The problem with I Am Legend is that it has no idea what kind of a film it wants to be. This isn’t to say it’s not enjoyable, just that it’s not nearly as good as it could be which is a shame because the source material, a novel by Richard Matheson and 1971’s Omega Man, are both well thought out pieces of speculative fiction. Here, though, the film never settles down into a rhythm and ends up leaving the audience unfulfilled.
The basic plot, the framework upon which everything else hangs, is that a disease has ravaged humanity, killing most everyone on the planet. Of the group who survived, ninety-five percent of them have been transformed into flesh eating, light fearing creatures. Except that’s not the whole story. This isn’t Night of the Living Dead, where we get a 30 second explanation and the rest is running and hiding and killing dim-witted slow-moving zombies. No. Here the zombies are anything but slow-moving and there’s evidence to support they may not be all that dim-witted. Their primary target is one Robert Neville (Will Smith), a military scientist who may or may not have had something to do with the virus’ release and certainly thinks he can be the one to fix it.
If you noticed, in that last paragraph, there were at least two places where I had to hedge my bets, where I wasn’t sure what was going on with the characters or plot. This is indicative of the way the film works. Or doesn’t. The film never comes into its own. It never decides what kind of a film it aspires to. It’s not scary enough to qualify as a horror film, not deep enough to be a drama, not frenetic enough for action and not tense enough for thriller, and yet it has elements of all of those.
At the end of the day, I Am Legend strikes me as a case of too many cooks trying to make a decent bouillabaisse. There are five writers listed, but only two new ones. The remaining credits here are from the novel and the first film based on it. Of those two new writers, one is Akiva Goldsman who, despite winning an Oscar, has trouble getting all of his ideas from the hands to the keyboard (witness Lost in Space and Batman & Robin) and the other is Mark Protosevich, whose only other films are The Cell and Poseidon, two films that favored style over substance. Legend is directed by music video director Francis Lawrence (who also did Constantine). So behind the scenes, we have style and cleverness hoping to outshine good, solid story-telling and it shows. The film is pretty to look at and the shots of a deserted New York City provide just the right sense of eerie creepy-ness. But when we get to the actual plot, it feels like a jammed commuter train at rush hour, with several elements all jostling for our attention.
In the midst of all this, and one of the few reasons to keep watching, is Will Smith himself, who does as good a job as anyone might have trying to hold everything together. But when he’s given a character that changes from solid confidence to almost mad in the space of a few short minutes, we all have to question the direction things are going.
There are at least three films going on here and anyone of them would have been better than this mash-up of an action/horror/thriller/zombie movie. One vision could have turned this from a bland snack into a full fledged meal worthy of the price.
(Originally published at FirstShowing.net)