So here we are, in "I Am Legend," at the end of everything. Courtesy of Dr. Emma Thompson, the cure for cancer has wiped out just about the entire planet. Weeds and shrubs have taken over Park Avenue and Times Square in New York City. The tunnels are caves. The Manhattan and Brooklyn bridges have been blown up and now are just a set of frayed planks aching to touch each other once again. Oh, and there are actual lions on the loose, ready to steal a deer right from under your nose. This place really is a concrete jungle.
We've been dropped into a funky apocalyptic time warp where life has become postmodernly prehistoric: Come hunt and gather in your SUV! But "I Am Legend," is a pretty good hybrid: an old-fashioned Hollywood B-movie with seamless state-of-the-art production values. It's all built around two of the most reliable syllables in moviedom: Will Smith.
As virologist Lieutenant Colonel Dr. Robert Neville, Smith is the apparent sole survivor of this outbreak (in flashbacks, we glean what happened to Neville's wife, daughter, you, and me). And he has the entire city, the entire movie, and the entire audience to himself. His costars are just Neville's dog, Sam, and the colony of heliophobic freaks that come out at night. And watching Smith, near the peak of his charisma, do almost noth ing is more entertaining than seeing a lot of his peers try to do it all.
In much the way Tom Hanks used the occasion of being marooned on an island with a volleyball in "Cast Away" to plumb the depths of his actorly soul, Smith turns his solo gig into a fascinatingly cracked one-man show.
Neville talks to Sam ("eat your vegetables," etc.), fishes in the reflecting pool at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and watches old episodes of "Today" (aah, Matt and Katie together again). He looks for an antidote to the virus in the lab beneath his enviable Washington Square brownstone. (After one good sequence puts him in the zombies' maw, he sets a trap to catch one for experimental purposes; it's a girl.) Neville works out his body (on the treadmill and the pull-up bar), but eventually it's obvious this man is losing his mind in order to hold on to his humanity. For instance, he's turned his local video store into a diorama where he hits on one of the mannequins he's set up.
Neville's solitude curdles his loneliness into a type of furious derangement. At some point, Smith stands in front of a television set and recites the dialogue of "Shrek" as though it were some kind of psycho-spiritual beacon. He gives a wonderfully corny speech about Bob Marley being a virologist of love. "I Am Legend" is based on Richard Matheson's book, which was turned into a Vincent Price picture, "The Last Man on Earth," in 1964, and in 1971 became "The Omega Man," that great cult-circus with a chest-thwapping Charlton Heston, among other exciting nonsense. It's tough to imagine Heston extolling Marley as a proto-medical wonder.
A wild work of racial and socio-political hilarity set in post-apocalyptic Los Angeles, "Omega Man" was a movie of its day. (It makes "Crash" look like "Steel Magnolias.") This new version, directed by Francis Lawrence and written by Mark Protosevich and Akiva Goldsman, is apolitical to the bone. It's also out of touch with its hero, who misreads a crucial plot point. When Neville captures his lady specimen, the head zombie - played by Dash Mihok - runs after Neville and into direct sunlight. Neville deduces that the zombie's almost frying himself represents the last stage of dehumanization. But the zombie leader wants his woman back. Isn't that a sign of life? Isn't that why the creatures come after Neville for the movie's big climax? It's hard to believe that the lonely man who argued so movingly about Bob Marley's infectiousness would misconstrue the passion of a lonely zombie. Neville should just have played him "Is This Love?"
Matheson's book is a series of piercingly concise sentences and no false moves. Its bluntness has an odd, tranquilizing effect. Lawrence's movie is somewhere between Matheson's eloquent efficiency and Steven Spielberg's excessively visionary doom in "War of the Worlds." Lawrence, a former music video director, shows patience before he lets hell break loose in the movie's second half. But this new version has no allegorical nerve, when it really could have used this story, the way the '71 version did, as a platform to be a movie of today.
"I Am Legend" is outside of time in that sense. It's neither a neat little allegory about faith nor a transcendently entertaining one. "I Am Legend" is actually about the last man on earth played by one of the last real movie stars on earth. To be honest, Smith was all I was thinking about while I sat through "I Am Legend."
You don't have to believe in this movie to believe in him. His ability to give himself over to a part remains underrated: He's just being Will Smith, it's true, but he is always being the best Will Smith he can be. When it comes to entertaining the pants off a paying customer or a tired movie critic, he is the Omega Man - if Charlton Heston doesn't mind my saying so.