I'm a fan of the Richard Matteson novel I Am Legend, but I wasn't very impressed by Omega Man, starring Charleston Heston as Robert Neville, the last man standing following a devastating plague. I was however intrigued to learn a major studio was going to remake this film and happy to hear Will Smith was cast in the lead role. Put Smith on screen with every A-lister out there and he'd be the actor most people are drawn to, so to me this was a no-brainer.
This version of the movie strayed from the book quite a bit but for the most part the changes worked. Making the film a boy-and- his-dog story was genius as it gave Smith a chance to shine as he scoured the city for supplies and searched for survivors and a cure for the deadly virus that wiped out much of the population, and those it didn't kill were turned into something resembling the pseudo-zombies of Danny Boyle's 28 Days Later. Will Smith gave the character a realism that I felt was lacking in Omega Man, an earnestness that Charleton Heston couldn't deliver. When Smith spends a portion of his day talking with dummies at a video store, it's heartbreaking where it might otherwise have been goofy or out-and-out embarrassing.
The flashbacks were wonderfully done, giving the audience just enough info to keep them abreast of the situation but not enough to overload them, and much was smartly left to the imagination. Some of the other positive changes were the use of cultural references to help tell the story, such as Bob Marley's Legend or the scene from Shrek (although this might hinder the movie in the future as it can strip away a sense of timelessness). I really dug the shots of the vacant city, now overrun by nature and wildlife, and how Neville (and in turn the audience) underestimated the intelligence of the creatures. And even as the story built toward its explosive climax, I was never able to predict how it was finally going to come down.
However, this was far from a perfect movie. The ending I couldn't predict left a bit of a bad taste in my mouth. The birthday subplot and the use of the butterfly metaphor were trite and cliched, the product placement was obvious and annoying, and the CGI creatures were awful. If you want the audience to believe in the world you've created you need to surround the make-believe with as much realism as you possibly can but by having the creatures so blatantly unrealistic it constantly reminded me that this was just a movie. I was never able to get beyond that as has happened in similar films such as 28 Days Later or Batman Begins.
Another major change from the book I didn't care for was Neville was not only a brilliant scientist and a decorated soldier but he was also immune to the disease. I understand in a film you have a limited amount of time to convey a great deal of information but one of the things I loved about the book was that Neville had to become a scientist, which fit in the theme of adapting and evolving. Having him be a scientist from the get-go stripped away a layer of his character that was intriguing and realistic.
Although I didn't like the timing of the introduction of the two other characters in the film - Anna and Ethan - I loved the clever and subtle ways the characters are developed. When Neville throws his plate at the wall, the child steps back from the table, apparently in fear. As Neville leaves the room, he steps forward, revealing a knife in his hands - he may be just just a kid, but Ethan is as much a survivor as Neville. There were many little moments in this movie to make it shine, this being my favorite.
Using Bob Marley's Legend album could have been schlock had Smith dropped the ball, but his heartfelt monologue sold it, as did his delivery while quoting Shrek to his new house guests. Using that particular scene from the animated comedy also added to the overall story, rather than just being funny for the sake of amusement.
The climax of the movie came too suddenly. I would have liked another day or two of Neville reintroducing himself to society, even if that society consisted solely of a woman and a child. The way he rigged his home to be the last line of defense against an attack was fine, but I think the filmmakers dropped the ball by having the end come so soon after the arrival of Anna and Ethan. They could have mined some good tension out of their relationship, but feeling the need to wrap this film up quickly the filmmakers decided they'd had enough with the drama and turned this interesting film into just another (albeit intense) action flick.
Smith's total engrossment of the Neville character is, in my mind, worthy of an Oscar nomination. It's unfortunate this film will be looked at as a crowd pleasing popcorn flick rather than a rich character study - the same problem facing my favorite movie of '07, The Lookout - but he also had the bad luck of doing so well in a year of brilliant turns in more award-friendly fair by Viggo Mortensen (Eastern Promises), Daniel Day-Lewis (There Will Be Blood), George Clooney (Michael Clayton), Johnny Depp (Sweeney Todd) and Tommy Lee Jones (In the Valley of Elah).
Overall I appreciate this film for staying true to the spirit of the book even at the cost of a word-for-word adaption, and Smith's understanding of the character allowed him to pull of something only a handful of actors could have, and that's make a believable action hero out of an ordinary man.