While I Am Legend is reasonably absorbing, it can be difficult to focus on the film that actually made it to the screen, instead of the many versions that didn't. The latest adaptation of Richard Matheson's 1954 novella "I Am Legend" (following 1964's The Last Man On Earth, 1971's The Omega Man, and this year's direct-to-DVD I Am Omega) has been in development for close to 15 years, with various reputed directors (Rob Bowman, Michael Bay, Ridley Scott), any of whom would have inevitably made the story a more dynamic but generic actioner. On the other hand, it's questionable whether eventual director Francis Lawrence (Constantine) had any coherent vision for the film, which feels like two movies jammed awkwardly together.
First seen driving his sports car around Manhattan's cracked, weed-overgrown streets with the reckless aggression of someone who's had time to learn every inch of the roads (and the sidewalks), Will Smith is the apparent last survivor of a plague that started out as a genetically engineered cancer cure. Three years after the aptly named Dr. Krippen accidentally killed 90 percent of humanity and turned the remaining 10 percent into hairless, gibbering, light-sensitive blood-drinkers, Smith has claimed Manhattan as his personal fiefdom. He operates on a punctilious routine of exercising, gathering supplies, hunting wild deer in Times Square, testing possible cures for monsterism, and chatting with the mannequins he scatters around his favorite haunts so he can pretend the island is still populated. He's amiable enough, in a Will Smith kind of way, but he's barely clinging to sanity, and when something knocks him out of his well-developed groove, he rapidly disintegrates.
While any resemblance between Matheson's story and this adaptation is largely coincidental—the film drops all the book's twists, its ending, and even the meaning behind the title—both focus closely on the day-to-day process of coping with isolation and constant stress. Inevitably, there's running, screaming, shooting, and CGI humanoids who look like the stretchy-mouthed baddie from The Mummy and act like sunlight-averse 28 Days Later zombies. The two segments—Smith's tense "normal" life and the fighting that follows once it breaks down—feel clumsily integrated, and the action is fairly standard and not all that interesting. But for its first hour, at least, it's a haunting film, a long-playing, hi-fi version of the 28 Days Later sequence where Cillian Murphy forlornly wanders the empty streets of London. At least half an interesting movie is better than the Michael Bay version, which no doubt would have been explosions and adolescent jokes all the way through.