For years it seemed that Richard Matheson's classic novel I AM LEGEND was never going to get its proper cinematic due; oh, there was the financially-challenged THE LAST MAN ON EARTH (which I think's gotten a somewhat poor shake, as it's the closest in storytelling to the book) and the hideously dated THE OMEGA MAN, but a truly faithful adaptation was never to be had. Rumors of a big-budget upgrade swarmed throughout the '90s, with such names as Arnold Schwarzenegger and Nicolas Cage considered for Robert Neville (the former would've been a joke, and the latter may have pulled it off before he succumbed to NATIONAL TREASURE purgatory) and Ridley Scott attached as director. Sadly, Scott eventually left the project and it seemed that the definitive LEGEND would remain a pipe dream. When it was announced that Will Smith and Michael Bay would be teaming up for another go, fans felt that not only would a real I AM LEGEND remain unfilmed but the book itself would get another ass-raping.
Fortunately, Bay went elsewhere while Smith stayed behind, this time joined by CONSTANTINE helmer Francis Lawrence. Bay's departure did little to ease the minds of those looking for a true adaptation, as Smith's presence promised (threatened?) a wisecracking superhero blowing up vampires left and right. (I myself was already prepared to hate it, planning to refer to the film as I AM LIVID.) That isn't exactly what we got, but it's damn sure not the novel.
Will Smith really isn't the best choice to play Neville (what the role needed was an everyman instead of a $20 million superstar, and though I understand the studio's decision to cast Smith, thanks to previous roles in INDEPENDENCE DAY and MEN IN BLACK I can't take him seriously as either military brass or a groundbreaking scientist), and we never really get the sense of isolation, loneliness, or impending insanity that makes up the character. Nor do the film's flashbacks help to illuminate him as a person, as they're mostly pre-fab tearjerker moments building up to a miserably contrived cop-out involving the death of his family--instead of an elaborate helicopter crash, wouldn't it have been more tragic if they'd become infected? Wouldn't that have added a layer of sorely-needed depth to the character?
The film does take plenty of liberties with the book, often to take advantage of a Hollywood mega-budget, and while it wasn't really neccesary I did like how the lifeless husk of post-apocalyptic New York becomes as much of a character as Neville. As for the creatures, it's never clear if they're supposed to be vampires (yes, yes, I AM LEGEND is technically a vampire novel, but as most of you already know it set the template for NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, thus making it part of serious zombie-film study), despite their aversion to the sun. Whether you choose to call them hemocytes or Darkseekers--which makes them sound like something out a third-rate DUNGEONS AND DRAGONS rip-off--they're ineffective in any case. As CGI beings they have a synthetic, two-dimensional quality that keeps them from being frightening; it's only when they're off-screen that Lawrence has any chance of generating suspense, and even then he fails to imbue them with any sort of mythic quality. Not to mention the infected dogs, which feel too much like something out of RESIDENT EVIL to be taken seriously, much less afraid of.
Though it mostly eschews the gratuitous action set-pieces many of us feared, the screenplay still avoids the most important aspect of the book--the nights in which Neville barricades himself in his home, playing music to drown out the cries of the vampires as they called for him. How anyone could willfully omit such potentially frightening material is beyond me, even if they were jettisoning the thematic elements. (What the film thinks is more important thematically is the music of Bob Marley--not that I'm dissing the artist, but it really isn't much of a concept to have your protagonist's favorite album be called "Legend" in a story called I AM LEGEND.)
For much of its running time the film plays like a reasonably close adaptation of the book, albeit rather slow and deliberate (given the pace, I was surprised just how successful the box-office returns were; people must love them some Will Smith). Until the final twenty minutes, that is, when it mutates into the very same movie I was afraid it would be, shifting into a tonally inconsistent, needlessly extravagant action scene that only ignores Matheson's original ending, but climaxes on its own idiotic note. Had the movie been its own story, such an explanation for calling itself I AM LEGEND would've been bad enough, but it goes further to shoot a boiling stream of piss all over Matheson's novel.
As for how it stands in relation to zombie films, it owes more to Zack Snyder's DAWN OF THE DEAD remake instead of Romero's NIGHT--flash and spectacle over substance and depth. No surprises here, but it doesn't make it any easier to swallow.
Though I thought for sure it would end like this:
VAMPIRE: Who are you?
WILL SMITH: I am legend, motherfucker!
It wouldn't have pissed me off any less.