In 2007’s I Am Legend Will Smith does not save the Earth. He has very much done the opposite. A virus mutated from a cure for cancer has, as far he is aware, either killed all human life, or turned them in to some horrible vampire/zombie-like creatures that have killed the few that were immune. For all he knows, he is all that is left and his only companion is his dog.
Smith plays Robert Neville, a military scientist ( a virologist to be precise) who stays behind when Manhattan is evacuated and quarantined as the virus spreads.
Of course this is not the first adaptation of Richard Matheson’s successful 1950’s novel of the same name. Horror legend Vincent Price starred in 1964’s The Last Man on Earth, an adaptation partly written by the book’s author. Just seven years later, proving that reboots are far from a modern Hollywood fad, Charlton Heston played protagonist Neville in The Omega Man.
I Am Legend starts firmly in the aftermath of the plague that eradicated humanity and sees Neville wandering the streets of a desolate New York. It looks fantastic as a post apocalyptic wasteland. You really feel the sense that this place, once so vibrant and full of life, has long been vacated. There is some nice foreshadowing as well as you see a billboard poster for a Batman vs Superman movie, nearly a decade in advance of it becoming reality. Spooky.
The major differences between the novel, the earlier adaptations and director Francis Lawrence’s version is the ‘vampires’. In the source material and two older movies the vampires retain more of their humanity and are far more sentient. In the 2007 movie they seem to be more like zombies, with no emotions other than rage. This is perhaps one of the bigger problems with the film.
Having those who succumbed to the virus retain some humanity, and able to communicate with Robert Neville, and be able to speak and show emotion, makes the film a far more interesting watch and fleshes out the story. It gives the viewer something to think about and questions morality and humanity.
Taking this away from them makes it a more bog-standard movie where the stakes are still high, and the enemy still a big threat, but it does not do as much with the story as it really could or should.
As an aside there is an alternate ending, which if you are yet to watch is usually included as an extra on a dvd/blu-ray release or is readily available on Youtube. It is definitely worth a watch and perhaps more interesting and more thought-provoking than the one in the theatrical cut; and is certainly more true to Matheson’s novel.
Still, nothing should be taking away from Will Smith’s performance. For me it really is an excellent turn in a slightly above average film. He really portrays the sense of isolation and anger well despite not being given a great deal to work with. I would certainly rather watch him in this than Hancock, the film of his which followed, another good idea executed badly.