Just in case it was ambiguous who the star is, Smith's name is bigger than the movie title
Shortly before the 2007 version of I am Legend was released, I watched a promotional behind-the-scenes short that got me excited, based largely on the promise that, despite the change in setting, this adaptation of Richard Matheson's novel would be the most faithful. Will Smith can be a pretty good actor when given good material to work with, and previews hinted at the plot twist anyone who's read the novel should know. However, when the movie came out, all these hints and promises turned out to be pretty far off the mark, and I left the theater disappointed, not eager to ever watch the movie again. So here we are, thirteen years later, and I've finally given it another chance. On one hand, the film isn't as bad as I remember--the CGI isn't terrible, the barren New York City is a stunning visual, Smith does shine in a couple of scenes, and you can see the filmmakers were at least trying to honor the spirit of the novel (especially if you watch the alternate ending)--but on the other, this movie is still a bad adaptation with some odd choices that lead to an uneven final product.
Let's start with Will Smith. As mentioned in my review of I, Robot, Smith isn't for everybody and can be pretty divisive as an actor. In big budget movies, he tends to play to the camera, relish in his one-liners, and worry a lot less about actual acting than in just making sure the audience is enjoying itself. That version of Will Smith, while perfect for movies like Bad Boys, Independence Day, and Men in Black, doesn't work in I am Legend, when it appears. Heston's hammy scenery-chewing is one of the best things about The Omega Man, but Smith's brand of the same doesn't match the tone of this movie. Thankfully, Smith remains largely reserved here, only occasionally reverting to his Hollywood crutches.
That's because there is another side to Will Smith as an actor. He is capable of dramatic weight and range--though he rarely seems to show it--and there are a couple of moments in I am Legend where this version of Will Smith comes out. Especially notable is the scene immediately after he is forced to kill his only companion, the dog Samantha. He talks to a mannequin he'd been treating as a real woman he'd been admiring at a distance, and he resolves to kill himself in a blaze of glory. Here we see Smith's character, Neville, dealing with grief, mental instability, confusion, rage, and extreme isolation in a profound way, and in that scene, Smith does some of his best work.
There are flashes of serious acting talent
The story being told in this movie isn't a bad one. It riffs off of Matheson's novel in much the same way The Omega Man does, but it preserves the emotional impact much more by including the death of Neville's family and the aforementioned bit with the dog, two things The Omega Man neglects. As such, if Smith had played it serious throughout and if the script had stuck just a little bit closer to the novel, then this could have been a great adaptation. I understand why the studio was reluctant to go in that direction--a faithful adaptation with a massive budget is an enormous gamble at best--but I'm still bitter about the promises made prior to the film's release.
For one thing, this is, once again, not a vampire movie. The infected--who are created this time by a genetically engineered virus originally intended to cure cancer (because why not)--are called "Darkseekers" and are little more than fast zombies who can only come out at night. Neville, once again a scientist, does spend a lot of time trying to cure them, and at least the science terminology isn't insultingly idiotic this time around. There's still a lack of ingenuity here, though, as the central idea of Matheson's novel--using science to understand a seemingly inexplicable outbreak of vampirism--has just never interested Hollywood.
Spoiler alert: she's not infected
As with The Omega Man, things completely fall apart at the ending. Just like in the novel and all its adaptations, Neville suddenly encounters an apparent female survivor, only in this case, it is at a ludicrously convenient moment for the plot, literally seconds from the infected capturing and probably killing him. She tells tales of a survivor colony and begs Neville to join her on her quest to get there (along with a young boy who serves no plot purpose whatsoever), but Neville will hear nothing of it, having abandoned that kind of hope long ago. Then, having tracked the survivors the previous night, the Darkseekers hold seige over Neville's stronghold and chase the humans into Robert's laboratory, where one of his test subjects--a female Darkseeker he captured earlier in the movie--is showing signs of having been cured by Neville's latest serum injections. The main Darkseeker then rams his body against the plexiglass barrier protecting the humans, which starts to shatter in a butterfly pattern.
The theatrical ending then sees Neville take some of the female Darkseeker's blood, give it to Anna and the kid, and tell them to hide until daybreak before making their way to the survivor colony with the cure. He then grabs a convenient grenade from a desk drawer (wait, what?), pulls the pin, and rams the glass, going out in a fiery explosion. Then Anna and the kid drive (across bridges that the movie made a point to show us don't exist anymore, but whatever) to the colony and presumably live happily ever after. This version tries to put a religious spin on things about "listening" for the Word of God--it's not too far off from the thematic climax of M. Night Shyamalan's Signs--but it feels really tacked on, probably because that's exactly what it is.
Not subtle in either version
The alternate ending pays off the butterfly motif in a more satisfying way. Neville realizes the Darkseekers are merely trying to rescue their own, and he gives the female Darkseeker back to them and apologizes for what he's done, getting a healthy dose of perspective as he eyes the wall of pictures of his previous test subjects, all of whom died from his experiments. The Darkseekers then leave, apparently forgiving him, and the trio of human survivors then drive (across bridges that the movie made a point to show us don't exist anymore, but whatever) to the colony and presumably live happily ever after. While this ending is superior to the original, it's still not enough to salvage a story that has painted itself into a corner by its insistence on not following the source material.
Richard Matheson's novel has a perfect ending, and I don't understand why none of the adaptations use it. If a fourth adaptation comes down the pike someday (no, I'm not counting The Asylum's I am Omega a legitimate adaptation), I'll do my best not to get my hopes up. In this writer's not-so-humble opinion, I believe it should be done as a bleak horror film, and it should try to stay true to the book, at least its conclusion. The setting can of course be changed, and the underpinnings of the outbreak can always be modified to fit the anxieties of the time. However, it shouldn't try to be an action film or a zombie movie. The infected should be vampires that evolve to be almost indistinguishable from humans, and a big part of the plot should be Neville--not a trained scientist--trying to figure things out using old-fashioned tools of empirical thinking. There shouldn't be a cure. Neville's death shouldn't be treated as a noble sacrifice, and there shouldn't be other survivors. It should probably have a low budget, but I see no reason why a studio like Blumhouse can't make that work with the right actor or actress, a halfway decent script (I'm willing to negotiate a price, Hollywood), and a competent filmmaking team behind the camera. Matheson's I am Legend could make for an excellent film; it just hasn't happened yet.
-e. magill 9/16/2020
SPECIAL THANKS TO MY PATRONS: