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Reel Time
‘I Am Legend’ accents suspense, dilutes Matheson’s message
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Will Smith stars as Robert Neville in Warner Bros. Picture’s and Village Roadshow Pictures’ film “I Am Legend.”
Not exactly standard holiday fare, “I Am Legend” succeeds as a top-notch post-apocalyptic thriller even though it suffers from Hollywood’s infectious habit of rescripting and subjective modification.

Based on Richard Matheson’s 1954 science fiction novel of the same name, “I Am Legend” is the third major cinematic adaptation of the landmark tale. Previous versions include 1964’s “The Last Man on Earth” starring Vincent Price and 1971’s “The Omega Man” with Charlton Heston.

Will Smith plays virologist Robert Neville, a survivor of a man-made virus that in 2009 burns through the population of New York City – and presumably the world – mutating many victims into nocturnal, vampire-like creatures. Neville, still working to find a cure for the scourge three years after civilization came to an end, refuses to leave the city which was “ground zero,” the epicenter of the epidemic.

Matheson’s novel was an early effort to try to assign scientific rationale to the formerly supernatural nature of the vampire. The story also emphasizes the effects of Neville’s isolation, his growing paranoia and despair and his struggle to understand and cope with the demise of his society.

Director Francis Lawrence and his screenwriters take Matheson’s framework and borrow elements from both “The Last Man on Earth” and “The Omega Man” in their adaptation.

It is no great surprise in an age of CGI effects that the vampires, or “dark seekers,” get the full, high-budget treatment. For those who enjoy feasting on those kinds of shadow-haunted, chilling action sequences packed with blood-thirsty beasts, “I Am Legend” will surely please. For those who prefer the more serious, speculative aspects of the story, these distractions may become a bit tedious.

There also are scenes of compelling suspense, particularly one in which Neville is forced to search for his only companion – a German shepherd named Sam – in a gloomy building where dark seekers reside during the day. Far less ostentatious than rampaging CGI monsters, these sequences establish Neville’s vulnerability.

Smith’s Neville is on target. The actor manages to balance the character’s obsession with his hopelessness. Smith also brings to the table a wry sense of humor, delivering sporadic one-liners that ultimately make the character all the more tragic. Furthermore, Smith communicates the character’s recognition of his own culpability even though it isn’t specifically stated.

In any respectable post-apocalyptic flick, the absence of life is always a critical motif; “I Am Legend” sets a new standard. The sight of an utterly barren New York City is striking, its streets filled with the refuse of civilization but completely devoid of life.

Director Lawrence’s weakness is his lack of faith in Matheson’s original text. He deviates from the novel’s story line, relying too heavily on the vampire-like dark seekers to lure audiences and introducing a last-minute religious theme that just doesn’t fit.

“I Am Legend” works, though in many ways Lawrence seems to have missed the point of Matheson’s novel. Lawrence’s Neville does not have the epiphany that Matheson’s Neville has: In the movie, he never recognizes what his legacy will be and that he, like the vampires, is “anathema and black terror to be destroyed,” as Matheson wrote more than a half century ago.
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