Note: I originally posted this review in January. The much-improved alternate ending was just posted on YouTube. If this had been the theatrical ending, I probably would have given the film an A- or B+, putting it in my Top 10 of 2007.
An obvious Spoiler Alert — don’t watch this if you haven’t seen the movie, even though it’s not the ending they used, it will reveal very key plot points.
UPDATE: The video has been removed. However, it can be found HERE.
“My name is Robert Neville. I am a survivor living in New York City…”
Rated PG-13. In Theaters. Directed by Francis Lawrence. Based on the novel by Richard Matheson. Starring Will Smith.
It’s too bad that I Am Legend didn’t come out after Cloverfield, because in some ways it would have worked as a follow-up. While Cloverfield is a movie about experiencing a destructive, apocalyptic event, I Am Legend is about a survivor living in a post-apocalyptic world following that type of event, though of course, the type of events are different. Plus, they both take place in New York City and benefit from the destruction of iconic locations like the Brooklyn Bridge, Times Square and the Statue of Liberty.
I Am Legend opens with an uncredited Emma Thompson as a research scientist explaining her revolutionary new discovery — a modified measles virus that acts as a cure for cancer. Needless to say, the joy is short-lived, as we jump three years into the future to a now-deserted New York City landscape, where former Army scientist Robert Neville (Will Smith) is living in virtual solitude with his trusty dog, Sam, who would deserve a Best Supporting Dog award if it ever existed. Of course, he’s not entirely alone, as the mutated virus has created in its survivors a disturbing new race of humanity – the “darkseekers.”
The movie is at its best in these early scenes, when Smith is truly alone, with Sam playing the Wilson the Volleyball character to Smith’s Tom Hanks, offering a glimpse into Neville’s rapidly deteriorating psyche. We follow Neville through his day-to-day activities — stripping abandoned apartments of valuables, conducting research on mice trying to find a cure, and watching every DVD in alphabetical order from a video store populated with mannequins. There are also some awesome shots of an desolate New York City that are reminiscent of the shots in 28 Days Later of an abandoned London.
It is jarring to see Smith, an actor best known for his confidence and his witty, cocky persona, playing the role of a broken man losing his grip with reality, but he pulls it off quite well. Director Lawrence makes effective use of silence and darkness to create some very memorable sequences, with three strong ones in particular essentially carrying the film. The flashback scenes, which are intercut with the early scenes to provide some exposition, end up being somewhat unnecessary.
The biggest problem with the film is that it really felt like two different stories and the first 2/3rds are setting up an ending that doesn’t materialize. Perhaps, this is because an alternate ending, which would have been much stronger, was killed after test audiences responded poorly. It’s tough to go into detail about the shortcomings of the third act without giving anything away. Suffice to say, while the ending wasn’t terrible, it wasn’t consistent with the first 2/3rds of the movie and would have been better served to continue in the original direction. And for those expecting anything similar to the novel, be advised that the movie isn’t particularly faithful to the source material.
It is also the type of movie where the more you think about it, the less sense it makes, but it’s easy to suspend your disbelief while you’re experiencing it. The movie has some of the more intense, harrowing scenes I’ve seen in a while, and for that alone it is worth seeing. If you combined the best qualities of I Am Legend with the best from Cloverfield, then it would really be something, but on their own, they both have their flaws.