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I Am Legend (PG-13) ***

By Rene Rodriguez 

I Am Legend is the third film adaptation of Richard Matheson’s 1954 novel and the first one to keep the book’s title (the others were 1964’s The Last Man on Earth, with Vincent Price, and 1971’s The Omega Man, with Charlton Heston). But the movie isn’t any more faithful to its source than its predecessors. The premise and narrative thrust are the same, but many of the particulars have been dramatically changed.

This turns out to be a good choice. Matheson’s book, which was a major influence on everyone from Stephen King to George A. Romero, focused primarily on the existential angst and loneliness of its protagonist Robert Neville, the last survivor of a plague that turned mankind into vampire-zombies, monsters that can emerge only at night and want to destroy Neville because he reminds them of what they used to be.

I Am Legend, in which a buff, gray-haired Will Smith plays Neville, does not downplay the hero’s inner torment: Director Francis Lawrence (Constantine), working from a script by Mark Protosevich and Akiva Goldsman, comes up with visually effective ways of dramatizing Neville’s pain — like having him talk to store mannequins — that give Smith the opportunity to display some acting chops. Although I Am Legend is being sold as an action-horror hybrid, Smith gives a genuine and moving performance, holding the screen by himself for much of the movie as well as Tom Hanks did in Cast Away.

But the real attractions of this surprisingly grim and frightening picture are the imagination and creativity that went into the details. This particular incarnation of I Am Legend had been kicking around Hollywood for more than a decade, but it is hard to imagine another version spending so much time savoring the particulars.

From a long opening sequence in which Neville hunts deer through the deserted streets of a near-future New York City to throwaway bits such as Neville’s habit of watching taped broadcasts of the Today show over breakfast, I Am Legend emphasizes the day-to-day details of the hero’s existence, showing us exactly how a man could survive and maintain his sanity in a post-apocalyptic setting with no one to talk to but his pet German shepherd Sam.

Like Alfonso Cuaron did in Children of Men, Lawrence fills the screen with bits of visual information that fill us in on past events (check out the newspaper clippings taped to Neville’s refrigerator) and, occasionally, reveals a playful sense of humor (apparently coming in 2010, according to a Times Square billboard: the Batman vs. Superman movie, finally). I Am Legend’s depiction of an empty, crumbling New York City is a source of continuous wonder, with a never-ending number of shots that leave you wondering how, exactly, they did that.

And when it’s time for things to get scary, the film does not disappoint, either. I Am Legend may be rated PG-13, but it has the power to instill nightmares in impressionable adults just as easily as children. Take that rating seriously. Like the previous films based on this story, the picture loses a little steam in its third act, and the ending, while not exactly a cop-out, is decidedly more hopeful than Matheson’s original finale. But those are not fatal flaws. For horror fans, Halloween came a little later than usual this year, but it was worth the wait.