There are two momentous performances in the Darwinian horror fable I Am Legend. One is by the movie's star, Will Smith. The other is by the movie's visual effects — not the ones that bring to life a nocturnal army of shrieking, carnivorous beasties (although those are impressively badass), but the effects that render a near-future New York City that has been "ground zero" for a different kind of terror attack — Mother Nature's.
Three years after a pandemic caused by a "miracle" cure for cancer that mutated into an incurable, rabies-like plague, Manhattan has regressed to a frontier wilderness, and the images have an awesome, iconic power. Deserted cars choke the bridges. Tree roots protrude through the surface of Seventh Avenue. And Times Square bustles with a new sort of tourist — herds of wild deer stampeding through, on the run from — well, for a time we have no idea.
That something is the Infected: human plague survivors, transformed by the virus into ashen predators who have effectively laid waste to the 1 percent of humanity genetically immune to infection. By night, they take to the streets, unleashing their primordial howls like bats desperate to return to hell. By day, hindered by a vampiric reaction to sunlight, they roost in the shadows, temporarily ceding control of the city to the one remaining uninfected human, scientist Robert Neville, who has lost his wife and daughter to the virus and now spends every waking hour searching for a cure. Those, roughly, are the events of Richard Matheson's 1954 novel I Am Legend, which has been adapted for the screen twice before — first as the Italian-made The Last Man on Earth (1964), with Vincent Price in the lead, and later as The Omega Man (1971), a piece of early-'70s psychedelia, with Charlton Heston cast as Neville.
In director Francis Lawrence's version, it's Will Smith in Neville's shoes. For much of the movie, it's literally a one-man show, as Neville goes through his daily routine, tearing about the empty Manhattan streets in his product-placed Mustang Shelby, raiding abandoned apartments for nonperishable supplies, and trapping the occasional Infected to keep as a trial subject for his lab.
Smith is simply dazzling here, and for all the undeniably impressive work the actor has done on his physique for this role, what's most appealing about him is his active intelligence — how he thinks his way through a role — and his capacity for human weakness. Watch him especially in the scene where he nurses his wounded canine companion and when he refuses to abandon his "post" to follow fellow disease-free survivor Anna (City of God star Alice Braga) to a supposed survivor's colony in Vermont. If he just stays put in his lab, he tells her, testing one vaccine after another, he's sure he can put things right. There's a manic edge to Neville by that point, and Smith makes you feel every inch of his impotent rage. In what has been a pretty remarkable career up to now, it's this performance that fully affirms Smith as one of the great leading men of his generation.
As for Lawrence, his direction is more subdued and artful than you expect to find in a high-ticket holiday blockbuster, save for the occasional cheap shock edit and sound effect. He takes things slow and easy, staging much of the film in long, dialogue-free handheld camera shots and using space and intricately layered sound effects to deliver us into Neville's desolate existence. But when the time comes for the inevitable showdowns between Neville and the Infected, Lawrence is no slouch — especially in an ingenious standoff, wherein a winnowing band of daylight is all that separates Neville and his pooch from almost certain doom. If I've saved mention of those scenes for last, it's only because Lawrence — like Peter Jackson and James Cameron — is among the few filmmakers with full access to the digital paint box who seems to understand how those tools work best: to magnify the human dimension of a movie instead of extinguish it.