By Vic Holtreman
Short version: Despite a few problems, Will Smith makes this update of The Omega Man work.
I Am Legend is the story of a viral cure for cancer gone horribly wrong. As the film opens we see a television interview with a scientist who has succeeded in modifying a deadly virus so that it cures disease instead of causing it. The initial reports are extremely encouraging, with thousands of cases of cancer completely cured.
Of course we know what the final outcome will be and watching that news segment will cause you to cringe in your seat.
The film then jumps to three years later as we see Will Smith as Robert Neville, the survivor of a virus that has wiped out most of the population on Earth driving the streets of an empty and overgrown New York City (I couldn't help thinking that this was a radical environmentalist's dream come true). Seeing this vista on the gigantic IMAX screen sucks you into the movie completely, making you feel like you're right there.
His days seem to be all about survival: Hunting for deer that now run free through the city, scavenging for food and supplies for him and his dog Sam, and staying physically fit. Eventually we learn that he was a high ranking military man who was somehow involved in causing the catastrophe and is obsessed with fixing it.
Throughout the film we are shown flashbacks taking us to the final minutes before the island of Manhattan is cut off and quarantined. It seems that NYC was ground zero for this pandemic and Neville is determined to stay there and find a way to stop it before it gets out of control. He tries to get his wife and young daughter off the island before it's completely quarantined. These scenes are very compelling and give us a lot of insight into both his character and his pain. All of this is great stuff and quite riveting.
Eventually though we must be introduced to the creepy victims of this disease who have survived as mutated creatures, and slowly the film shifts gears into something that by the end, is a typical action/monster movie. I thought it was effective when there were just a few creatures shown, but by the end when hundreds of them appear it seemed like I was watching a different movie. It was still good, but not as great as the first half.
Another thing that felt kind of off-center was how Neville interacted with some mannequins that he set up at a local video rental store that he frequented. I can understand how after three years he might do that for at least some semblance of other humanity being around, but the way he reacted to one female mannequin in particular was a bit too strange. It made him seem like he had really gone off the deep end, yet he was still sane enough to survive and to continue research on a cure for the disease.
There was also another instance where he totally misinterpreted the reaction of one of the creatures when he had captured another. I thought the meaning of the reaction was blatantly obvious but he assumed something completely opposite, with big consequences down the line.
As to the complaints about the CGI in the film, I thought the deer looked great. I did feel that the mutated humans looked a bit too "videogame-ish" for the overall tone of the film, but it wasn't enough to ruin the whole thing for me.
I have heard that there were last minute re-shoots on the film to change the ending and I'm hoping that when the DVD is released that they include the original one. I'm curious to see how they were going to end it and to see if it would have worked better.
Despite the issues I mention above, overall I Am Legend is still really enjoyable and well worth checking out, especially on the giant IMAX screen.