Will Smith Gets Lost in His Legend

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Barry Wetcher / Warner Bros.

Will Smith stars as Robert Neville in the sci-fi action adventure I Am Legend .

Correction appended on January 2, 2008.

Will Smith used to be able to crack a smile, and to crack up the audience with a joke, a silly song or his elastic, eloquent body English. Lately, though, the most reliable box-office magnet in Hollywood hasn't given himself or his fans much to laugh at. He was a tough, emotionally constipated cop chasing androids in I, Robot, and an ambitious man who loses his job, his home and his wife — everything but his young son — in The Pursuit of Happyness. Except for a romantic holiday in Hitch, the one-time Fresh Prince has become a stolid, solitary warrior in a gulag of gloom.

Now, for Christmas, he has another one-man dystopia drama. It's I Am Legend, directed by Francis Lawrence, the Viennese director of music videos who made his feature debut with a good science-fiction film, Constantine, and written by Akiva Goldsman, based on Mark Protosevich's script for a 1999 I Am Legend project that was to be directed by Ridley Scott and starring Arnold Schwarzenegger. As in I, Robot, Smith has seen the future — and it sucks.

September 2012, three years after the onset of a virus with catastrophic consequences. Weeds have sprouted and flourished in Times Square. Tattered billboards for Broadway shows mock the desolation of the place, which is now ugly, cratered and overrun by wildlife — kind of what it was like in the 1970s. Except that now Times Square is empty of all human life except for Robert Neville (Smith), who patrols the streets with his rifle and his faithful dog Samantha. He spots a deer and is ready to gun it down, when a lioness leaps on her prey and begins devouring it, as her mate and cub watch. As we used to say about New York 30 years ago, it's a jungle out there.

I Am Legend is the third major movie adaptation of the 1954 novel by Richard Matheson; the others were the The Last Man on Earth with Vincent Price in 1964 and The Omega Man with Charlton Heston seven years later. Matheson is a prolific, influential writer of horror and sci-fi novels, short stories and films, from Roger Corman's Edgar Allan Poe movies of the '60s to the seminal '70s TV films Duel (Steven Spielberg's first feature) and The Night Stalker and the '90s films What Dreams May Come and Stir of Echoes, based on his novels. Some of Matheson's TV fables — the Twilight Zone story about the gremlin on the airplane wing, the Trilogy of Terror jape about a Zuni fetish doll chasing Karen Black around her apartment — linger at the base of many a viewer's spine, three or four decades after they were first aired. Credit those residual shivers to a nonchalant, nonpareil master of the creep-out.

Early in his career (he's still going at age 81), Matheson was fascinated with man's isolation in the post-nuclear world — Robinson Crusoe or Natty Bumppo after the H-bomb or an epidemic. The Shrinking Man, published in 1956 and immediately filmed as The Incredible Shrinking Man, considered the effects of radiation on an ordinary fellow who grows smaller and smaller, to infinitesimal size. In I Am Legend, Neville, seemingly the only person not killed or infected by a plague, fends for himself, searches desperately for other survivors and hunts down the bands of infected mutants who come out at night looking for people like him — if there are any people like him left. Both novels take a science-fiction premise and ask: What practical skills, what inner resources, can a man bring to battling life-ending odds? The Shrinking Man and I Am Legend are how-to books about coping with the unthinkable.

It's funny how filmmakers are drawn to Matheson's subject of post-apocalyptic annihilation, yet feel the need to "fix" the story and welsh out on its conclusions. Each of the I Am Legend adaptations embroiders or softens the original, offering a vision its makers see as more pertinent to their time. Not that there's anything morally pernicious about changing a book when it becomes a movie. The only question that matters: Does the new thing work?

For this I Am Legend, a qualified maybe. The word "mixed" isn't mixed enough to fit my response to this film. I like its fancifully ghostly, ghastly look: the Brooklyn and Manhattan Bridges missing their center sections (they were bombed to keep people from getting out or in), the whole idea of the most congested U.S. city utterly abandoned, as if everyone had finally moved to the Sunbelt or the Hamptons. I admire, and share, the movie's extended interest in Neville's daily ritual as cop (hunting down the vampire-like infectees), woodsman (looking for animals that will put fresh meat on his table) and lonely guy (setting up a table each day at noon in case any undead survivor has heard his signal). Smith, whatever mood he's inhabiting, is a watchable actor, and he and the dog (who gives him an audience surrogate to explain things to) have a lovely, close rapport.

I go for the scary scenes too. The lions aren't the big problem here; it's the mutants, whom exposure to the virus has made gaunt, pretrenaturally athletic (they can climb tall buildings at several bounds) and as ravenous as any killer carnivore for human flesh. One sequence, in which Neville follows the dog into a dark building and is confronted by the creatures, worked on my nerves with a superior technical and artistic skill set — a mixture of computer beasties and old-fashioned suspense.

The new movie has turned Neville into a soldier-scientist (and former TIME cover boy), seeking a cure for the virus in the basement of the lavish Washington Square townhouse he has turned into a fortress (and where, don't ask me why, he sleeps in the bathtub, with his dog). So now he's Jonas Salk, and Jesus too, ready to give his life so that others may live again. It's in the last half-hour that I Am Legend imports new elements that both propel the story to its explosive climax and just aren't as compelling as the day-in-the-life story that preceded it. The notion the movie floats, of an uninfected colony north of the city, is literally too Utopian to seem either plausible or attractive to a hardened case like Neville. Smith has inhabited the character so fully, and let moviegoers inside with him, that they may prefer going down with him than escaping to some fantasyland that looks like the one in M. Night Shyamalan's The Village.

And even if the world is saved in September 2012, don't these people know the deductions made from the Mayan calendar — that the world will end on Dec. 21 of that year? They have only three months to live!

Somebody in Hollywood has to be thinking about a movie on that subject. Here's hoping it will have a smarter ending — and be more legendary — than this one.

The original version of this article incorrectly stated that the plague in the film I Am Legend is bacterial, when it is in fact viral. The same story also misidentified Richard Matheson's TV work Trilogy of Terror as Tales of Terror