The pleasures of the apocalypse: Will Smith in I Am Legend

Now that the world sustains over six and a half billion people, one wonders about whether or not humans are subject to the same laws of population overshoot and collapse that other species share. When you fill up a Petri dish with enough of a reproducing single organism, its population tends to balloon, abruptly use up all of its resources, and then die off quickly. I’ve heard that the earth can indefinitely sustain about 2 billion people, so that leaves over 4 that need to go sometime. Why not everyone all at once, and why not soon?

Such is the premise of I am Legend, based on a 1954 novel by Richard Matheson, and starring Will Smith as perhaps the last man on earth As a military virologist, Robert Neville (Smith) has proven immune to a mutated virus that killed off 90% of humanity before some of those infected by the virus (known as Dark Seekers) ate most everyone else. So now, Neville wanders around a grandiosely decaying New York City in 2012. He hunts for deer with his German shepherd Sam in Times Square, plays golf off of a fighter jet, and sends a radio message daily that says “I am a survivor living in New York City … I can provide food. I can provide shelter. I can provide security. I will be at the South Street Seaport every day at midday when the sun is highest in the sky.” So he waits for someone else to appear, and insofar as the film does not explain anything, the vision of a crumbling New York serves as a great playground for the camera. Partially made up of computer-generated effects, the landscape reflects back on 2009 or so, so we still can recognize posters for Broadway shows like Rent and The Producers. I especially liked the film poster that blends together the emblems of Batman and Superman in some future blockbuster sequel. There are traffic jams still rotting on the streets, and buildings quarantined with clear plastic. Grass masks lions in the streets, and Robert grows corn near a pier by the destroyed Brooklyn Bridge. Every now and again, he has flashbacks to 2008 when the military sealed off Manhattan in a futile attempt to stop the airborne virus. Huge mobs tried to take a ferry or a helicopter ride off the island as the pandemic spread.

After a great start, however, I Am Legend gets less original and more cheesy as it goes on. The mob scenes have exact parallels in War of the Worlds and Resident Evil: Apocalypse. When his dog Sam leads Robert into a dark warehouse that holds a “hive” of the Infected, the film quickly turns horrific as Robert nervously flashes his light on blood-stained stairways, but I’ve already seen these kinds of fast-running zombie types more effectively portrayed in the 28 Days Later films. As long as we don’t see them, the Infected make for great monsters, but when they do finally appear snarling and salivating like rabid dogs, their computer-generated images looks fake and cartoonish. In the 1971 film version of I Am Legend--The Omega Man starring Charlton Heston-- the Infected were played by actors with pasty makeup and Inquisition-style black robes, but they at least seemed more recognizably human than those that face off with Neville.

For his part, Will Smith proves passable for the lead, but his acting seems forced in places, mostly because he only has his dog or mannequins to react to, and his comedic charm is ill-suited to portray the effects of years of isolation and stoic endurance. Smith seems to want to convey as much humanity and tenderness as he did in The Pursuit of Happyness, which seems out of place in a deserted future. As plot complications pile up and other people arrive, I Am Legend sells out many of the interesting premises raised at its beginning. To make a profit on its 200 million dollar investment, the film needs action, and therefore antagonists, but I liked the film best when Robert Neville wanders the city alone. It might be fun to explore a world emptied of grasping humanity.