THE Will Smith movie "I Am Legend" takes place in 2012, three years after a botched cure for cancer wipes out the human race. Everyone, that is, except military virologist Robert Neville. When first we see Neville, he's joy riding in a 2007 Mustang, careening through the streets of a Manhattan that has grown over itself from abandonment -- weedy, dusty and haunted.
"The minute I saw the trailer I couldn't wait to see it," PBS talk show host Tavis Smiley told Smith on his show airing tonight. "But I did say to myself, 'Here come this Negro to save the world again.' "
But falling into cinematic racial cliche was the least of the filmmakers' challenges. Indeed, "I Am Legend," based on the 1954 sci-fi novella by Richard Matheson, has been something of a Hollywood hot potato for the last decade-plus; it once was in the hands of Ridley Scott, director of the dystopian classic "Blade Runner," to star Arnold Schwarzenegger, from a script by Mark Protosevich.
It was later attached to Smith and director Michael Bay ("Armageddon") before falling to 37-year-old Francis Lawrence, a longtime music video director who'd worked with Smith on a "Men in Black II" video.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday, December 18, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 64 words Type of Material: Correction
'I Am Legend': A caption in Thursday's Calendar section with an article about "I Am Legend" director Francis Lawrence misidentified the actors in a scene from the movie. The caption said that cast members Will Smith, Alice Braga and Charlie Tahan were shown. The photo showed Will Smith holding Willow Smith and walking next to Salli Richardson, who plays his wife in the film.
Lawrence made his debut in features with 2005's "Constantine," a neo-noir, neo-goth film starring Keanu Reeves; Lawrence landed the job after lobbying to do the movie for close to a year, overcoming, he says, Reeves' edict of no first-time directors, no video directors.
The "I Am Legend" source material was not a natural for Hollywood. Given the cataclysmic set-up -- and the dark, allegorical payoff at the end of the Matheson novel -- it is surprising to hear Lawrence say, several times, that he wanted to make a movie about hope.
"When you read the novel, I mean, it very much plays like a 'Twilight Zone,' which is part of what's hard in translating it to a feature," Lawrence, the son of a Cal State Northridge physics professor, said on a recent afternoon, promoting "I Am Legend" at the Four Seasons. "To translate it to film, if you were to do it direct, it feels more like a short. Structurally, it doesn't have the same motor that pulls you through."
In the novel, Neville is of English-German descent; he smokes and drinks and unwittingly falls for one of the mutant vampires, who has been sent as a spy, outside his fortified L.A. house. Matheson, a regular contributor to Rod Serling's TV series "The Twilight Zone," ends his story with a "Zone"-like reversal: The vampires see the human as "the other," as fearful and mythological as they are to him. Thus the title -- and the last line of the story, said by Neville with self-reflexive bite: "I am legend."
"I Am Legend" comes out of the gate as a Will Smith vehicle (and remains so, given that Smith is the only man on screen for much of the film, save flashbacks). After his joy ride, Neville hunts wildlife (the animals inserted digitally, which Lawrence referred to as "the wilderness pass"). Amid this strange frivolity, the character must cope with extreme social deprivation, assigning himself errands and routines to get through his day.
It is this character aspect of the story to which the film attempts to remain true, while offering the audience the reliable thrills of a Will Smith movie.
"We all had to lay out what was important to us in making the movie, and what kind of movie it was going to be," Lawrence said of the collaboration between him, Smith and screenwriter-producer Akiva Goldsman. "And we all landed on the idea that we wanted to make a character piece. . . . We had tonal discussions, and, you know, it became very clear. . . . Will and I especially were always talking about movies like 'The Deer Hunter' and 'Apocalypse Now' and movies that were sort of told in a simpler fashion and, you know, took their time."
"I Am Legend" was shot mostly on location in Manhattan, mostly on weekends. Lawrence said streets were blocked off at close range to evoke a sense of desolation; what wasn't achievable from a longer view (or at all, like Central Park) was done through visual effects.
Still, there are glimpses of the city that are eerily evocative of 9/11 -- the streets devoid of people, cars coated in dust -- though Lawrence said he sought to avoid the association.
"It's kind of too easy, a lot of movies have done it, where you take some of the things that you remember from 9/11 and apply it to a disaster movie," he said, noting the wall of the missing in "War of the Worlds."
Neville has gone from smoking and drinking in the book to working out and eating right on screen. (Smith's abs, in one scene, are practically a special effect in themselves.) He doesn't fall for a mutant, he's locked in a kill-or-be-killed struggle with them, and in this way the movie earns its jolts in the dark.
In previous Hollywood epochs, "I Am Legend" has been adapted into "The Last Man on Earth," starring Vincent Price, and "The Omega Man," with Charlton Heston.