Not Quite A Living 'Legend'

By Desson Thomson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 14, 2007

When it comes to playing the hero in computer-generated sci-fi movies -- good, medium or hokey -- Will Smith is our designated human.

He has always seemed uncannily comfortable in any artificial realm. Who else conveys such goodwill and swagger as he stands up to hostile aliens ("Men in Black," "Independence Day") or weathers a world of automated beings ("I, Robot")?

And now, in "I Am Legend," who else do we want as our last man standing in a futuristic Manhattan as the post-apocalyptic island becomes the hunting ground of flesh-eating mutants?

They are remnants of humankind, ghoulish beings who succumbed to a global virus. Somehow, we figure, Smith will find a cure for the race -- or what may or may not be left of it. And if he had surviving kids in this adaptation of Richard Matheson's dark 1954 novel, we just know he'd find time to pick them up at day care. He has a dog, too, by the way, as if we couldn't have already guessed.

The joy of the movie is watching the slow unfolding of a world, circa 2012, in disaster. And there's a kick-back-and-enjoy-the-spectacle pleasure to watching Smith adapt. (Smith the actor and "Robert Neville" the character are pretty much the same presence, but that's part of the celebrity-conscious fun.) Food gathering consists of taking out the sports utility vehicle and hunting deer (computer generated, natch) as they leap and bound through the leafily overgrown cityscape. And for fun, he'll tee up on the wing of an abandoned fighter jet and send a golf ball arcing into the river.

But at night, it's time to batten the hatches. That's when the creatures of the night go marauding. And that, alas, is when "I Am Legend" starts its slow foundering. Although these creatures are compelling for their warp speed and aggression, they are, quite simply, too superhuman. They move too fast and perfectly. They belong in a video game, but not a big movie.

And instead of keeping its edgy sense of constant discomfort, which permeates the gripping first half of the movie, the filmmakers seem compelled to make Smith's character as fuzzily adorable as possible. A little Smith already goes a long way, and it's hard to stay in like with him as he lapses into complete Teddy Bear messiah mode. He tells his pooch to eat her vegetables, for goodness' sake; and his race to cure those mutants becomes too precious, too cheesy, too zealous.

At this point in our pop-cultural lives, we are more than slightly savvy about CGI movies. The smallest flaw can irritate or detract from our pleasure. And it's hard to hold on to our willful suspension of disbelief, even with Smith to reassure us. Where's the fleshy, decayed, post-sepulchral feeling of a vampire drama -- which was part of the original book? We are watching mutants assembled from binary zeroes and ones, not creatures of the night. And they make us pull away from our enjoyable embrace of the movie.

I Am Legend (114 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG-13 for violence and profanity.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company