Will Smith is back in sci-fi mode yet again, although this time with a film largely superior to his personality-pumped turns in Men In Black, Independence Day and I, Robot.

I Am Legend is the latest incarnation of Richard Matheson’s genre-shaping eponymous novel from 1954, last brought to the screen by 1971’s The Omega Man, starring Charlton ‘The Rifle’ Heston. For the most part it’s an intelligent, gripping and contemporary retelling.

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A virulent apocalyptic plague has broken out in New York and spread rapidly, turning the infected population into rabid, daylight-fearing monsters that hunt human flesh at night. Everyone seems affected except Smith’s Robert Neville, who for some reason carries a natural immunity in his bloodstream. As a talented scientist who may have first damned the world with the outbreak, if he can isolate a cure he is perhaps also mankind’s last hope.

Utterly alone for some three years, Neville survives by adhering to strict routines: in the daytime he scavenges amid the desolate streets and at sundown holes up in his brownstone house as the shrieking savages come out to feed.

It’s a bleak scenario that thankfully gives Smith little opportunity to rely on his cheeky comedy chops. Given that it’s mostly just him and an Alsatian co-star onscreen he delivers a subtle and compelling performance to convince us of the situation. Poignant flashbacks to a time just before the outbreak provide more depth to his suffering, but it is director Francis (Constantine) Lawrence’s striking images of a forsaken Manhattan reclaimed by nature that most powerfully evoke the alien loneliness.

When the CGI-assisted Infected are finally, gradually revealed the swelling, unstoppable tension has clamped every muscle in your body. Some of the sequences here genuinely seize you and it’s slick but visceral filmmaking that is grippingly equal to The Bourne Ultimatum’s finest moments.

This all leads to well over an hour of riveting sci-fi cinema, so why the average score rating?

A victim of its own initial successes, the film’s slackening last third loses the reined masterful tightness, credibility and pleasingly layered thematic integrity. You just about buy into Neville’s predicament and although Smith still works hard to drag us with him it becomes increasingly hard to accept some turns of events. And then things get worse.

Spoilers aside, the very final scenes are truly awful and forever mar all the previously accomplished work. Everything that was brave and powerful is usurped into a shuddering justification of US Neo-Con religious sensibilities and global politics. The American Neville might be fighting for redemption in his personal war against terror, but the film regresses to a smug endorsement of his country’s stand against the rest of the world as its cowardly conclusion. It’s a jarring disappointment that bungees I Am Legend firmly back to its mainstream studio roots, to the demise of the considerable genre credentials it was earning.

Quality science fiction let down by a heinous, politically work-shopped ending.

Reviewed on: 14 Dec 2007
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I Am Legend packshot
In the aftermath of a devastating plague, the last man left must fight off those who are no longer human like him.
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Stephen Carty ****

Director: Francis Lawrence

Writer: Mark Protosevich, Akiva Goldsman

Starring: Will Smith, Alice Braga, Charlie Tahan, Dash Mihok, Salli Richardson, Willow Smith, Darrell Foster, April Grace, Joanna Numata, Samuel Glen, James Michael McCauley

Year: 2007

Runtime: 100 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: US

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