Friday, December 14, 2007

I AM LEGEND: Alone in Manhattan

I AM LEGEND (psychological thriller)

Cast: Will Smith (pic), Alice Braga and Salli Richardson
Director: Francis Lawrence
Time: 100 mins
Rating: * * * (out of 4)

WHAT'S IT ABOUT? The movie's premise is eerie and haunting enough to give you the goose bumps: New York City in 2012 is desolate and deserted. Rotting cars and weeds line the streets, broken bridges hang precariously over rivers, and herds of deer roam Manhattan, hunted by marauding lions - and one man and his dog.

The man's name is Dr. Robert Neville (Will Smith) and the dog's name is Sam. Neville is reportedly the last man on Manhattan - after an outbreak of a man-made virus devastated the whole population and turned them into vampires. The virus was supposed to be a cure for cancer (as announced by an uncredited Emma Thompson as the virus creator) but it mutated into something George A. Romero would have imagined for his "Living Dead" movies.

Of course, Neville believes he is not alone. The former military scientist, who is now immune to the virus, blames himself for this debacle, especially the death of his wife and daughter, and is earnestly trying to find a way to reverse the mutation. Everyday, he sends out a message on AM radio, urging survivors to meet him near the bombed out Brooklyn Bridge. When night falls, Neville returns to his heavily padlocked apartment alone, with Sam. They must hide from the flesh-eating creatures of the night! Is there any human survivor who will give him hope and restore his failing sanity?

WHAT'S THE BIG DEAL? "I Am Legend" is the latest screen adaptation of Richard Matheson's 1954 sci-fi novel about what it is like to be alone in a world populated by cannibalistic zombies. It was first screened in 1964, with Vincent Price playing "The Last Man On Earth", and later in 1971 with Charlton Heston as "The Omega Man". There is also a direct-to-DVD (2007) version titled "I Am Omega" starring Mark Dacascos which was apparently a rip-off of this Will Smith version.

However, this official third adaptation had a long development history. Planned as far back as 10 years ago, Arnold Schwarzenegger was slated to star in it, with Ridley Scott as director. However, the project continued to be kicked around for so long that even Tom Cruise and Michael Douglas had been considered and declined, as was Michael Bay as its director. It was only when producer-screenwriter Akiva Goldsman came on board that the movie got under way.

HITS & MISSES: We should have no complaints about Smith's portrayal of Neville - or Francis Lawrence's helming of the movie, for that matter. The prolonged introductory sequences, especially of deserted NY City and of Neville hitting golf balls off the wing of a military plane, will etch on our minds for a long time. Unlike Tom Hanks in "Cast Away", who has only a volleyball for a friend, Smith has an easier time relating his feelings to his German Shepherd. Still, it is painful and even scary seeing him talking to mannequins at a DVD store and putting all his hopes on his quest for a 'cure'. Lawrence cleverly alternates these lonely scenes with flashbacks of Neville's bid to save his family (Salli Richardson and Willow Smith) and the zombie attacks which provide the fear and tension factors. The one nagging question that viewers may have is how on earth is electricity still available in a city that is essentially dead?

THE LOWDOWN: I am glad that Lawrence has not fashioned "I Am Legend" as a zombie movie a' la Romero but as a study on man's loneliness in a once busy city. Why, the CGI images of an uninhabited New York City is worth the price of admission and for that we have to thank production designer Naomi Shohan and cinematographer Andrew Lesnie. They are the real legends in cinema technology!


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