Eugene Weekly : Movies : 12.20.07


I Am Doubt
Will Smith film can’t survive Will Smith

I AM LEGEND: Directed by Francis Lawrence. Written by Mark Protosevich and Akiva Goldsman. Cinematography, Andrew Lesnie. Music, James Newton Howard. Starring Will Smith. Warner Bros. Pictures, 2007. PG-13. 101 minutes.

Not a scene from a new Alien film: Will Smith in I Am Legend

I began to worry early in I Am Legend when the animals, not the human, were getting all the best parts. Deer stampede through the streets of New York. Lions knock them over like bowling pins. It might look like New Urbanism by way of the book of Genesis, except for the fact that Robert Neville (Will Smith) is the city’s only resident. Three years after a deadly viral outbreak, Neville is all that remains of the good guys. Darkness belongs to the bad guys, seething hordes of light-sensitive zombies whom Neville presumes ate the few survivors immune, like Neville, to the virus known as KV. As far as Neville knows, he’s the last man standing. Thus the fate of mankind, as well as I Am Legend, falls squarely on the shoulders of Will Smith, who plays Neville with a cool, flinty resolve that to me is the undoing of the picture.

It’s the Castaway problem: To appear credible and sympathetic, an actor in isolation for the better part of a movie must understand loneliness and despair, conditions to which nobody in the world is immune. Many didn’t favor Castaway as much as I did. But Castaway did get something right: Tom Hanks’ belly in the yellow-orange glow of the bonfire on the beach. That soft belly is to convince you Hanks won’t survive the night. By contrast, consider Will Smith’s Neville. He’s not only a military colonel, he’s a brilliant virologist; he’s not only a scientist, he’s immune to the virus; he’s not only immune, he has the swagger of an action hero; and it’s this last part I have problems with. Don’t blame the book: In the 1954 novel by Richard Matheson, Neville is a factory worker struggling with depression at world’s end, his ordinary qualities giving the book universal appeal. Blame Akiva Goldsman, whose screenplay departs from the book so geometrically that the title, originally a reference to Neville’s “legend” among the undead as a killer, is by comparison sadly ironic. To Goldsman, a character must be conspicuous to be likable, a tendency he’s been demonstrating since Batman & Robin, which might be called an accidental zombie film.

Smith’s performance, already handicapped by the screenplay, manages to evoke occasional upwellings of sympathy. But Smith seems tight and uncomfortable in post-apocalyptic New York. Call it what you will — charisma, angles, range — Smith doesn’t have it in I Am Legend. Smith is successful when he’s up against a stodgy but self-satisfied cadre of elder doubters, as he was in Six Degrees of Separation, Ali and Men in Black. He does ambition, not self-doubt, and doubt is what is needed for I Am Legend to survive in this age of apocalyptic offerings like 28 Days Later. Late in the film, Neville is still saying “I can fix this.” I beg your pardon? The zombies have the metabolism of great white sharks and, even worse, the disposition.

More interestingly, the zombies also have the ability to learn. Part of the enjoyment of I Am Legend is the cat-and-mouse game between the undead and Neville, who traps the creatures to run experiments. Director Francis Lawrence (Constantine) does an inspired job of creating an urban environment sliding back into nature’s grip. Times Square is a weedlot. The world appears to have ended around Christmas, as evidenced by the wreaths and tinsel strewn about. Inspired touches can be found everywhere, perhaps none more so than the perfect weather, which contrasts with the violence and mayhem at night. There’s a thrilling car chase between Neville and a herd of deer, the only interspecies car chase I can recall. There are also, this being a zombie picture, shocks and scares aplenty. But I Am Legend also wants to be a character study, and in that respect, the film is a disappointment.

I Am Legend is now playing at Cinemark and VRC Stadium 15.