I am Legend

Director Francis Lawrence’s latest film, I am Legend, is a study in contrasts. As a vehicle to explore maturing actor Will Smith it is well chauffeured. However, as an example of the current state-of-the-art in special effects imagery, it careens headlong off a cliff.

The story is an oddly appealing one. Robert Neville (played with maturity and depth by the increasingly remarkable Will Smith) is a military scientist who is, presumably, the last man on Earth. He spends his days hunting with his only companion, a german shephard, and renting movies from the local video rental store. He also continues to work on a cure for a viscious mutated measles virus, designed by an English scientist to cure cancer.

WillSmithAs part of his daily activities, he seeks out the few human beings left on Manhattan island, infected zombie-like creatures that for some unknown reason have developed dislocatable jaws and a voracious appetite for other human beings. The infected are unable to come out during the day, having developed a fatal sensitivity to sunlight. However, Neville is able to capture some of them, which he uses as guinea pigs in his attempts to develop a cure.

However, things are changing in Manhattan.

The zombie-like creatures are becoming smarter, and his time appears to be running out. The apparent leader of the zombies, who looks just like the other zombies but roars more, develops a trap to catch Neville. In the course of escaping, Neville loses the one remaining family member that is keeping him sane, which sets in motion a series of events that leads to the reason for the title of the movie. . . .

This film is the third variation on the 1958 original book by Richard Matheson of the same title. The book is substantively different from all of the movies adapted from it, being primarily the story of a scientist trapped by hungry vampires created by a viral infection. The book does not take place in Manhattan, although that makes for an interesting variation on the theme.

The first two adaptations, The Last Man on Earth (1964) and The Omega Man (1971), were hobbled by the special effects technologies contemporary to their productions, although both had many dedicated fans. This film is different both for the presence of Will Smith and the improved special effects.

However, while the static special effects that render downtown Manhattan a virtual national park are remarkable, the motion-capture special effects used for those infected by the virus are staid, unoriginal and much less frightening than the actor-based creatures seen in movies such as 2002’s 28 Days Later… and other recent films. I found myself at several points during the film asking why in the world did they computer generate the creatures rather than simply using actors for the same part?

As mentioned before, this movie is a study in contrasts. On the one hand, Will Smith’s remarkable performance was stunning in parts and reflects his ongoing maturity and skill as an actor. On the other hand, although the static effects were very well done, the creatures were, to put it simply, lame. . . .

I give it ** 1/2 Jessicas out of a possible 4. Worth renting or seeing at a matinee, but you might feel a little disappointed if you pay full price.

EK

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