There have been so many attempts to get it right, but now 50 years after the fact, it's beginning to seem as if Richard Matheson's landmark 1954 novella may simply be unfilmable. Sure, the long-in-development I Am Legend is a serviceable action-horror flick when all is said and done, but the reality is that fans hoping for a faithful adaptation -- as the title would suggest -- will have to put their expectations on hold if they hope to enjoy this dodgy but passable take on the oft-told tale. Truth is that a large part of the story is deeply psychological as it hones in on the gradual mental breakdown of a man left completely alone in the world, a concept that few would deny is better suited to the written page than the silver screen. No doubt Will Smith does a commendable job of conveying the scientist-turned-vampire slayer's inner torment as he chats up mannequins like they're old friends and goads his dog on to eat vegetables, but it's when the film starts to stray from its origins that it becomes a bit generic and uninvolved. On the one hand, there isn't as much action here as there is in The Omega Man, but on the other, it doesn't come anywhere near to rivaling the brooding quality of The Last Man on Earth -- rendering it more of a tantalizing, middle-of-the-road misfire than an outright failure.
The year is 2012, and apparently the Mayan calendar was spot on. Three years ago, scientists smugly proclaimed to the world that they had defeated cancer by harnessing the power of the measles virus, but the celebrations quickly ceased when New Yorkers became infected with a mysterious plague that transformed them into rampaging, primal versions of their former selves. Somehow, famed military scientist Robert Neville was immune to the infection, and now he works around the clock to find a cure. While the light-sensitive former humans that stalk the moonlit streets aren't exactly vampires in the traditional sense (they don't have fangs and a well-aimed bullet will suffice should one find themselves fresh out of wooden stakes), they still possess superhuman strength and they'll stop at nothing to savor a fleshy treat. Aside from the absolute core details of Matheson's story, screenwriters Mark Protosevich and Akiva Goldsman have jettisoned nearly all of the engaging particulars that made Neville the tormented man that he became after he watched the world die, instead opting to focus almost entirely on the inevitable showdown between big daddy bloodsucker and the benevolent scientist who only wants to cure him. Gone is Neville's best-friend-turned-vampire who sadistically taunts him from the darkness after the sun goes down, and the slow, torturous death of his family is replaced with a urgent scene of New York City being evacuated that, despite effectively capitalizing on post-9/11 fears of urban paranoia and biological terrorism, denies the character the vivid suffering and agony that so richly molded him on the written page. These changes make for a more cinematic approach to be sure, but unfortunately they're changes that come at the sacrifice of two essential components to Neville's character.
When it was first announced that Will Smith would be assuming the role of Neville, fans of the story were understandably skeptical -- visions of the I, Robot star cracking wise as he dispenses with the undead leaving many to fear the worst. Truth is, Smith is just about dead on in his portrayal of the aging but virile protagonist: the specks of grey in his hair and the tired look in his eyes hinting at the weariness that comes with thinking he is the last man on Earth, and the aforementioned conversations with inanimate human stand-ins serving well to highlight the dementia that would likely follow. Unfortunately, the shortcomings of the script are to blame for the lack of rich dimensions that would make the character work. Visually speaking, viewers previously bowled over by the striking imagery on display in director Francis Lawrence's ambitious feature debut Constantine will likely find I Am Legend a bit of a let down as well -- quite a surprise considering that Oscar-winning cinematographer Andrew Lesnie (The Lord of the Rings trilogy and the two Babe films) was guiding the lens.
Objectively reviewing a film based on a book is a tricky endeavor, especially when the book is one as influential as I Am Legend. Some argue that to compare the filmed version to the written word is unfair, given that both mediums have their obvious benefits and drawbacks. But when one can walk into their nearest bookstore and see copies of Matheson's original story on the shelves adorned with the poster for the film, a curious gray area is created that's difficult to overlook. This is not "Now a Bantam Book!" territory; I Am Legend is an undisputed classic of the sci-fi genre, and to ignore the role that the book played in influencing a film that boldly proclaims that recognizable title (as no adaptation before has) is extremely difficult if not impossible for anyone who has read and loved the story. When the screenwriters go so far as to actually change the meaning of the title, to retain it for the screen version seems insincere almost to the point of insult. So, is Lawrence's I Am Legend the supposedly faithful adaptation that fans have been teased and taunted with for over a decade? Sadly, no. In the end, I Am Legend is a neutered but decently entertaining version of that familiar tale, a mildly invigorating action-horror entry that's just tense enough to keep audiences from checking their watches, but not memorable enough to warrant any sort of severe damnation or serious discussion -- that is, unless you've read the book.