Would you want to survive the apocalypse? Isn’t life hard enough already? From Soylent Green through to Waterworld the worst part of the apocalypse is surviving it. Where would you propose to buy your dental floss after Armageddon? Who would, in the immortal words of Joyce Grenfell, clean the drains? The apocalypse isn’t sanitary. It doesn’t care that your under-arms would smell. And besides, who’d have time to worry about personal hygiene with zombies and lord-knows-what-else on the loose? This (the zombie part) is the dilemma that confronts Will Smith in I Am Legend. He copes better than most of us would, but still – post-apocalyptic life is bleak.
As in a lot of recent zombie movies, the cause of half the world turning into ravenous killers (ravenous killer zombies for you cynics out there) isn’t supernatural but scientific. In 2009 a scientist who looks suspiciously like Emma Thompson develops a cure for cancer. The cure mutates, becomes air-born, and three years later… Will Smith is the last man left alive in New York. We learn later that the mutated Krippen Virus (what did they expect from a cancer cure named after a wife-murderer?) has killed 90% of humanity and turned 9 of the remaining 10% into zombies. In the beginning it’s just Will and his dog and his souped-up car, tooling ’round Manhattan, hunting deer.
Considering he’s the only person on screen for a surprising amount of screen-time, Will Smith holds your eye remarkably well. His character is a sort of soldier-scientist-husband-father-Everyman who only exists in movies; the sort of guy who’s equally at home with Bunsen burners as he is with smart-bombs. We know, from his flashbacks, that he was a family man until the world ended, and that, in a very American way, he still thinks he can fix the apocalypse – even after everyone’s dead. Smith seems to have spent his time since world’s end working in a laboratory in the basement of his Upper West Side brownstone. Where he gets power and running water from is anyone’s guess, but he’s inching toward a cure for Krippen and his search gives the movie 00’s drive in place of 1970’s apocalypse-movie indolence.
Two scenes that stand out both involve Smith, his dog, and zombies. The first comes early, when Smith’s dog runs into a derelict apartment building. Zombies can’t come out in daylight, but in the dark of derelict apartment buildings they stand around all day… eviling. When Smith steps into the dark and his torch illuminates blood on the staircase – it’s Blair Witch-time for the audience (and that’s Blair Witch the first time you saw it, when it was bloody terrifying). The second nerve-shredder comes when Smith is caught in the open after-dark and a pack of zombie dogs comes after him. It’s all “Eep! Eep! Get outta there!” stuff, but director Francis Lawrence cranks the suspense like a master, and some things, like last minute escapes, never go out of style. Lawrence is a guy you probably don’t know of, who directed Constantine. He’s fast-becoming the go-to bloke in Hollywood for slick, slightly-nasty fantasy entertainment, and he gives I Am Legend a polish that makes even the goofy parts seem credible.
Apocalypse movies work when you feel the dread. In that sense, I Am Legend is dread-full. This is not the thinking man’s apocalypse movie that some might claim it to be, but it doesn’t pale in comparison to 28 Days Later either. To describe it as enjoyable would be a stretch, but it does what all good apocalypse movies do well – alternately leaving you drained and glad to still be part of a thriving civilization. There’s some discussion about God in the movie, but it’s Sunday School talk and not open to debate. When the end comes, maybe it’s true there are no atheists in a foxhole, but frankly – I think I’d rather be dead. Surviving the apocalypse seems awfully hard work.