When Mark Protosevich's script for I Am Legend began bumping around Warner Bros.' studios, Bill Clinton was still president and the lead role was supposed to go to some movie star named Arnold Schwarzenegger.
But production stopped; a proposed budget of $100 million was considered too high. Still, scripts don't hang around because they stink. Bad scripts in Hollywood either disappear entirely or quickly become Wayans brothers comedies.
I Am Legend was a challenge not because of its script, but because it was going to demand something from its actor, and even from its audience. Studios make post-apocalyptic thrillers because they expect them to be exciting. They do not expect a portrait of existential crisis.
But that's really the heart of this third cinematic adaptation of Richard Matheson's 1954 novella. In 2012 Manhattan, Robert Neville (Will Smith) appears to be the only survivor of a virus originally a genetically engineered cure for cancer that wiped out most of the human race three years earlier.
Others reacted differently to the virus, becoming mindless, vampire-like creatures that emerge only at night, and force Neville to hole up in his Central Park townhouse. Fortunately for Neville, he's not just a military man who knows his way around weaponry, but a virologist who can spend time working on a cure based on his own immunity in his fully equipped basement lab.
Neville's multi-disciplinary awesomeness a far cry from the Everyman of Matheson's novella is indeed pretty lame, but it pays to get past the changes to the protagonist.
Director Francis Lawrence (Constantine) effectively employs digitally doctored images of New York landmarks to capture the bustling city rendered shockingly silent. But the impact comes from more than the imagery. With no one around for Neville to exchange witticisms with except his faithful German shepherd, the film as a whole stays fairly quiet, including spare use of James Newton Howard's score.
This allows Lawrence to offer up some of the most tensely crafted scenes you'll find this year. And no one has to shout at you to let you know how thrilling it all is.
Just as thrilling, in a completely different way, is the central character. He may be Machine-Gun-Toting Bio-Savior Man, but Robert Neville is also a man, and a desperately lonely one.
Lawrence captures him not just prowling the city for the wild deer that roam the streets, but prowling a video store he has populated with mannequins. There aren't many actors like Smith, who can carry a quiet drama like The Pursuit of Happyness and a science-fiction blockbuster like I, Robot, but he combines those two personas here for an involving portrait of a guy trying to convince himself there's a reason to stay alive. Try to picture Ahnuld pulling that off.
I Am Legend has so much going for it for so long, it's a shame how much falls apart in its third act. A swarming vampire attack provides the big finale, and the story begins to hint at an optimism absent from Matheson's source material. Ultimately, it becomes something you'd expect from a focus-group-approved blockbuster.
But that shouldn't negate the surprising impact of an action-drama that takes psychological realism seriously. While it may have taken a long time to wind up on the screen, I Am Legend delivers more than a tale of the living dead. It explains why the living shouldn't want to join them.