If ever there was a man who was given the responsibility of restarting the human race, wouldn't we want it to be Will Smith? His character in I Am Legend, Dr. Robert Neville, is smart, physically fit, loves animals and has a charming sense of humor. Surely if he ever found a female survivor, humanity would not just carry on, it would thrive.
The year is 2012, and Neville is the last man on earth after a supposed cure for cancer mutates into a deadly virus that wipes out the world's population. But that doesn't mean he's alone. Every night, he and his beautiful German Shepherd, Sam, settle into their Washington Square apartment and barricade the windows as the undead (read: vampires/zombies) prowl nighttime New York City. Because Neville is immune to the disease, he spends a lot of time in his basement lab trying to find a cure; why he is immune is never revealed, which is bogus and lazy on the part of screenwriters Akiva Goldsman and Mark Protosevich.
Although the story is easy to describe, director Francis Lawrence's (Constantine) film is unique in that very little actually happens throughout the 100-minute running time. Neville has little to do besides hunt for food, eat, search for the cure and protect himself and Sam from the undead. An opening sequence with a Ford Mustang racing through the barren streets of Manhattan and narrow escapes from the undead are entertaining, but quickly grow tiresome.
What makes it all tolerable is Smith. His screen presence and charm make Neville as likeable and vulnerable as he needs to be for us to watch just him for almost the entire first hour of the movie. This is akin to following Tom Hanks alone on the island in Cast Away, but at least in that circumstance, there was curiosity in watching Hanks' character learn how to survive on his own. Here we get a sense of how Neville lives, but it quickly becomes redundant rather than explorative.
The film is based on the 1954 novel of the same name by Richard Matheson, which was previously adapted in 1971 with Charlton Heston as Neville in The Omega Man. That film obviously lacks the production values seen here, most of which are top-notch. Surprisingly, much of I Am Legend was shot on location in New York City, and according to IMDb.com, the studio spent $5 million to shoot for six nights near the Brooklyn Bridge. That doesn't include what it cost to shoot in Times Square, Fifth Avenue, portions of Central Park and more, and bear in mind that each location had to be dressed down to look desolate.
Add to this some freaky visual effects and you have a movie that looks great and holds your interest even though you're well aware there's not much going on. Credit much of that to Smith, who (as last weekend's numbers prove) remains the last man alive in Hollywood who can almost guarantee a huge box-office take. But that doesn't always mean his movies are good.