Richard Matheson's novel I Am Legend has been seen as the inspiration for George A. Romero's Night Of The Living Dead. Even though that inspiration spawned a successful career for Romero, Matheson felt that his take on it was too corny. Now I am a fan of Romero's first Dead movie, but I was a fan of it because of the strong characters – not the zombies themselves.
If you compare all of Romero's Dead films after Night, you can see the characters slowly slipping into the background in place of the zombies. This is largely due to the fact that George has an obsession with creepy creatures and isn't really interested in whether the characters are fully realized or not. I Am Legend steps to a different tune.
The film is essentially a big budget popcorn movie with a twist of character exploration that hasn't been seen in years in commercial Hollywood filmmaking.
Will Smith, who literally has the film to himself for the first half of the movie, must have read the story himself. The reason I state this is because most of the time when he is by himself, he is playing out the very traumatic situation of possibly being the only man alive and the only man who could save the world. As plots go, we've seen it all before, but not with the emotional depth that Smith brings to this version of I Am Legend.
There were so many scenes that almost always seemed to trump the actual plot itself. Some of my favorites include the scenes where Smith's character enters a store and actually talks to dummies (which you are led to believe he put there himself over the years) like they are real people. Yes, we've seen that before too. Watch however later in the movie when he comes back to that same store. You literally see his character unable to keep the fifth wall up and he really starts to come to earth about his plight.
When Smith's character encounters other survivors in the second half of the film, the usual “there are no others” speech ensues. It's filled with the usual emotional outbursts and the awkward pauses of realization. The twist here is that when that speech takes place, Smith throws his trademark humor into it. “I just wanted the bacon,” he says after he nearly scares the survivors from eating a meal at his formerly empty house in Washington Square. Yes he did that in I, Robot a lot, but this time there seems to be a balance to the way the screenwriters script the humor he is known for.
An even better, if slightly darker, take on his kind of humor is seen when he is traveling around New York and finds that someone is standing on the street by himself. He doesn't get a close look at the person to see if they are one of the creatures; instead after the individual doesn't speak for a few minutes, Smith's character opens fire on him. When he gets closer, he realizes that he shot up a dummy. When he steps into a pond, he realizes too late that he stepped into a trap and gets caught in a piece of rope that slings him up by one of his legs.
When Michael Jordan finished shooting Space Jam, he allegedly said that filming the movie made him realize that acting wasn't for him. I could understand that since half of the film's script required him to talk to computer-generated cartoon characters. If the movie had Will Smith in it rather than Jordan, that awkwardness wouldn't be there.
Since as far as I can remember with Men In Black, Will Smith has had the ability to be in the most bizarre films to the most normal and always be the center of interest. There are some films in which that wasn't possible such as The Wild Wild West. But even so, it's interesting to see Smith's evolution.
I don't like to watch movies with Denzel Washington. He seems to be playing the same roles in two modes, the passionate wise man or the angry black man. At least that's what he's been doing in the two films that have been out that have been getting all the hype lately.
I came in expecting the usual stuff from Smith with this film. Throw in a joke here, another one there, and just end the movie. I Am Legend does no such thing, nor gives in to the usual tendencies of the average Will Smith movie.
I Am Legend is Will Smith's finest film to date.
Credit for making Smith's character and acting so compelling should also go to writers Akiva Goldsman and Mark Protosevich and director Francis Lawrence. Not only did they take the risk of throwing the creepy creature factor to the background, but they stayed true to the character arc of the source material.
Will Smith should get an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor for this performance. If the Academy doesn't award this film, or give awards to Goldsman and Protosevich for their excellent screenplay, then I shall never bother to watch the Oscars again.
I Am Legend is the best movie of the year, period.