Arguably the most paranoid novel ever published, Richard Matheson's powerful tale of isolation, I Am Legend, informed the works of Stephen King, Dean R. Koontz, Joe R. Lansdale, and pretty much everyone else who has written horror since the story's 1954 publication. The book spawned two previous movie adaptations. The first, L' Ultimo Uomo Della Terra (The Last Man on Earth, 1964), starred Vincent Price in a dull yet faithful Italian production. Although Matheson penned the initial screenplay, re-writes by other writers angered him so much that he asked to be credited as "Logan Swanson."
1971's The Omega Man, starring Charlton Heston, used only the bare bones of the original story. This diverting action rendition relied on brawn over brains, offering a mindless entertainment. Some 26 years later, director Francis Lawrence attempts Matheson's classic a third time with the latest film version, the first to sport the book title, I Am Legend.
In a near-future New York, a viral cure for cancer transforms humans into zombie cannibals, who grow fangs, consume blood, and can be destroyed by ultraviolet light. It quickly mutates into an airborne virus, instantly killing a large percentage of the world's population. Of the remnant, most become vampires (though the word is never uttered in the film) and hunt the few who appear immune to the plague.
Military scientist Robert Neville (Will Smith), seeks a cure, even though it seems he is the last person alive. Neville spends his days on the empty Manhattan streets with his German Shepard Sam hunting for mutants, looking for survivors, and foraging for food. At night, Neville locks himself in his town home listening to the howls of the night creatures and working on a cure.
The first half of the film in which we learn of Neville's day-to-day existence and meet the mindless creatures, remains amazingly faithful to the book. Screenwriters Mark Protosevich and Akiva Goldsman manage to capture the mood and ambiance while successfully updating the story from its original suburban Los Angeles and original time (1950s).
Director Lawrence, whose previous film was the surprisingly good Constantine, attempts to convey Neville's isolation through sweeping vistas of the abandoned city overrun with wrecked cars, wild animals, and overgrowing weeds. Will Smith competently portrays Neville's loneliness and fear. Presenting the film's finest performance, the German Shepard engenders powerful sympathy, acting with a wide range of emotions and actions.
The initial encounters with the creatures are scary and at times tense. The eerie-looking, emaciated monsters understandably frighten Neville, even as he attempts to destroy, capture, and even cure them. With the appearance of a new character, the story devolves into typical Hollywood fare and most tragically, into a schmaltzy, predictably-happy conclusion.
While a movie need not remain completely faithful to its source material, changing the memorable ending of Richard Matheson's I Am Legend created a different tenor and meaning to the story. This latest screen version, beyond the first monster encounter, lacks any real tension and paranoia.
This is a watered-down, mediocre, the world-will-be-okay re-interpretation of the original nihilistic tale. Although nothing is done particularly poorly, nothing outside of the dog's performance rises above the standard. As the movie ended and the credits rolled, I Am Legend proves not necessarily a bad movie, just a forgettable one.