In 2009, a cure for cancer is found by genetically manipulating a measles virus. However, the virus continues to mutate, creating a pandemic which kills nearly 90 percent of the Earth’s human population and turning almost all the remaining people into rapid, berserker-like creatures with an aversion to sunlight who manage to kill off anyone who was lucky to have a natural immunity to the deadly virus.
Three years later, Robert Neville (Will Smith) is the lone uninfected survivor in New York City. By day, he goes about his daily survival routine of hunting the wildlife that have slowly started to claim the streets of Manhattan, harvesting vegetables from a garden in the former Central Park and scavenging supplies from wherever he can. His only companion is his German Shepard. At night, Neville locks himself into his Greenwich Village townhouse; heavy metal shutters reinforce the door and windows, protecting him from the roving, nocturnal bands of the infected. Having worked in some capacity on the original virus engineering project, he continues to try to look for a cure to reverse the effects that the virus has had on the infected, the guilt of watching everyone, including his own family, die in the ensuing madness of the early days of the plague.
The strength of I Am Legend is its premise- one man alone trying to eke out an existence in an abandoned Manhattan where any patch of darkness can hide death. The script, director Frances Lawrence and Smith all bring their talents to the fore to create a striking and frightening tour through this near-future nightmare world they’ve created. Smith gives a nicely shaded performance of a man just barely hanging onto not only his physical survival, but his mental survival as well. The few times during his daylight travels when he encounters any of the infected are done fairly well, even when the actual computer rendering of the infected falls short of some of the other effect work seen in the film.
Unfortunately, once the film is done exploring its central premise and taking us through the various steps that Neville takes to keep his sanity intact, it suddenly feels the need to cram some plot into its final third. Never mind that a certain key incidence at this point of the film seems to fly in direct contradiction to the New York evacuation scenes we saw earlier. Neville also suddenly makes certain decisions and reversals of opinion on certain things more because the plot needs him to rather than being motivated through characterization. Furthermore, a clue that shows Neville the missing factor to make his cure work fails to take into account Manhattan’s winter climate. If perhaps the screenwriters – Mark Protosevich on the initial drafts and Akiva Goldsman who moved the film’s locale from Los Angeles to New York City, so is probably more the culprit here – had put the same creativity into I Am Legend’s payoffs as they did to its setups, then perhaps this film would have been a winner instead of stumbling just short of the finish line.