In many, if not most, of the best short stories, the conclusion is inexorable. The tale advances elegantly, carefully, constantly toward its destination—no detours or loose threads. The theme unfolds, the climax arrives, and the final sentence reverberates because it rings true to every word that came before it. The story can end no other way.
In its first two-thirds, I Am Legend feels like one of those short stories—beautiful and relentless—and if the movie only ended at the darkly resonant sequence that caps those two-thirds, it would be a brilliant, brutal cinematic short story. But it doesn’t end there, of course. It spins off into something safer and less interesting. It’s not bad, exactly, but the jarring shift in tone and theme (not to mention quality) make the ending a disappointment. The rest of the movie is compelling enough to make it worthwhile, but the thought of what might have been is hard to shake.
The story, based on the novel by Richard Matheson, is a bleak one. Will Smith plays Robert Neville, a military scientist and seemingly the last man in New York City, if not the country, if not the world. A cancer cure gone wrong has spread as a virus, turning the vast majority of human beings into rabid vampire-zombies, and they, in turn, have slaughtered the few survivors. At night, when the monsters come out to feed, Neville barricades himself into his Washington Square home with only his devoted German shepherd, Sam, for company. During the day, he hunts wild deer on Park Avenue. He stations himself at South Seaport, keeping vigil for other survivors. And he conducts experiments in his basement lab, hoping to discover a cure for the dread virus. He has kept this solitary routine for years.
The movie flashes back, periodically, to the beginning of the end, when New York was put under quarantine and Neville was charged with saving the virus-stricken city. Those flashbacks give us welcome bits of context—Mark Protosevich and Akiva Goldsman’s screenplay is gracefully spare, with little exposition—and they also give us the opportunity to better appreciate Smith’s performance. In the flashbacks, he is frightened but confident and determined, not very far removed from the cocksure heroes he’s played in Independence Day and the like. But in the rest of I Am Legend, after the years have taken their toll, he is brittle, always on edge. You can see the ragged nerves, the perfectly appropriate paranoia, and, more than anything else, the crippling loneliness.
Smith has always been charismatic, but in Legend he goes farther, creating a riveting, heartbreaking portrait of a man holding onto his sanity and his will to live by the slenderest of threads. Except for the flashbacks, he is the sole actor on screen for the vast majority of the movie; a lesser actor couldn’t have held my attention, much less my concern, for that long on his own, but Smith delivers. To be fair, director Francis Lawrence and his crew have given Smith a powerful assist. Legend’s wild, overgrown New York is tremendously evocative, and Lawrence lets us soak up the surreal, empty cityscape with generous long shots. It’s not just the gimmick of seeing familiar sights through a distorted looking glass; there’s something profoundly unsettling here, and Lawrence lets us stew in it quietly until we feel our nerves begin to fray like Neville’s.
That, in fact, is the real power of the film: the extent to which we feel what Neville feels—his pain and fear, his attachment to Sam, his desperate hope for a cure. Even though I easily saw the most devastating moments coming, I couldn’t detach myself: Legend is too absorbing for that. I had to experience everything along with Neville.
The effect is shattering but never cheap. Simultaneously tense and contemplative, Legend serves, in its first two-thirds, as both an engrossing action movie and a provocative meditation on what it means—and what it takes—to live, to be human. The final third can’t stand up to that; it’s too conventional, not half as affecting as what came before. But though the forgettable denoement has already begun to fade in my memory, the rest of I Am Legend haunts me. Those first two-thirds just might live up to the movie’s name.