Note to human race: Never try to cure cancer. You'll only end up with a faux-humble doctor (an uncredited Emma Thompson) bragging on cable news that a supervaccine is well on its way to eradicating the disease worldwide. Three years later, in 2012, that vaccine will have morphed into a population-destroying superbug, and you'll be alone on the planet with Will Smith and a German shepherd.
But there are worse people to be stranded with than Smith, the star (and nearly the sole human presence) of Francis Lawrence's I Am Legend (Warner Bros.), based on the 1954 sci-fi novel by Richard Matheson. Smith brings his customary what-doesn't-kill-me-makes-me-stronger pluck to the role of Robert Neville, the military scientist who led the unsuccessful early fight against the virus and is conveniently immune to it as well. Smith's jaunty resilience helped him triumph over homelessness last year in The Pursuit of Happyness; who's to say it can't help him fight off the Infected, i.e., the bald, blood-drinking, nocturnal mutants who have had the misfortune of surviving the plague?
For the first hour or more, the film rides a surprisingly long way on a single "Whoa, dude" visual idea: What would Manhattan look like if all the human inhabitants died, and nature began to take over? Washington Square Park choked with weeds, Times Square overrun with deer, all of midtown silent but for the cries of birds? These early, lonely scenes, shot on location at Manhattan landmarks that were, incredibly, emptied of humanity for at least a few hours' filming, have a haunting power. In an unusual departure from standard action-movie pacing, the opening is unrushed and nearly dialogue-free (though the presence of Neville's dog, Sam, does provide an excuse for some plot exposition, as he drives around town confiding in the pup). Looking at a (digitally) collapsed Brooklyn Bridge, you really do find yourself thinking about history, the passage of time, the decline of empires, Sept. 11 … and then night falls, the Infected show up to storm Neville's barricaded (but still covetable) West Village townhouse, and you're safely back in Hollywood.
A big part of the reason for this movie's nose dive around the one-hour mark is that, seen up close, the Infected just aren't that scary. Sure, they're startling when they pop out at you unexpectedly from the shadows, but so is my building superintendent. As rendered by a combination of CGI and motion capture, these beings—speeded-up zombies on the 28 Weeks Later model, wearing only torn trousers à la Incredible Hulk—are too familiar to elicit more than a mild "eww"; and the movie trots them out so often that they start to become almost cute.
Neville's most compelling struggles have little to do with his nightly battles with the Infected, or his race to invent a vaccine in his basement lab. It's the mechanics of his day-to-day survival that are most fascinating for anyone who's imagined surviving doomsday. It's fun to watch him pump gas at an abandoned station, or loot a Tribeca apartment for canned fish, but I'd like to know more about the crumbling infrastructure in which Neville lives. For example, he's repeatedly frustrated in his attempts to shoot a deer, and mentions at one point that he's been saving up a package of bacon—but why? If the city is his for the raiding, and all the utilities appear (inexplicably, but that's another story) to be operational, wouldn't he have access to enough frozen meat for a lifetime?
The logic of Neville's post-apocalyptic world gets even fuzzier when a fellow survivor, a devout Brazilian woman named Anna (Alice Braga) shows up with Ethan (Charlie Tahan), a silent prop who may or may not be her son; he's given nary a line of dialogue to establish his character. Having been reduced to flirting with store mannequins, you'd think Neville, who lost a wife and daughter in the evacuation of Manhattan, would weep with joy at the sight of a fellow human, much less a hot-looking one. Instead, he's suspicious of Anna's motives and contemptuous of her claims about a survivors' colony in Vermont (in his defense, the only evidence she offers is "God told me"). In a rushed and overheated final action sequence, Neville does something that's either brave or stupid, Anna says several things that are just stupid, humanity is either saved or not (no spoilers here!), and music swells.
Matheson's novel has been adapted for the screen twice before, with Vincent Price as The Last Man on Earth and Charlton Heston as The Omega Man, but it's hard to imagine either of those guys comforting their frightened dog by singing a Bob Marley song in its ear. Smith does so twice in I Am Legend, and they're two of the movie's most touching moments. He may be a little perky to play Earth's loneliest man, but he's more than convincing as Hollywood's nicest guy.