One of the two films dominating cinemas in America this holiday season involved a former TV funnyman being plagued by inoffensive but badly-animated critters intent on taking over his well-to-do apartment. The other was Jason Lees Alvin and the Chipmunks .
In actual fact, the latter probably serves up more thrills and spills than Fresh Prince Will Smiths turn in the humdrum I Am Legend a kind of 28 Days Later for the cheese nacho brigade, which, ludicrously, broke every box office record Stateside, debuted with $76.5 million, the biggest December opening on record.
On paper, this sci-fi/horror hybrid sounds a very juicy proposition. Smith is (unusually) an army Major cum-Nobel scientist trying desperately to cure the disease that has turned the planets population into vampiristic beasties intent on chowing down on him and his faithful German Shepherd. As, apparently, the only man left alive on earth due to his (convenient) immunity, he has to come to terms with the loss of his family during the outbreak and the need to try and atone for their deaths by finding a magic bullet to save the planet.
The third adaptation of Richard Matheson’s seminal 1954 novel of the same name, (after The Last Man on Earth and Charlton Hestons The Omega Man) I Am Legend starts promisingly enough, with Smith barrelling down a deserted 5th Avenue in a sports car, hunting deer. Its an arresting opening that, although unnecessarily action-packed (especially when they throw a completely frivolous pride of lions into the mix) sets the post-apocalyptic scene well, with nature reclaiming the metropolis streets to imaginative effect.
Smith, who is generally regarded as one of only a handful of Hollywood stars who can successfully open a film on name alone, excels as the lone survivor of this holocaust. It is the first half of the movie, where we see his monotonous daily routine in minute detail (scavenging for food, fiddling about in his Apple-sponsored laboratory, barricading himself in his apartment for the night) that truly affects in much the same way as 28 Days Laters characters seemed fully rounded as they coped with the unimaginable horrors of a zombie-filled London, Smith turns in a polished performance as a tragic figure in a diorama of unseen doom.
Unfortunately, as soon as the monsters are introduced, it goes horribly wrong, both for Smith and for the audience. After a bravura scene in a pitch-black warehouse (that apes both The Descent and the nerve-jangling Underground sequence in 28 Weeks Later), the monsters are revealed as embarrassingly-bad CGI humanoids with sallow skin and big teeth. That one side-effect of this virus is that they can scale tall buildings in a single jump is even more preposterous, making the climactic scene – and I dont think Im spoiling much of a surprise here which sees Smith do battle with a horde of the graphically-impaired nasties resemble in almost every detail the fight in the other big-budget Fresh Prince vehicle, I Robot.
Its a terrible move from former music video director Francis Lawrence, whose back catalogue includes the underrated and stylish Constantine, and its one that eradicates any of the humanity of the story. One of the reasons that zombie movies, when done well, are scary is that the monsters are people just like us – our families, friends and lovers. There is none of that here and most of the numerous action sequences are devoid of any tension because of it. Add to this a rather erroneous (and more than a little creepy) religious undertone that creeps in when he discovers more survivors in New York, and you have an alienating experience that destroys all the good work that Smith puts in during the first half of the film.
Ultimately, I Am Legend feels like a wasted opportunity. Not half as cerebral as it thinks it is, nor as exciting as it should be, Francis Lawrence has cast his net wide but caught little. Despite a powerhouse performance by Will Smith, who is quickly becoming Hollywoods go-to guy for intelligent blockbusters, I Am Legend is nothing of the sort. Despite its unusually large gross in America this Christmas, it will soon be a footnote in history.