The best parts of I Am Legend, the virus apocalypse flick hitting theaters tomorrow, may be largely unintentional. As the movie opens, we're treated to a rich soundscape of New York City taken over by non-human creatures. Wind keens between the buildings, birds sing, deer clatter down roads in the East Village, and grass grows thickly everywhere. It feels like a Utopia, not a scifi horror movie where the survivors of a global plague have become dehumanized cannibals who shun the light. This off-kilter tone, where something supposedly scary is hard to see as anything but lovely, is one of the biggest problems with I Am Legend. The movie feels cobbled together, especially as it enters its action-packed second half.
Unfortunately, all the beautiful innovation of the film's "empty New York" effects - as well as the humanity of Will Smith, who is acting up a pretty good storm here - get lost in the final 40 minutes of the film. That's when the zombie-vampire-infected-thugs come out to play. What begins as a movie about how uninfected survivor Robert Neville (Will Smith) copes with his loneliness becomes a rather dull cat-and-mouse (or monster-and-hero) chase.
Plus, the monsters are pretty lame. Imagine a cross between the infected in 28 Days Later and the soldiers in 300 and you've got the monsters in this flick. Pasty white, fast-moving, with mouths that open to impossible proportions when used for roaring (which they always are), the "night seekers" or "day avoiders" or whatever the hell they're called are your basic fast zombie model. Boring.
What is terrific about this movie, and makes it worth seeing, is quite simply the setting. Every scene in empty New York is terrific, moody, and well-played. Neville's only companion is his dog, and Smith manages to make their relationship emotionally compelling and fun to watch. There's a scene where the loneliness-crazed Neville starts talking to mannequins in a store that's genuinely unsettling. And there are some action-packed moments when he has to rescue his dog from the monsters, but they're basically cheap-scare stuff with sudden movements in dark hallways.
I Am Legend could have risen above its B-movie plot if the monsters had been a little bit more complicated. Are they really monsters, or just a twist in human evolution? What makes them tick? Equally, the movie might have made a bravely dystopian move and never introduced Neville to another real human being. But the moment Neville meets more uninfected humans, the entire movie goes to crap. You can forgive a horror-scifi movie its tacked-on "we're all saved" ending if it caps off a well-executed adventure. I Am Legend is not that kind of adventure. It's fun; it's worth seeing if you like a little zombie action; but don't expect to be blown away.