Thursday, October 2, 2008


Hollywood has never had much luck adapting science fiction author Richard Matheson's cult 1954 novel "I Am Legend" successfully to the screen. Iconic horror movie star Vincent Price headlined the first version; the Italian-lensed "The Last Man on Earth" (1964) ranked as an austere, but depressing widescreen, black & white epic with vampire/zombies as his antagonists. Call them zompires! Price impersonated a valiant scientist, Robert Morgan, with an acquired immunity to a deadly virus that had devastated mankind. Morgan struggled desperately not only to survive acute loneliness but also to cure the survivors. Full-frame copies of this opus are available everywhere in DVD bargain box sets. Not-surprisingly, Price perished in the end.

Charlton Heston retooled the role in the 1971 remake, "The Omega Man," released by Warner Brothers. Heston turned immunologist Robert Neville into a brawny, bare-chested, romantic, action stud hero who cavorted in a blue flight suit with a dress uniform cap complete with scrambled eggs on the visor. Watch "The Omega Man" and see if Neville doesn't resemble a Marvel Comics character. Naturally, Heston brought the messianic allure that he had gained from "The 10 Commandments" and "Ben-Hur" to the role. Along the way, Heston's Neville indulged in one of the first interracial big-screen romances with African-American actress Rosalind Cash. An army of heavily robed, non-vampiric mutants led by Matthias (Anthony Zerbe) triumphed over him, and he died tragically as a misunderstood Christ figure.

Will Smith fares even worse in the third and least well-done version, "I Am Legend" (* out of ****) which finally uses the original title of Matheson's novel. Essentially, Smith imitates the Heston hero as a weapons reliant action hero/virologist. They differ in how they contend with loneliness. Heston played chess with a bust of Julius Caesar and fed images of himself via a surveillance camera onto a big-screen television. Smith's Neville dresses up mannequins at a local video rental store and converses with them when he selects a movie. Unlike both Price and Heston, Smith doesn't enjoy a post-apocalyptic romance. Instead of female companionship, Smith has to settle for a German shepherd; canine lovers are warned ahead of time to expect the worst. Even when a woman, Anna (Alice Braga of "City of God"), does show up near the end, our hero doesn't take the time to sweep her off her feet.

Generally, the problem with all three movies is that the star has to bear the movie on his shoulders for the brunt of the action. Remember that hideous Tom Hanks' movie "Castaway?" Half of "I Am Legend" looks like "Castaway" with Will Smith performing monologues devoid of humor. Sadly, despite a strong performance, Smith has to deal with adversaries that neither Price nor Heston contended with—namely, colorless, chrome-domed, computer-generated cannibals. "I Am Legend" forfeits any semblance of dramatic impact, much as "I, Robot" did, with its cartoon-like CGI villains. Smith wages an eternal war against video game antagonists who cannot speak, making them dim-witted, lowest-common-denominator dolts.

"I Am Legend" opens on an ironic note. Scientists have discovered a cure for cancer. Things go incredibly amiss, however, and Dr. Krippen (an unbilled Emma Thompson of "Sense and Sensibility") winds up unleashing a man-made virus in the year 2009 that transforms humanity into homicidal mutants that plunder and destroy everything in sight. Incidentally, these mutants don't appear until midway in the movie after scenarists Mark Protosevich of "Poseidon" and Akiva Goldman of "Batman & Robin" have established Smith's character and his predicament. The filmmakers rely on occasional flashbacks to fracture that storyline and show how Smith became the last man on Earth. We learn that his wife (Salli Richardson of TV's "Eureka") and daughter (Smith's real-life daughter Willow) died in a helicopter collision around the same time that the military quarantined Manhattan Island and sealed off access to it. The military destroy the two landmark Big Apple bridges, but Neville (Will Smith) vows to remain at ground zero and devise a cure.

Three years later, in 2012, Neville and his dog venture outside by day to search for non-infected survivors as well as to forage for food and lock themselves up at night. In an early scene, Neville hunts for fresh meat by pursuing escaped zoo animals through the cluttered, weed-choked canyons of Manhattan in a red Ford Mustang with a high powered rifle. He watches old television shows that he has recorded before the apocalypse while he eats. The mutants themselves are not very interesting. In "Last Man on Earth," the mutants were vampire/zombies that besieged the hero's house at night. In "The Omega Man," the villains were the equivalent of albino Klansmen that terrorized the streets after dark and clashed constantly with Neville.

Like the previous versions, "I Am Legend" delivers a dour, downbeat ending that will bum you out beyond belief. The special effects are shoddy and superficial; the villains emerge as a mob of one-dimensional, head-banging morons, and the hero degenerates into an ignoble, unsympathetic, atheistic lout. There is nothing exciting or suspenseful about our hero's late-night encounter with the mutants on the docks where he uses his SUV as a weapon to smash them. Even more implausible is the way that he gets out of this cliffhanger confrontation. "Constantine" director Francis Lawrence provides several startling, gotcha-by-the-gullet, scare scenes that will frighten the squeamish, but seasoned gorehounds won't find anything different or dazzling about this drivel.

Will Smith's track record with science fiction is faltering badly these days. "I Am Legend" is nowhere near as memorable or entertaining as either "Independence Day" or his "Men in Black" movies. Instead, "I Am Legend" is legendarily lame!

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