The British film 28 Days Later touched on the eerie wretchedness of a world abandoned by humanity with its opening sequence of empty, silent London -- other similarities to that film will crop up later -- but I Am Legend is, for much of its running time, one long, lonely riff on the plight of the sole survivor. This is based, of course, on Richard Matheson's seminal 1954 science fiction novel of the same name, with significant deviations, but both book and this new film share the emphasis of the story's first half: psychological and actual isolation. It's a science fiction spin on Cast Away: Tom Hanks' plane-crash survivor knew the whole world of six billion people was still out there waiting for him to return, but Neville has been alone in New York for three years, and his regular daily radio broadcast pleading for other survivors to make themselves known has gone unanswered. For all he knows, he is the last person alive on the planet.
It is magnificently disturbing. Director Francis Lawrence has made only a single prior feature film, 2005's Constantine, but here he gives us a masterful rendering of a city stripped of its soul. He shot in unfakeable real Manhattan locations dressed both up and down: buildings are draped in quarantine plastic; streets are broken up with weeds; some cars are still placidly parked along city streets but others choke highway escape routes near bridges and tunnels. Most pathetically, Christmas wreaths and decorations still festoon the city: The plague struck in the middle of the holiday season, and ran its course so quickly that it's as if everyone just up and left the city. The collapse happened that fast. You want to sob, seeing a place so vibrant now so barren of life and spirit. There isn't even a soundtrack: Lawrence eschews a musical score for his apocalypse. There is no sound in this NYC except what Neville makes himself.
And then there's Will Smith. He plays Neville like a man pushing to keep himself too busy to have a breakdown. He's moving systemically through the city, rummaging apartment by apartment for anything useful. He's working his way alphabetically through the DVD store, watching everything -- three years into his forced seclusion, he's somewhere in the G's. When he stops to talk to the mannequins he has set up in some of his usual haunts, to be able to pretend that he's not impossibly alone, is when Smith breaks your heart and turns Legend into something far more than a simple horror movie: Smith's Everyman charm really is "every man" here. He is all of us, any of us, in the worst situation imaginable.
The few flashbacks to the beginning of the end only underscore Neville's plight: He was a military doctor, we learn, and he was involved in trying to find a cure. He's still working, in the fortified basement laboratory of his fortified Washington Square townhouse, searching for a vaccine for the virus.
Why? Did I say there was no sound in NYC except what Neville makes himself? Well, I won't spoil anything for those unfamiliar with Matheson's novel, but when Neville shuts up house for the night, he turns the place into a fortress complete with steel shutters on the windows. For there is something out there in the dark, and it makes a terrible, hungry noise....
The world is over. Herds of deer have the run of Park Avenue. The ghosts of the old world speak from Neville's generator-powered iPod and DVR, but they are only ghosts. He is squeezed between those ghosts and their legacy screaming in the dark, and I Am Legend puts us right the dreadful middle of that squeeze. It's an enthralling -- if not entirely pleasant -- experience.