If you're heading off to see "I Am Legend" and expecting a rollicking apocalyptic thriller, gird yourself: This Will Smith vehicle is much closer in spirit to a grim and relentless horror movie like "28 Days Later" than it is to "Mad Max" or "Independence Day."
Playing the sole human being left in New York City -- and possibly the only human survivor worldwide of a virus that turns men into flesh-eating creatures -- Smith freezes his face into a mask of existential despair; he makes us feel his character's crippling isolation, as he skulks through Manhattan with only a German shepherd named Sam as his companion. As for the vampiric zombies he's trying to avoid, they're screeching, pale-skinned beasts, eager to bite into anything that moves. We first encounter them in a shadowy office building, where they huddle like a football team about to make one last goal-line push -- the scene is so nerve-jangling that you feel the immediate need to pop a Xanax.
All of which is to say that "I Am Legend" -- based on a 1954 Richard Matheson novel that has been filmed twice before (1964's "The Last Man on Earth" starring Vincent Price and 1971's "The Omega Man" starring Charlton Heston) -- is at once tremendously accomplished and yet not much fun. For horror movies to unnerve and excite us, they need to seem just plausible enough; they need to present a scenario from our worst nightmare and then leave us to wonder, "Could this really happen?"
But with its stark, detailed production design, featuring cars half-submerged in the East River and bodies left to decay inside apartment buildings, "I Am Legend" offers a vision of the apocalypse that feels a bit too accurate. The movie is so intensely rendered that it goes beyond convincing you -- it just bums you out.
Through a series of jarring flashbacks we learn how this turn of events came to be: In 2008, a British doctor (an uncredited Emma Thompson) claimed that she had cured cancer by using a strain of the measles virus to kill the cells. But that virus mutated and went airborne, resulting in the zombiefication of the planet.
Smith's Robert Neville was a military scientist who -- in the most harrowing flashback -- attempted to evacuate his wife (Salli Richardson) and daughter (Willow Smith, the star's real-life daughter) from the city before it was too late. Now all he's left with is his loyal dog, and the vague hope of finding a cure for the virus, which he tests by capturing zombies in the street and taking them back to a lab in the basement of his Washington Square townhouse.
Directed by Francis Lawrence, who now seems to be channeling his inner Stanley Kubrick, "I Am Legend" is exacting, eerily quiet and cold to the touch. We watch Neville cruise these empty streets, presumably searching for whatever food or medicine he can find, all the while hoping to avoid predators (a number of animals, including deer and lions, seem to have been impervious to the virus) and stave off madness.
For long stretches, nothing seems to happen. The paranoia and dread mount, as Lawrence just keeps tightening the screws: When and where will the zombies emerge next?
But what about joy and exuberance -- the sense of giddy excitement that comes when a good horror movie scares us senseless? Is this really what we want from our holiday season -- special effects-heavy spectacle, an essay on how God has abandoned us and how humanity is going to seed?
And is this really the best use of Will Smith's wide smile and effortlessly ingratiating presence? Even the scenes that are supposed to be lighthearted -- such as when Robert walks into a video store where he has erected mannequins that he pretends are fellow customers -- come off as half-demented and sad; this actor who so effectively captures a sense of beaming hope and resilience here just gets beaten down.
Nor does "I Am Legend," finally, even have the courage of its own cynical convictions. After spending more than an hour making us feel miserable, the movie introduces two new human characters (Alice Braga and Charlie Tahan), refugees from Sao Paolo who have heard that there is a colony of survivors in Vermont. The screenwriters, Akiva Goldsman and Mark Protosevich, pile on the biblical allegory, as the possibility of a cure for the virus emerges, and Robert makes one last stand against the zombies.
But Lawrence's heart isn't in these scenes, and it shows. The final scenes feel rushed and unconvincing: Only in Hollywood could you push a main character to the brink of suicidal madness, kill all his family members and friends -- and yet somehow contrive a happy ending.