In a bit of black irony any cynic would have to appreciate, the virus that decimates the world’s population in I Am Legend
is the result of an unforeseen reaction to a miraculous new cancer vaccine. One minute that vaccine’s developer, Dr. Krippen (a brilliant, uncredited Emma Thompson), is informing the public that they can now feel free to smoke filterless cigarettes and lie out in the sun; the next, Manhattan is an overgrown wasteland where thousands of rusting, driverless cars fill the streets, and herds of lions roam through Central Park like it’s the African savanna. The Krippen Virus has killed 5.5 billion people, leaving the few unlucky souls who have an immunity alone with 500 million mutated, gray-skinned, rabid cannibals who come out at night to feast on the blood of the living and screech at great volumes. In this latest adaptation of Richard Matheson's apocalyptic science-fiction novel of 1954 (which has been previously adapted at least a couple of times as The Last Man on Earth
with Vincent Price and The Omega Man
starring Charlton Heston), Smith plays Robert Neville, a military immunologist who is the only real human left in New York. By day he wanders the city’s empty avenues with his German shepherd, Sam, scavenging for food and gasoline and borrowing every title at his local movie-rental house in alphabetical order; by night he barricades himself in his apartment with his rifle to watch DVDs and wait for the living dead to break down the door. All this happens during the film’s first 10 minutes, so initially I was optimistic. First of all, Lawrence’s desolate Manhattan is a wonder to behold. Devoid of human activity, the city, with its giant decaying billboards and skyscrapers, looks like the desperate cry of a species lashing out at inevitable extinction. And secondly, Smith’s Neville (who appears onscreen alone, or with his dog, throughout most of the movie) is a hero with real psychological potential. No unblinking model of action-film courage, he is terrified, lonely, and racked with guilt over his inability to save the lives of … well, anyone – a guilt he tries to assuage by working on a vaccine for the vaccine that will save humanity, not to mention his own soul. Unfortunately, after those first 10 minutes, it’s all downhill for I Am Legend
, as the film descends into a monster-movie malaise starring a horde of balding CGI monsters that look like refugees from a video game and that will scare absolutely no one, save those who worry that green-screening is ruining the movies. By the time another survivor, named Anna (Braga), shows up in the film’s third act with news of a possible safe colony in Vermont, I was so numb to the threat of cartoonish zombie horror that I found myself wondering how she had managed to get into Manhattan if all its bridges had been destroyed years before as part of a military quarantine. Did the National Guard forget to seal up the Holland Tunnel? And if so, did Anna still have to pay the toll?