I Am Legend

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I AM LEGEND, the third—almost certainly last—version of Richard Matheson’s 1954 post-apocalyptic novel, by far the most elaborate and successful. 1964’s Vincent Price Italian cheapie The Last Man On Earth and 1971’s Charlton Heston ‘with it’ update The Omega Man have their adherents, but this 2007 adaptation had $150,000,000 to play with and superstar Will Smith for fan bait. He gave one of his best performances, critics applauded and crowds answered by making it the 6th most popular movie of the year.

Scientists re-engineer a measles virus as a cure for cancer, but the backfire results in wiping out 90% of the planet’s humans. Almost all the rest have mutated into rabid cannibals. In ravaged and silent New York City, Army virologist ‘Robert Neville’ (Smith, 38) is alone but for his loyal German Shepherd and some ever-haunting memories. During the day, they forage. At night, when the light-averse mutants prowl, they fort up. Neville faithfully runs tests to seek a cure, and sends out distress calls, but happily-ever-after looks like a stretch.

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The first hour works like a Swiss Rolex, then Act 3 wobbles in the fashion of a good-looking knockoff. Neville’s miraculous rescue from a suicide mission comes via introducing two more survivors, a young Brazilian woman (Alice Braga) and a little orphan boy (Charlie Tahan) who picked up Neville’s broadcast. She implores him to join them escaping to what she hopes is sanctuary in Vermont (anyone who placed any trust in relief from Vermont can be excused to vomit). Smith’s otherwise powerful performance is allowed to weaken  then with some audience-winking injections of Will-jokin’ material. These flaws hardly founder the project, they just don’t flow as well what went before. Purists who read the book—or critics who like to wizz on everyone’s enjoyment—took issue with the script, but the rest of humankind didn’t give a care: they just enjoyed a cool night of sci-fi-horror chills with a likable movie star, nasty zombies and a neat dog.

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This was another of those projects that went through a decade of development with assorted writers, director and actors attached. The screenplay credits Mark Protosevich and Akiva Goldsman, with a bow to the writers of The Omega Man (John & Joyce Coopington) ; it’s easy to spot moments where Smith was given latitude to improvise. Direction was ultimately entrusted to Francis Lawrence, who’d done a slew of hot music videos and one lame feature actioner, Constantine. He pulled off this big-scale assignment with style, and went on to home run three of The Hunger Games and the underrated spy thriller Red Sparrow.

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The action moves apace, there’s ample tension, the dog (‘Sam’ is played by Abbey) is a charmer, the CGI stuff—love the deer stampede—impresses. The director’s cut features an alternate ending. Worldwide gross came to $585,350,000, and at least another $126,000,000 was logged via disc sales.

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With Dash Mishok, Salli Richardson-Whitfield, Smith’s 6-year old daughter Willow, and a cameo from Emma Thompson. Production design by Naomi Shohan (Tears Of The Sun, The Lovely Bones). Edited by Wayne Wahrman. 101 minutes.

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