To the utter disappointment of everyone in my comic-loving brotherhood, I absolutely adored Constantine, the surprisingly effective film direct by Francis Lawrence, heralding the advent of a director who knew setting a mood and character of a city. A unique worldview that he had was all that the film had going for it, and possibly the biggest reason Lawrence got slated to direct I Am Legend.
Not considering the previous adaptations - the poorly made yet cult-ish Last Man On Earth (1964) and the awful Omega Man (1971) - the seminal book by Richard Matheson is nothing but mood. It's a somber meditation of man and his excesses, while at the same time being a character study of loneliness, all of it neatly wrapped in a thriller. In the book, apocalypse survivor Robert Neville spends his time hunting the mutated monsters that are all that remains of humanity.
He realizes after a while that these creatures are not mindless, but it is him who is the monster for them, an anomaly they don't understand. It is that perspective shift that leads to one of the most memorable endings in literature.
In the film, that only vaguely resembles the book, we again have Robert Neville (Smith), this time in the middle of New York, hunting and gathering by day, trying to survive by night. He has trapped some of the freakish mutants in his lab, and desperately tries to look for a cure. In that, in being a mood piece, the film is surprisingly effective, and offers up a worldview that wholly resembles the mood that the book set out to create.
I was in awe of the parts of the film tying to establish the film's world, its inhabitants (Neville and his dog mostly), and the almost eerily silent audio design that helps us immerse in the world that we are in. The way that the animals have taken over the cities, reclaiming the jungle that was once theirs, is brilliant. The film is frugally edited, though the pacing of the scenes is there to immerse us, get close to us and then chill us. No flashy photography, no cuts that jump here to there, just pure unadulterated narrative.
What does not work at all about the film is the incongruent third act, which appears as if though the studio bigwigs pushed for a shock-and-awe approach with a CGI-heavy bent. Not only does this make the film fall flat on its nose, it robs it of its strongest elements of mood and pacing.
Screenwriters Akiva Goldsman and Mark Protosevich are to be blamed squarely for a third act that is completely in opposition to the beautiful novel, and also does its worst to shoehorn a new faux philosophy about the title. I won't tell you the new ending, but trust me it is no one that matters as much as the one in the book. The film only tentatively meditates on the loneliness of the character and the repercussions of that, never treating that as the central theme of the movie.
For his part Will Smith is in top form here, asked to carry a whole film by himself and managing to pull that off. While he still retains that star charisma that helps the film about one single person not be boring, he has managed to drop the cocksureness of his earlier characters, finally making that leap from movie star to serious actor.
Problem is that he is accorded antagonists that do not work except at the most base level. The first time he encounters the creatures is chillingly effective, but as the film progresses, the overt reliance on CGI kills their menace. The solid audio design is shunned for needlessly loud sound effects, again taking away from the mood that the film laboriously establishes.
I admired the courage of Lawrence and Smith, primarily the way they choose to depict Neville's loneliness as a mirror to the abandoned city. It is an affecting sight, but the overall tone of the film appears superimposed, and the theme becomes diluted with too much reliance on CGI. Lawrence is a smart director, and he lets Smith do his thing, which as it turns out, is a good thing, but his script and the studio's insistence to turn this into an explosion fest to sate the blockbuster thirst may ultimately doom the film.