Sunday, December 30, 2007

The last man on Earth

On Thursday my wife and I saw "I Am Legend", a harrowing film that features an Oscar-worthy performance by Will Smith. (SPOILERS AHEAD.) Smith portrays Robert Neville, an Army scientist who believes that he may be the last human survivor of a virus that killed most of humanity and turned the rest into savage, vampire-like mutants. Smith spends his days scavenging for supplies in the ghost town that Manhattan has become, as well as hunting animals that now roam free on the island. He has turned his Washington Square home into a well-stocked fortress where, in the evenings, he uses his own blood to develop a cure that will transform the so-called "dark seekers" back into human beings.

Like Tom Hanks in "Castaway", Smith spends much of his screen time in "I am Legend" without another human actor to play off of. Hanks' character had a volleyball; Smith's Neville has a German shephard, Samantha, the family dog left behind by his daughter, Marley, as she and her mother were being flown out of New York as it was being placed under quarantine. (The relationship between Neville and his dog provide the film's most emotionally riveting scene, and some of Smith's best acting.) We learn about the virus and the fate of Neville's family in brief flashbacks; we get just enough backstory to follow the plot, but not so much that the film gets bogged down in exposition.

"I am Legend" is the third big-screen adaptation of the 1954 Richard Matheson novel of the same name, and a quick glance at Internet message boards reveal that devotees of the book are unhappy with the film's significant departures from its source material. (See here for my thoughts on comparing books to their film adaptations.) Some critics also complained that the film lost steam during its third act. The film held my wife and I in its grip until the very end (we sat, unmoving, even as the credits rolled) but we can see where the critics are coming from. There was, for example, a religious element introduced late in the movie that seemed a bit tacked on.

But some concessions have to be made to the film's story, which finds its central charcter robbed of human companionship for most of the film. His chatter with his dog is endearing, and the way he talks to the manequins that he has placed strategically in the abandoned stores he visits is humorous -- but once Sam is gone, we begin to understand that Neville is a man clinging tenously to sanity. His home, which maintains all the trappings of domesticity -- with the occassional newspaper clipping with headlines that fill in key parts of the backstory -- is actually a well-appointed tomb, a shrine to a life he cannot let go of.

It is only when he finally finds another normal person that we understand that Robert Neville has lost much of his own humanity, and it is all that more powerful when, just in time, he gets it back.



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