Starring: Will Smith, Salli Richardson, Willow Smith
Director: Francis Lawrence
Running Time: 101 mins
I Am Legend is an American film about a man living as the last person alive in New York City, after a virus wiped out most of the city and the world’s population, leaving a handful of humans transformed into vicious monsters. With nothing to lose, he searches desperately for a cure to bring the world to life again.
If you just describe the main details of this film: Will Smith, post-apocalyptic New York, zombies etc – it would be very easy to write off I Am Legend as just another blockbuster. However, while it does have bursts of entertaining action, it’s most of all an intimate, patient and surprisingly sombre drama, giving a striking and memorable portrayal of a post-apocalyptic world, and doubling down brilliantly on the emotional toll it takes on the last man alive.
The post-apocalypse genre has sprung up numerous interesting visions of what will happen to humanity when the world as we know it collapses entirely. From the world of deatmatches and survival of the fittest in Mad Max, to the eerie and violent aftermath of a brutal contagion in 28 Days Later, and many more, there’s no shortage of room for imagination with this genre, and yet there are few films that manage to provide such an emotionally striking watch as I Am Legend.
Narratively, this film isn’t all too far from 28 Days Later, but where it really stands out (and where the latter really misses the mark) is in its role as an intimate character study, using a post-apocalyptic landscape to look inward at the struggles of one man left alive in a devastated world, as well as universal human themes of loss, regret and solitude.
I Am Legend does work moderately well as an action thriller, and although its villains aren’t immensely threatening, nor is its action particularly exhilarating, but the power and fear factor of it all is multiplied hugely by that dramatic depth, setting the fight for survival against the elements and the onslaught of a world-killing virus against a backdrop of emotional introspection.
As a result, it’s not only Will Smith’s life that’s in danger physically speaking, but it’s the entire legacy of society and human civilisation, as well as the personal memory of the people he lost so devastatingly at the moment of the virus’ outbreak, and as we see Smith’s character become increasingly exasperated and saddened by the ever-deteriorating world around him, it’s a deeply sombre and moving picture that hits home far harder than I ever expected at first.
Smith’s performance is fantastic throughout, prioritising his character’s emotional arc far more than the adventure element of the story, and he’s given great room to breathe and show off his talent by patient and subtle directing from Francis Lawrence, who uses slow pacing and stunning silence throughout to brilliant effect.
Not only does I Am Legend take place in an eerie setting, but its silent, patient style lends itself to being a powerfully intimate and emotional drama, creating its most unsettling and powerful drama by looking closely at what it means to be human, with relatable and deeply moving themes, and even a few thought-provoking moments that will make you stop and take a look at yourself too, one of the hardest things of all for a film to achieve.
On the surface of things, I Am Legend is just a post-apocalyptic blockbuster. However, it takes you on a journey that goes far, far deeper, and while it gives a striking and unsettling depcition of a post-apocalyptic society, its most memorable and powerful suit lies in its dramatic depth, providing a moving, thought-provoking and undeniably intimate look at the nature of humanity, as well as deep feelings of loss, regret and solitude, achieving emotional power far beyond what you could ever expect at first glance, and that’s why I’m giving it a 7.8 overall.