Last-man-on-Earth saga ‘I Am Legend’ strikingly shot, then turns cheesy |

Last-man-on-Earth saga ‘I Am Legend’ strikingly shot, then turns cheesy

AP Movie Critic

So if we must watch the last man on Earth wander aimlessly, it may as well be someone who can hold our attention like the charismatic Will Smith, star of “I Am Legend.”

(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.)

While Smith certainly conjures 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 truly dazzle. CGI-enhanced images of Times Square, Washington Square Park and Tribeca, eerily silent and still and covered in weeds, provide a haunting set-up.

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 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 totally 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 Matheson’s book.)

Military man that he is, Neville has his routine down cold, with a daily radio broadcast seeking out any other survivors and alarms to warm him when the sun’s about to go down. But he’s also a human being who misses the wife and little girl (Smith’s 7-year-old daughter, Willow) he lost during the city’s frantic evacuation a few years back. (These nighttime flashback scenes, crammed with hundreds of extras and vehicles beneath the Brooklyn Bridge, are beautifully controlled.)

He talks to his dog as if she were a friend (and come on, what dog person doesn’t do that anyway?) and is polite enough to return the movies he borrows from his local video store before checking out new ones. By now, he can recite every word to “Shrek,” which is amusing and surreal ” one blockbuster star mimicking others. But he’s also achingly lonely, talking to store mannequins as if they were real people, not unlike Tom Hanks and his beloved volleyball Wilson in “Cast Away.” For all his charm and personality, Smith doesn’t quite have the emotional depth of a Hanks to pull it off completely, but he does make you sense his pain nonetheless.

Then Neville’s peaceful if tenuous grasp on reality and sanity are disrupted when he realizes the Infected have begun adapting, and aren’t just hiding in abandoned buildings anymore but rather banding together to destroy him. Neville keeps trying to capture them one at a time to test different cures on them in his underground lab, but with no success. And he’s not the only one they want ” again, if you’re a dog person, this’ll be agonizing to watch.

Conveniently, there’s one guy who’s the biggest and baddest and serves as their leader (Dash Mihok, known appropriately as Alpha Male). And conveniently, when other survivors do finally respond to Neville’s daily radio calls, they happen to be a beautiful woman (Alice Braga) and her son, who are about the same age as his wife and daughter.

The three of them hunker down in Neville’s fortified brownstone for one last apocalyptic battle with the baddies. Lots of explosions and rapid gunfire ensue ” sound and fury signifying nothing, which is a shame, since “I Am Legend” looked as if it might have had something to say after all.

“I Am Legend,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release, is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi action and violence. Running time: 100 minutes. Two and a half stars out of four.