamable, magnetic-pull over the screen and larger-than-life mannerisms actually awaken, rather than put to rest, his character’s need to overdo a false simulacrum of photocopied human emotion in order to resolve, or at least mollify, his kindling insanity. It’s as though he is using the ever-untrammeled force of his cathartic charisma simply to deploy enough humanity for a hundred people to fill in the void around him until it kills him, so much so that his perpetual good cheer warps into a locus of creepy, malformed, outré happiness.
Untamable, I say for Smith, until the film tames him in the back-half, the perhaps inevitable slide from action as an accessory and counterpoint to loneliness into action as an all-encompassing toccata of terror. Much like the film’s collapsed Manhattan in the opening moments, the film’s light is quarantined and left to rot in a conclusion that fossilizes the oppressive tension and wandering air of loss in the early and middle passages, replacing it with a siege-story and a quagmire of special effects. If it crawls under a bad blockbuster with a pen, it can be found in I Am Legend, which marries writers Akiva Goldsman and Mark Protosevich and naturally calcifies itself in a final act where Smith’s character morphs into a silly savior figure. Naturally, he becomes a new-world-order messiah that transforms, and ruins, the meaning of the title by turning it into a superhero-myth rather than a character-inversion gut-punch (at least in the theatrical ending; the alternate cut is superior and restores a modicum of grace).
Expectedly, then, the film’s pitiful bid for concluding optimism is so half-hearted that it barely registers as a desire the film has in the first place, the final straw in a slow and stately descent – nearly linear from the first to final moment – from mentally-jumbled apocalyptic moodiness into the wetland of plot contrivance and “event”. Ninety minutes of Smith and best buddy Sam (a dog, one of the film’s better incisions compared to the prior adaptations) dwarfed by a tableaux of stimulating, feral, depigmented imagery is the ideal for a film like this. As the film deviates into a narrative, it also deflates into a fiasco of an ending that is outright incorrigible in its haphazard collage of twists and revelations with whiskers on their whiskers.
Worse, the intimacy of the piece, and the interest in harnessing the grammar of an exploitation film for the ebullience of a tentpole, jettisons and evaporates. A film that from time to time commits espionage and even aggravated assault against the edict of grandiosity in blockbuster cinema eventually acquiesces to the expectations of its budget. The veneer of intelligence is cracked with every successive image of the watery, woefully lightweight, kooky CG villains. The film’s Cinderella story from spare poverty to ornamented wealth is also its catalyst for disappointment, and once it passes its equilibrium point in a strikingly animalistic dog-clash mid-way through, the film tips over and never returns. For a film about the insanity of loneliness, it just lacks the imagination-fuel of the batty recesses of the human mind at its most uncivilized. Although it is competently made, Smith is wonderful, and the early goings save the film from true failure, the overall arc of the film just isn’t lonely enough.