Last man on Earth
While not quite legendary, ‘I Am Legend’ still packs a suspenseful wallopBy Ted AlvarezDaily CorrespondentWhile watching Will Smith in “I Am Legend,” it’s amazing to think back on his incredible evolution as an actor and performer. The man who once rapped “Parents Just Don’t Understand” evolved into an action hero and then an Oscar nominee two times over. He gives one of his best performances in “I Am Legend” as the Army doctor Robert Neville, ostensibly the last man on Earth after a miracle cancer cure kills most of the world’s population and turns the survivors into rabid, vampirelike beasts. Neville was at the epicenter of the outbreak, and he was part of the medical team that helped create the miracle “cure.” He stayed behind as New York City crumbled into chaos, and he watched his wife and daughter die just as they were meant to escape. For three years, he’s roamed the empty, overgrown streets of New York alone, except for his only companion, Sam, a wonderfully expressive German shepherd. By day, New York is some bizarre sort of lonely playground where Neville can speed through the streets with abandon in a borrowed sports car, hunt for deer in the middle of a weedy Times Square or chuck golf balls off the wingtip of plane on the permanently docked U.S.S. Intrepid. By night, though, Neville and Sam cower in their armored, overstocked Washington Square townhome, waiting for the howls and screams of the hunting infected to cease with the coming sunrise.The movie derives much of its power from the utterly convincing portrayal of an empty New York City, still full of the signs of civilization but vacated by humanity. Director Francis Lawrence lets the film take its time as we follow Neville about his survival routine, siphoning gas from empty stations and roaming as he sees fit about the lonely metropolis. There are scenes of idyllic and iconic beauty such as birds chirping amid the silent skyscrapers and deer prancing through permanently stalled traffic, lit by bright shafts of sunlight cutting through the concrete canyons. But when it’s time to get scary, Lawrence doesn’t hold back, especially at first. In the beginning, the infected survivors are only seen in shadows and brief glimpses of flashlight, but quick cuts of their translucent skin and gaping jaws are enough to create an atmosphere of terror and anxiety. In one particularly tense sequence, Neville follows Sam into a darkened warehouse teeming with infected humans; though we know our hero probably will escape because it occurs relatively early in the film’s running time, we don’t know how. When not cruising down a weedy Broadway or hiding from mutated monsters, Neville spends his time in a home lab trying to come up with a cure. These scenes help establish Neville as much more than a muscles-and-guns hero: He’s ultimately a man of science trying to think his way through an apocalyptic dilemma he helped cause. Smith ably conveys Neville’s dedication and guilt, and later his frustration as it becomes increasingly clear there may be no cure. Not many actors can occupy a film almost entirely by themselves and remain compelling, but Smith is one of them. He’s joined the ranks of Tom Hanks when it comes to utter talent and watchability. Like Hanks in “Castaway,” by force of Smith’s magnetic personality, he has the ability to bounce his lines off mannequins, his dog and the emptiness around him and still keep us gripped to the story. Smith’s acting chops really show, though, when Neville’s sanity begins to fray at the edges: We truly glimpse the soul of a man utterly alone and hopeless. Neville starts to feel the full weight of his importance and insignificance as the last man on Earth, and Smith makes us feel every pound of it. Smith is aided and abetted greatly by the dog, who gives one of the best animal performances in recent years by seeming empathetic, helpful and impulsive but never more than a dog. As the infected people come into better view, they lose a bit of their power. The scare tactics Lawrence employed fall by the wayside as they swarm to attack rather than sneak out of the shadows. They look a little rubbery and a little too human, but they don’t ruin the film. The film’s last third slows down considerably, though, and burns a lot of the credit it earned for having such a spectacular first two-thirds. New characters are introduced, and “I Am Legend” loses much of its resolute, barren power when that happens. It could’ve recovered, but it never really does because the movie then plays out toward a predictable, somewhat unsatisfying ending. It’s a shame that a film filled with consistent originality and the ability to surprise within the first two-thirds simply runs out of steam and ideas as it winds down. That shouldn’t dissuade prospective fans from seeing the film, though. For the majority of its running time, “I Am Legend” takes you to a New York City as you’ve never imagined it, offers an incredible amount of suspense and ushers in one of Will Smith’s finest performances to date. It hints at deep questions it never tries to answer, but I suspect audiences will explore those long after the movie ends.