They all start the same way, it seems. News broadcasts — in this case a scientist claiming to have cured cancer by reprogramming. Didn’t anyone say hubris? Next, the “three years later” title card, after the resultant plague has killed 90 percent of the human race and divided the survivors into photophobic cannibalistic zombies and the untainted humans who are their prey. Then, my favorite part, the inevitable montage of deserted cityscapes that look like the end of Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’eclisse except with abandoned cars and weed-cracked pavement and herds of deer sprinting through Times Square. The prospect isn’t so much horrifying as serene: how peaceful New York City would be if nobody lived there and it gracefully settled back into nature.
VIDEO: The trailer for I Am Legend
And there are no corpses in these opening images, as those who’ve seen the two previous adaptations of Robert Matheson’s 1954 novel I Am Legend (1964’s The Last Man on Earth and 1971’s The Omega Man) might expect. This is no graphic shoot-’em-up but an intelligent, if sometimes sentimental, exploration of human decency and responsibility that ponders the limits of rationality and faith. Not that there aren’t plenty of explosions and wrenching escapes and a dog who might be my favorite animal character of the year. Francis Lawrence (who would have thought that the director of Constantine had it in him?) knows his audience has certain needs, and he accommodates them, for the most part (CGI reduces the zombies to targets in a video game), without compromising the film’s, or its hero’s, dignity.
What’s different in this version is that Robert Neville (Will Smith in a performance as compelling as that in The Pursuit of Happyness), an Army scientist immune to the disease, isn’t trying to exterminate the zombies, he’s trying to cure them. As shown in flashbacks, he’s lost his wife and daughter in the chaos of evacuation from Manhattan’s “Ground Zero.” (FEMA apparently hasn’t learned much since Katrina.) Now he’s determined to “fix it,” find an antidote and undo the disaster that befell his watch.
So he traps specimens, takes them back to his lab, and injects them with his latest serum, invariably with fatal results. Meanwhile, he observes that the zombies have grown completely feral. “Typical human behavior,” he observes in his video diary, “is now entirely absent.” Not entirely, as it turns out. As he watches them, they watch him, imitating his tactics and ploys. You wonder whether they’re not victims but adaptations, a mutation that threatens to supplant the species from which they sprang.
Or maybe not. Where there is a last man, can a last woman be far behind? And as has been the pattern in such movies since The World, the Flesh and the Devil (1959), the newcomer is not just of a different gender but of a different race. Anna (Alice Braga) arrives with her own kid in tow, but the old conflicts the human intruders muster up are not sexual or racial but ideological. Anna believes that God speaks to her, that she has a mission, that a colony of the immune exists in the mountains of Vermont. Neville doesn’t buy it; he sticks to his secular rationalist convictions as he plods, without hope, toward an illusory cure. I won’t give away who wins the argument, but Bob Marley’s sublime “Redemption Song” plays at the end with a special irony.