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I Am Legend: Why Will Smith’s virus thriller is perfect 2021 Halloween viewing


I Am Legend (16+, 100mins) Directed by Francis Lawrence ****½

Dr Alice Crippen (Emma Thompson) believes she has found a cure for mankind’s greatest ill.

Clinical trials of the retrovirus, based on the measles virus, have meant that more than 1000 people are now cancer-free.

However, what she hasn’t bargained on is that the virus might mutate. Patients begin showing symptoms of the early onset of rabies, before rapidly descending into bloodlust-fuelled mindless killers. Isolation appears to work at first, but then the virus becomes airborne, and the quarantine area gets larger and larger.

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Enter Colonel Robert Neville (Will Smith), a virologist who is desperate to find a cure. Sending away his family, he vows to stay in his beloved New York until he has cracked the code and found an antidote. But that’s something that could take years and with 90 per cent of people likely to die from immediate contact, only 1 per cent immune and the other 9 per cent becoming the unthinkable, things are looking rather bleak.

Although the first to take its title, 2007’s Legend was actually the third adaptation of Richard Matheson’s 1954 novel. The previous two films were 1964’s The Last Man on Earth and 1971’s The Omega Man. Matheson’s book also surely inspired Geoff Murphy’s man- alone sci-fi classic The Quiet Earth and had a significant influence on classic modern zombie films like The Night of the Living Dead and 28 Days Later. It’s the latter which probably takes a little of the shine off this otherwise excellent science-fiction horror.

Will Smith plays Colonel Robert Neville in I Am Legend.

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Will Smith plays Colonel Robert Neville in I Am Legend.

More than a decade in development (with Tom Cruise, Michael Douglas and Arnold Schwarzenegger attached to star at various times), Legend originally appeared at the tail-end of a significant cycle of zombie and vampire films.

That said, there’s enough here to keep the film ahead of the lumbering and shuffling masses of undead cinema. Director Francis Lawrence, aided by Australian Andrew Lesnie’s stunning cinematography, does a superb job of realising a New York reclaimed by nature.

Rather than the usual stark, dystopian depiction of a human-free wasteland, the city is brightly lit and teeming with animal and plant life. Hand-held cameras and point-of-view shots lend vitality and visceralness to proceedings, while reverse zooms and overhead swoops give a sense of scale.

Lawrence also gives a masterclass in the use of sound. Realising (apparently while watching The Pianist with the sound low, so he didn’t wake his newborn son) that silence can equal very effective cinema, the director has created the antithesis of the usual Hollywood blockbuster. James Newton Howard’s subtle score is barely present and incidental music is limited to Bob Marley tracks on Neville’s iPod. This all adds to the chilling atmosphere and sense of isolation. Thank god the bombastic Michael Bay didn’t succeed in his quest to direct Legend.

Sensibly, the unlikely pairing of writers Akiva Goldsman (Batman and Robin) and Mark Protosevich (Poseidon) jettison the dreadful religious politics, love interest and white afros that plagued Omega Man, instead focusing on Neville’s one-man crusade to stay alive. They also cleverly structure the plot so that we only gradually learn more about the virus backstory as the film progresses and only employ flashbacks when Neville is sleeping as if he is recounting a terrible nightmare.

In the wake of all that we’ve lived through over the past 18 months, I Am Legend offers far more chilling and thrilling viewing than any slasher flick, ghost story or body horror could conjure up this Halloween.

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In the wake of all that we’ve lived through over the past 18 months, I Am Legend offers far more chilling and thrilling viewing than any slasher flick, ghost story or body horror could conjure up this Halloween.

But following in the footsteps of Vincent Price (Last Man) and Charlton Heston (Omega), former Fresh Prince Smith is the real Legend on show. Buffed to within an inch of his life, Smith eschews the lazy, laconic charm which Heston phoned in (in what was essentially a retread of Beneath the Planet of the Apes) for a mix of determination and borderline insanity. Like Tom Hanks’s Oscar-nominated performance in Cast Away, Smith spends much of the film by himself, with only a German Shepherd named Samantha (the excellent Abby) and various mannequins for companionship.

Amazingly, he not only keeps it credible, he pulls it off with aplomb (something I doubt ’90s Schwarzenegger could have managed). As a man “condemned to live”, only Quiet Earth’s Bruno Lawrence has done it better.

In the wake of all that we’ve lived through over the past 18 months, this offers far more chilling and thrilling viewing than any slasher flick, ghost story or body horror could conjure up this Halloween.

I Am Legend is now available to stream on Amazon Prime Video.



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