Saturday, December 15, 2007

I Am Legend (2007, Francis Lawrence)

As a longtime writer for TV and the movies, Richard Matheson's work even in novel form lends itself to a cinematic feel, and as long as filmmakers who adapt his work remain fairly close to the intent of the originals, the stories are hard to mess up. I had some reservations these last few months about this, the third big-screen adaptation of Matheson's I Am Legend, fearing that star Will Smith and director Francis Lawrence (of the putrid Constantine) would turn this into an action thriller. Thankfully, Lawrence and his screenwriters realized that much of the novel's power lies in its starkness, its portrait of a man who represents the last outpost of humanity fending off the monsters, set against a metropolis-turned-ghost town. It's a lonely life, with Smith hunting and gathering and experimenting to find a cure during the day and barricading himself in his home by night, with only his dog to keep him company. There's something uncanny about a city that has been emptied of all other human life, not least when Smith finds himself in deep trouble with no one to bail him out. But even the more mundane details of city life are gone, especially the din of human noise that one learns to tune out after living in the city long enough (this is why the flashback scenes, which would under most circumstances feel perfunctory, make sense here, as they're a flurry of human activity that contrasts with Smith's present-day life). I was so impressed with how well Lawrence captures this undercurrent in Matheson's story- much better, it must be said, than The Omega Man, which stupidly turned the non-speaking monsters into Communist hippie Druid dudes who never shut up- that I was a little disappointed when the film became a more conventional humans-vs.-monsters thriller once a few more people arrived on the scene, although I did appreciate how ill-prepared mentally Smith was for their arrival. Nonetheless, I Am Legend is surprisingly satisfying for a big-budget SF thriller, with Smith at his most restrained in ages (no "aw hell nos", for one thing) and some impressive production design of NYC in ruins. Last Man on Earth is still the best adaptation of the story, but as a remake, this will do quite nicely. Rating: 6 out of 10.

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