''When I started in movies, I said, 'I want to be the biggest movie star in the world.' The biggest movie stars make the biggest movies, so (my producing partner James Lassiter and I) looked at the top 10 movies of all time. At that point, they were all special-effects movies. So Independence Day -- no-brainer. Men in Black -- no-brainer. I, Robot -- no-brainer.'' -- Will Smith, Entertainment Weekly, "Hollywood's 50 Smartest," Nov. 28, 2007

And that's a fairly loaded turn of phrase, because to many movie fans, 'no-brainer' better describes the scripts and direction of Independence Day, Men in Black and I, Robot than it does the decision to star in them. And before seeing I Am Legend, a third Hollywood version of Richard Matheson's 1954 book following in the footsteps of 1964's The Last Man on Earth and 1971's The Omega Man, the specter and spectacle of Smith's track record in big-budget science fiction loomed like a dark cloud. I walked into I Am Legend cautious and underwhelmed, with Smith's past genre efforts in mind; I staggered out of I Am Legend impressed and enthused and a little wrung-out after a well-executed and perfectly pitched demonstration of brute-force big-money horror-action film making. I'm hesitant to say how well I Am Legend will endure the test of time, but while you're watching it, you're caught in an iron grip, moved and manipulated and carried away by film makers who know exactly how to make you sink into our seat with dread. I shivered and tensed throughout I Am Legend, and at the end of the credits, I was dumbstruck to learn it was PG-13; it felt far more gripping and grim and upsetting than that rating would suggest.


I Am Legend opens with a TV newsblip, as the disarmingly unpolished Doctor Krippen explains that she and her team have found a cure for cancer by re-engineering potent viruses to attack it. The cure works; it works every time. Dr. Krippen (played by an uncredited actress whose name I won't give, but she's perfect) smiles, nervous and nerdy in her moment of triumph, and then a title jumps us Three Years Later. We see Manhattan desolate and quiet. The tunnels are flooded; the bridges destroyed; cars rust and molder as weeds crack through the pavement; some buildings wear plastic sheeting like a burial shroud. And then we see one car -- just one, a Mustang GT -- racing through the ruined streets.

The driver's Dr. Robert Neville (Smith); Neville was a doctor for the U.S. Army, a virologist. Now, he's a survivor. He may be the last one. He and his dog Sam forage and worry, with all of New York as their empty playground during the daylight. Night time, as we gather from Neville battening down iron hatches over his doors and windows at the dimming of the day, is a different story. I Am Legend has almost no voice-over, and does its best to keep exposition to a minimum, both of which add to the slow-poison sense of dread in the movie. When Sam's raced into a darkened building chasing a wounded deer during one of their daytime excursions and Neville hesitates to follow, the only thing to explain the stakes to the audience is Smith's performance and the storytelling choices of director Francis Lawrence (Constantine) as a frightened Neville sneaks through the dark, desperate to find Sam and even more desperate to get out. Smith is a charming star, but he's not charming here; watching him in I Am Legend, he's constantly sad, scared or lonely; Neville is constantly at the edge of madness or the brink of death. And Smith, to his credit, turns a character that could have been an off-the-rack collection of action hero clichés into a real and affecting performance. If we believe I Am Legend's flights of dark fancy, it's in large part because Neville believes them, to the trembling core of his soul.

And Neville should be scared; flashbacks and current events explain to us that the Krippen Cure became the Krippen Virus, and literally decimated the human race; any who survived live on as seemingly mindless, colorless, blood-hungry revved-up predators that burn at the touch of the sun. Neville is one of the minuscule fraction of humans with natural immunity to KV, but that scattered and struggling group was swiftly wiped out by the monsters as near as Neville can tell. Neville is still trying to find a cure -- he mutters "I can fix this" repeatedly as he walks the ruined world -- but he's hardly hopeful. He thinks he's the last man alive, facing an army of mindless monsters. He's wrong about a lot of things.

Regrettably, if a monster movie is only as good as its monsters, then I Am Legend loses a few points for the execution of the KV-creatures. Making every appearance of the creatures computer-generated animation (with scattered exceptions of make-up and models in specific shots) means that the KV-creatures begin to look a little too similar, a little too familiar. When the creatures swarm, you can almost hear the mouse-click sound as they're copied and pasted over and over again, an army of the identical. And while the 28 Days Later adrenaline-zombie aesthetic may be overly familiar, it still works in scenes where the howling half-human KV-creatures race towards murder -- and Akiva Goldsman and Mark Protosevitch's script always makes the level of threat the creatures present scary, even as Lawrence leans on every B-movie trick in the book. One of the best things in I Am Legend is how firmly things go from bad to worse to far, far worse like an elevator to hell, smoothly oiled and gaining speed on the way down to the depths. Goldsman and Protosevitch also fill the film with tiny, quiet details -- an abandoned apartment is posted with public health warning from the beginning of the plague; Neville's working his way through the 'G' section at the video store; Neville's bunker-brownstone is decorated with pilfered masterpieces. And while the script may have a few groan-inducing moments where subtext is spoken as text, there's nothing here to compare with the worst moments of modern big-budget sci-fi, whether the staggering stupidity of Independence Day or the clumsy cloying closure of Spielberg's War of the Worlds.

Lawrence had the good judgment to fill his technical staff with professionals, from cinematographer Andrew Lensie (King Kong, The Lord of the Rings films) to second-unit director Vic Armstrong, whose stunt and action-director work makes him legend in and of itself. (Armstrong's resume ranges from Bond to Blade, Superman to Starship Troopers, and his work here is top-notch.) Not every decision Lawrence makes is perfect -- one of Smith's forays into Times Square is shot hand-held, which feels curiously distancing, subconciously implying that the Last Man on Earth is being followed by the Last Cameraman on Earth -- but at the same time, the film's mix of present-tense (in fact, very tense) action and flashbacks is well-handled and engrossing. As I cautioned before, I don't know how well I Am Legend will hold up on repeat viewings, or over time -- but while it's happening, I Am Legend is a slick, scary, superbly made action/science fiction/horror film with a lot more art, heart and smarts than you'd expect.