December 13, 2007

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I Am Legend (PG-13)
Will Smith says a hearty “welcome to Christmas” (though this time it’s a rage-filled mutant, not an alien, who bears the brunt of his anger) with the action-packed, summer-blockbuster-style sci-fi movie I Am Legend.

Robert Neville (Smith) is the last man in Manhattan — for all he can tell, he’s the last man anywhere. A weed-filled Broadway has become his hunting ground for a herd of deer (which are also the prey of a family of very healthy-looking lions) and Central Park has become his farmland, where he picks corn and carrots. He spends his days prowling the deserted apartments in search of useful provisions (canned foods, battery-operated light sources, booze) and running errands (he borrows DVDs from a video store populated by friendly mannequins with whom he chitchats). He spends his middays at the South Street Seaport, where he sits at a desk and waits, hoping desperately that he will be joined by other survivors.

Survivors of what? The movie slowly reveals that a miracle cure for cancer — explained in the film’s opening moments — has somehow turned into a killer virus, one that led to the quarantine of Manhattan, the death of millions of people and, in some people, a transformation from human into zombie-like, animalistic cannibals. Luckily, these pale people-eaters also have an extreme sensitivity to light. During the day, they hide in darkened buildings. At night, they repopulate New York, shrieking as they search for food. Robert and his dog Sam, the only living thing with which he has any kind of a relationship, barricade themselves inside Robert’s apartment at night. He takes pains to keep the zombies from knowing where he lives and even pours disinfectant on his stoop steps to mask the smell of living, healthy human and dog.

In flashbacks and bits of news reports revealing the progress of the virus, we also learn what happened to Robert’s wife and small daughter who Robert races through the city to an embarcation point in the moments before it is sealed off. He stays because he’s determined to continue work on the virus. “I can still fix this,” he repeats, desperately. Three years later, Robert keeps trying to “fix this,” running experiments in his fortified lab on infected mice and the occasional captured infected person.

I Am Legend uses two flavors of fear — fear of being forever alone, fear of being eaten by monsters — and fulfills the morbid fascination of finding out what happens after a disaster. We get to see the Manhattan guessed at in the recent book The World Without Us, the one slowly being repopulated by birds, large mammals and all sorts of flora. We watch Robert indulge in the fantasies of being left alone in a world frozen in a recent past. He races expensive cars down city streets, takes whatever he needs from the empty shops and residences and talks to himself — a lot.

Smith is well-suited to this kind of role. He has enough personality to carry long stretches of the movie by himself and enough actory skills to show us the mix of discipline and crazy that have settled into this man living in a kind of solitary confinement (confinement to one island, confinement to the daylight) while still clinging to the idea that he can reverse this global disaster. Guilt, anguish and loneliness slosh around behind his mask of confidence. He has, no joke, great chemistry with the dog who represents the last tangible, living connection to life before the quarantine.

With the monsters, Smith becomes more of his action hero self. But we still get inner turmoil. In any given situation, his goals are not getting eaten and keeping his dog from getting eaten. But he also still believes he can save these blood-blinded beings. Though perfectly willing to break out the automatic weaponry, he seems reluctant to kill the zombies unnecessarily.

But more than anything, I Am Legend is fun. December-released movies are often engrossing, often some of the best films of the year. But the non-Oscar-focused, thrills-and-chills films are usually confined to the summer. Though hardly an anti-thinky movie, I Am Legend is a welcome dose of big buttery popcorn in all the December gourmet fare. B+

Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi action and violence. Directed by Frances Lawrence and written by Akiva Goldsman and Mark Protosevich (from a novel by Richard Matheson), I Am Legend is an hour and 40 minutes long and will open in wide release on Friday, Dec. 14. It is distributed in wide release by Warner Bros.