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Sterile Decay: I Am Legend

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Sterile Decay: <em>I Am Legend</em>

A highly modernized reinvention of Richard Matheson’s 1954 same-named novel, I Am Legend pits Robert Neville (Will Smith) against legions of formerly human, light-sensitive mutants occupying the decrepit remains of New York City, ground zero for a cancer cure-turned-lethal virus that appears to have wiped out all of mankind (Neville is spared due to a unique DNA sequence that renders him immune). With the canine Sam(antha) as his only companion, Neville routinizes his life - hide by night, hunt/work by day - in an effort to fight off both the long-gestating plague as well as the insanity that accompanies prolonged solitude. Though convinced through statistical logic that he is the last man on earth, Neville continues searching for a cure. His tireless, apparently pointless persistence stems from post-traumatic shock compounded by a need for purpose in a world seemingly without any.

In one of the film’s best scenes, Neville stops at a movie store to exchange his latest rental, interacting with carefully placed mannequins that help him simulate the human experience he’s been so long deprived of. When I saw Legend with an audience last weekend, the audience greeted this scene and others like it with nervous laughter. But it’s in these uneasy moments that I Am Legend almost becomes a film worth carrying with you after the lights have gone up. Too much of the movie simply coasts along, acknowledging textures of sanity and spirituality but never subsuming them.

The spectacle of a vacant New York City overgrown by nature is a sight to behold; the opening 10 minutes, in which popular locales are seen underwater, overgrown by weeds, covered in ruins, etc., reminded me of the conclusion to Yevgeny Zamyatin’s dystopic novel We, but this is a potential only scantly capitalized on once the narrative gears begin churning. Flashbacks to the initial outbreak of the virus drive Neville in his symbolic quest, and though Smith continues to channel his celebrity suave into effective pathos, these sequences are too obviously shoehorned into the narrative to come across as anything more than sterile, literal-minded bits of character development. And in a year that saw the awesome, singed mythicism of 28 Weeks Later (itself one of the latest in the long line of films spawned by Matheson’s novel), I Am Legend’s digitized aesthetic is too clean to convey true social and moral rot, too processed for a storyline loaded with themes of death and destruction. Likewise, the hordes of mutant zombie/vampires are a disappointing use of CG technology. They’re like digital superballs vying for menace, lacking a genuine physical presence and only superficially connected to their surroundings.

It’s telling that the film works best when Neville is restricted to permeating solitude; the eerie suggestion of the unseen villains is a threat the film is unable to justly manifest in the flesh. All of this builds to a climax that would like to call itself important in the spiritual sense, with Neville recast from cynical atheist to a martyr, eyes wide open after having seen the light. It’s a nice gesture, one whose relative failure comes from the film’s apparent lack of belief in itself. The film showcases enough competence to entertain the majority of those planning to see it (I’d be surprised to learn that exit polls were anything other than overwhelmingly positive), but it’s always sad to see a film capable of more settling for less.

House contributor Robert Humanick’s writings have appeared in Slant Magazine and on his blog The Projection Booth. He also works sporadically with fellow Slant critic Paul Schrodt at The Stranger Song.