It’s been three years since a killer virus struck Manhattan. Those who aren’t dead have mutated into vampire-like beasts. All except Robert Neville (Smith), a military scientist desperately looking for a cure.
In the novel on which this moody blockbuster is based, Richard Matheson offered a neat sci-fi twist on the vampire mythos, imagining a world-destroying spore which would turn everyday folk into blood-lusting creatures of midnight. Yet, despite retaining the tweaked-vamp threat, Akiva Goldsman and Mark ‘Poseidon’ Protosevich’s script, as realised by MTV alumnus Francis Lawrence, better resembles a werewolf or Dr. Jekyll. By day, it’s a limber, thoughtful and supremely effective drama. By night, it’s a drooling, lurching, crushingly stupid and clumsily executed VFX disaster.
Sunrise. Smartly employing the sharp eye of Lord Of The Rings lenser Andrew Lesnie, Lawrence presents to us a New York free of all human presence. Shoulder-height grass wafts lazily in Times Square, disturbed only by the occasional herd of deer. Skyscrapers still shout of the glories of mankind’s achievements, but with no-one to hear them they serve only to cast long shadows.
In one sense it’s terrifying -the Mary Celeste as an entire conurbation. Yet it’s also oddly beautiful - a city where nature has regained her hold and the tiniest animal sounds are no longer smothered by the deafening cough of engines.
When we’re introduced to this landscape’s only human inhabitant - one Robert Neville (Will Smith), who is conveniently both highly militarily trained and a brilliant virologist - he’s seemingly enjoying his desolate environment, redlining a sports car through town, his faithful canine companion Sam (best animal performance of the decade, say us) gazing happily out of the passenger window. It’s a great opening sequence, especially when it transpires that Neville’s actually on the hunt, rifle in lap, seeking some venison to supplement his tinned provisions.
For a big studio genre film, I Am Legend goes a surprisingly long way to explore psychology, and Smith fearlessly dives headfirst into the mind of an individual who’s had no human contact for almost 40 months.
The little details ring true, such as when Neville chides his dog for not eating her vegetables - he’s anthropomorphised her so completely that he’s forgotten she’s a carnivore. Ignore the predictably dodgy science and plot-fissures, and you have a tentpole picture that doesn’t, for once, insult its audience’s intelligence. Until…
Sunset. Before we sink our teeth in, let’s make one thing clear: having cut his incisors on infernal comic-book adaptation Constantine, Lawrence knows how to crank tension and apply a shock. So, in its earlier moments, I Am Legend plays on our primal fear of the dark like a maestro. But when it comes to the blood-lapping “dark seekers”, Lawrence’s inadequacies come crashing through. A more experienced director would likely have taken a more clever, less profligate approach to this movie’s monsters. As would a filmmaker who was - like Danny Boyle, helming the superior 28 Days Later - forced to operate on a considerably more limited budget.
After all, what are the dark seekers? Skinny, pale, hairless people with a supernaturally advanced metabolism. So why on Earth did Lawrence choose to make them pure-CG conjurations? And what dismally dire CG it is, too. Lawrence’s ‘vampires’ are cartoonish phantoms, evaporators of fear who mercilessly inhale all the atmosphere so ingeniously woven during the daylight hours. Going full CG was the worst artistic decision Lawrence could have made - short of having the populace of New York suddenly jump out from behind the Empire State and shout “April foo-ool!” at Neville before cutting to the credits.
While the sun shines, it’s a four-star thriller with a superb turn from Smith. When the moon rises, it’s a two-star horror cartoon with some of the worst FX we’ve seen all year. So, really, it has to average out at…