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Film Review: I Am Legend

I Am Legend (2007; Directed by Francis Lawrence)

The consensus critical opinion that Francis Lawrence’s post-apocalyptic survivor’s tale I Am Legend boasts a superb first hour that is then let down by an incongruous and ineffective closing act consisting of frantic action and heavy-handed Christian-esque self-sacrifice is no less accurate for its persistence. Frequently, such consensus opinions, especially common in the contemporary fandom groupthink enabled by the Internet, act as mechanisms of epistemic closure, preventing productive contrary readings from being voiced and received. Everybody knows what is happening with this movie, it implies, so who are you to say that anything else might possibly be happening?

On occasion, however, a film is structured in such a blindingly self-evident way that there can be little or no argument about how it is laid out and what the effect (and affect) of that structure tend to be. Agreeing with the general perspective on that structure and affect need not hinder a critical reading, which after all can only inhabit the space given to it, can only breathe the oxygen available.

I Am Legend is based on Richard Matheson’s influential 1954 dystopian horror novel of the same name, and was brought to the screen twice before: with Vincent Price in 1964 as The Last Man and with Charlton Heston in 1971 as The Omega Man. The 2007 version returns at last to the original title but transplants the emptied-out urban setting from one coast to another, from Los Angeles to New York City. Director Francis Lawrence (later to become the helmsman of The Hunger Games franchise) keenly observed that much of sprawling L.A. already resembles a nightmarish post-human wasteland, while imaginatively stripping tight-packed, constantly thrumming Manhattan of its thronging multitudes would carry a more potent visual punch.

Indeed it does, for an indelible opening hour at least. Robert Neville (Will Smith) appears to be the only (fully) human inhabitant of what was once the United States’ largest metropolis. Alone in abandoned Manhattan, which is frozen at the moment of panicked evacuation and is gradually returning to nature, Neville and his loyal German Shepherd dog Sam cruise through the deserted, haunted streets by day. Neville hunts herds of deer, works on his golf swing from the deck of an aircraft carrier, interacts half-delusionally with mannequins at a video store (he’s been on his own long enough to work his way through to the Gs on its alphabetized shelves), and returns for an evening dinner at his Washington Square townhouse with his pooch before barricading them both in for a sleepless nocturnal siege of tense terror. Something comes out at night, living but also not living, and Neville knows it and its deadly nature well enough not to hazard his life in its presence in the dark.

There’s a rare visual and visceral resonance to this opening two-thirds of I Am Legend, which mingles the apocalyptic shock of catastrophic collapse with the isolated sense of alienation among stacked millions that we choose to call modernity. Neville, once a famed military man and scientific genius with a loving wife and child as seen in flashbacks, has seen his psychology and personality altered as thoroughly as the decaying cityscape through which he passes like a forgotten ghost. Smith diverts Neville’s energies into his survivalism, into his ongoing efforts to cure the runaway pandemic that has dwindled away the vast majority of the human race, and into his fond, charming interactions with his dog Sam.

But there is always in his eyes the haunted distance from ongoing experience of a man who has, quite literally, lost nearly everything. Neville is perhaps the archetypal role for Smith, an actor whose appeal on the big screen is amplified when aligned not against other people but against forces greater than the mere human (alien invaders, the national security apparatus, robots, structural inequality, golf, and here, nocturnally active zombie-vampires). Like Price and Heston before him, Smith’s onscreen persona has been constructed as super-human, almost otherworldly, above the childish things of human interaction and connection. Smith’s fine work in I Am Legend brings that movie-star superiority down to earth, and to a highly fallible and tenuously held-together version of earth at that.

There’s a very strong argument to be made that if I Am Legend ended after about an hour, when this man who has lost nearly everything loses one of the most important things that he has left, it would be an infinitely better film. This galvanizing tragedy is the upper note of an exquisite crescendo by Lawrence (the screenplay is by Mark Protosevich and Akiva Goldsman) and would be a moving conclusion if its leitmotifs of solitude and sadness in a continuity of pain and loss could be trusted in such a blockbuster-budgeted movie instead of being considered as preludes in the narrative arc to rote redemption and self-sacrificing heroism. But Will Smith must save the world and, with the help of a woman (Alice Braga), a young boy (Charlie Tahan), and a vial of blood containing a cure to the zombifying infection, he verily does.

He does so with an act of Christ-like self-sacrifice inspired by portents of divine intervention that would make even M. Night Shyamalan blush in embarrassment. This ending is a miscalculated forfeiture of the resonance of I Am Legend‘s compelling ideas that manifests as an unforgivable betrayal. Even an alternate ending that grants the predatory hordes of infected “Darkseekers” a measure of quasi-humanity doesn’t improve matters much, coming straight out of left field given the characterization of the ravenous nocturnal hordes up to that point (though it is closer to Matheson’s original text, it must be acknowledged).

The themes marshalled and so memorably visualized in the first two-thirds of I Am Legend are not so easily resolved by selfless moral rectitude and benevolent deism. Lawrence’s indelible images of a post-human Manhattan (shot by the late, great cinematographer Andrew Lesnie) summon the looming spectre of not merely the incipient end of American imperium but the inherent fragility of human civilization itself. Lawrence fitfully sketches these roiling, repressed anxieties with the remarkable image of Neville casting a fishing line into the reflecting pool surrounding the Temple of Dendur in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. This transplanted architecture of the ancients, meticulously arranged in the cultural epicentre of the pulsating heart of the modern world, becomes a metaphor for the transitory nature of human achievement in the face of history’s violent imperatives.

The inevitable collapse and gradual decomposition of even the grandest of ambitions is not an idea which the American psyche, ever ambitious and self-conceived as continually ascendant, is particularly well-equipped to handle. For the fantasy factory of Hollywood, the world can always be saved, no matter how dire its predicament. Lawrence’s rare but fleeting and ultimately dismantled achievement in I Am Legend consists of powerfully suggesting that the world is doomed as a matter of course. I Am Legend‘s title referred in its original literary form to Neville’s posthumous legacy as a faded myth to the culture of the infected who succeeded our human species in dominion over the planet. In this film, his “legend” is as a heroic avatar of mankind’s survival and regeneration. But this overlay of hope feels spurious, tacked on to a much more resonant text dominated by isolation and loss. Agreeing with the consensus view that I Am Legend is not as satisfying in its closing act as in its establishing ones does not divert us from this revealing observation. Indeed, it empowers it.

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Categories: Film, Reviews
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