‘Legend’ not a classic

Shouldn’t “post-apocalyptic” be a cinematic dirty word by now?

And yet, there’s a sizeable early-to-middle stretch in the decidedly post-apocalyptic I Am Legend that, I’m pleased to report, drew this viewer involuntarily (and more than once) to his seat-edge and managed to hold him more palpably rapt than a great many ostensibly comparable films of recent years. That it managed to do so by somehow finding a measure of genuine novelty in the creaky-as-a-swingset “Armageddon survivors versus zombies/vampires/virus-stricken half-humans” plot construction (as well as by an artful and self-assured employ of suspense, silence, and calculated restraint) is impressive in its own right, and serves to at least partially redeem the film once things have taken an admittedly disappointing turn for the more familiar.

The story, again, sounds like a retread. (And in truth, it is, in more ways than one: 1964’s The Last Man on Earth, starring Vincent Price, and 1971’s The Omega Man, with Charlton Heston, were both adapted from the same novel — Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend, 1954 — as was this year’s incarnation.) In a nutshell: Man’s folly creates virus; virus makes folks into rabid, cannibalistic half-people with a peculiar aversion to sunlight; survivor must fight off the afflicted while searching for a cure/finding sustenance/navigating a major-league crisis of faith. Quite fortunately for our survivor, he happens to be a brilliant scientist and supersoldier, which much facilitates the fighting-off and cure-finding portions of his lot.

What sets Legend apart, at least at first, is its sense of character. Our potentially Batmanesque survivor, Robert Neville (Will Smith), is deeply human, enveloped in a tangible profundity of solitude and loss that eats at him daily. He wakes in the morning, does a few laps on the treadmill with his dog and only companion Sam, then it’s off to a stunningly rendered, wholly deserted New York City to scavenge apartment homes for food and search for leads to a cure. To pass time, he smacks golfballs off the tailfin of abandoned fighter jets, picks the racks clean at the local DVD outlet (a man after my own heart), and talks to mannequins. At noon, he heads to the dock, where he has by radio instructed any listeners still alive to meet him. Not only do these sequences expertly hammer home the rote day-to-day that one would imagine accompanies what might be described as an enormously un-fun, writ-large version of Home Alone, they lay down a wily layer of airtight suspense for Neville’s evenings, which are generally spent huddled tight with Sam in an oversized bathtub while all manner of abject savagery proceeds outside. Further, the moment in which Neville’s assiduous defenses are craftily circumvented by the surprisingly not-so-dumb “creatures” is exqusite and terrifying.

These set-up scenes, invariably, are the best of the film. There’s a plot point down the road (or two, in a sense) that allows us to move forward to a tidy and predictable end, but that’s precisely the point at which Legend lost me a bit. Certainly it’s challenging to imagine a satisfying ending otherwise, but it’s precisely that other, rare sort of ending that the rather exceptional early goings — which more or less nullified the dreaded CGI glut — set me up for. Thus, disappointment.

Don’t get me wrong, Legend is worth seeing. Is it less than what it could’ve been? Surely. But though the ending be formulaic, it isn’t terrible. I merely mean to suggest that if as much care had been taken with the second half-or-so as was apparently showered on the first, Legend might be a classic.

I Am Legend
Dir. Francis Lawrence; writ. Mark Protosevich, Akiva Goldsman (screenplay), Richard Matheson (novel), John William Corrington, Joyce Hooper Corrington (1971 screenplay); feat. Will Smith, Alice Braga, Charlie Tahan, Salli Richardson, Willow Smith (PG-13)

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