A buff and chiseled Will Smith, looking as if he's ready to take another stab at playing Muhammad Ali, tears through the deserted streets of Manhattan in his Mustang Shelby in the striking opening scenes of "I Am Legend." He's got a high-powered rifle by his side, his German shepherd Sam in the front seat, and he's out hunting galloping herds of deer, which bounce through the midtown streets, now overgrown with weeds and cluttered with deserted cars frozen in permanent gridlock. Smith is playing Robert Neville, the last man alive in New York—and perhaps on the planet. A deadly virus, the fatally ironic result of a "cure" for cancer that backfired, has wiped out all but those few who, like Neville, are immune to the virus.
Neville has the run of the city during the day, but at night he boards himself up in his Washington Square townhouse. For at night the Infected come out—contaminated humans who have mutated into raging, flesh-eating zombie vampires who cannot tolerate daylight. Neville, an army scientist, praying that there are still other humans out there somewhere, is obsessed with finding a cure for the virus. But he needs to capture these vicious mutants to serve as his guinea pigs—a dangerous game, to say the least.
Directed by Francis ("Constantine") Lawrence from a screenplay by Mark Protosevich and Akiva Goldsman, this is the third attempt to put Richard Matheson's classic 1954 science-fiction novel on the screen. (Neither "The Last Man on Earth" in 1964 nor "The Omega Man" in '71 was up to the job.)
Technically "I Am Legend" is a mighty impressive achievement. The transformation of New York into a postapocalyptic landscape, masterminded by production designer Naomi Shohan and vividly shot by Andrew Lesnie, has a haunting, desolate, plausible beauty. And the screenwriters, relying on only a few crucial flashbacks to the last time Neville saw his wife and child as they were evacuated from the quarantined city, find clever ways to sustain what is, for more than half the movie, a one-man (plus dog and zombies) show. It helps, of course, that Smith is that one man; there are few movie stars who can hold the screen with such effortless charisma. When you have to deliver most of your lines to a dog, that's no mean feat. He throws himself into this physically demanding role with great conviction.
The trouble is those damn white-skinned vampire zombies, who bring the movie down to cheap-horror-movie level. I won't say they're not scary, especially when we first see them, but when they start clambering up the sides of buildings with implausible superhuman agility they begin to look exactly like what they are: herky-jerky computerized effects. Lawrence, as he showed in the flashy but out of control "Constantine," can stage knock-your-socks-off set pieces, but he's willing to settle for cheap thrills at the expense of coherence. That exciting opening with Neville tearing through Manhattan is a case in point. The only reason for him to be driving so recklessly is to kick-start the movie with an adrenaline rush.
"I Am Legend" can't seem to make up its mind just what kind of movie it wants to be. Its visionary depiction of a postplague world, where a solitary man tries to hold on to his sanity, gives way to an intense but quite conventional night-of-the-living-dead remix, and then, in its third act, when Neville finally makes contact with other human beings (a young Brazilian nurse played by Alice Braga, with young boy in tow), introduces the notion of the Almighty—a curious spiritual turn that comes from God knows where. I wouldn't dream of giving away the ending, but it's not likely to satisfy either the action crowd or Matheson fans. More than a few times Lawrence's movie evoked memories of last year's "Children of Men," another dystopian vision of our imperiled planet. The comparison does not work in "I Am Legend's" favor.