(Vincent Price and Charlton Heston took on the role with less success in previously cheesy adaptations of the Richard Matheson sci-fi novel, 1964's The Last Man on Earth and 1971's The Omega Man , respectively.)
Though Mr. Smith certainly conjures up both pathos and absurd laughs as Robert Neville, a military scientist whose immunity to a deadly virus leaves him stranded in Manhattan with only his trusted German shepherd for companionship, it's the visual effects in director Francis Lawrence's film that dazzle.
Computer-enhanced images of Times Square, Washington Square Park and Tribeca, eerily silent and still and covered in weeds, provide a haunting setup.
Then come the Infected -- the ones who didn't die from the virus but rather were transformed into shrieking, flailing crazies who only come out at night. And here's where I Am Legend turns from a quiet meditation on the nature of humanity into a B-movie schlockfest.
It's too bad, too, because Mr. Lawrence, who previously directed Keanu Reeves in the thriller Constantine , is really onto something for a while. With the help of stark cinematography from Andrew Lesnie, he sucks you into this comatose version of the city that never sleeps. It's disconcerting, but, at the same time, engrossing -- watching Neville roam about with his dog, Sam, and a hunting rifle, past Grand Central Terminal and billboards for Wicked and Rent , you have absolutely no idea what's going to happen next. (Mark Protosevich's screenplay, touched up by Oscar winner Akiva Goldsman, is very different from the previous incarnations of the book.)
Military man that he is, Neville has his routine down cold. But he's also a human being who misses the wife and little girl (portrayed Mr. Smith's 7-year-old daughter, Willow) he lost during the city's frantic evacuation a few years back.
He talks to his dog as though she were a friend and returns the movies he borrows from his video store before checking out new ones. But he's also achingly lonely, talking to store mannequins as though they were real people, not unlike Tom Hanks and his beloved volleyball Wilson in Cast Away .
For all his charm and personality, Mr. Smith doesn't quite have the emotional depth of a Tom Hanks to pull it off completely, but he does make you sense his pain nonetheless.
'I AM LEGEND'
STUDIO: Warner Bros.
MPAA RATING: PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi action and violence.
RUNNING TIME: 100 minutes
THE VERDICT: **1/2 out of ****