I Am Legend: Last man standing

Will Smith roams post-apocalyptic New York City

In I Am Legend's astonishing vision of New York City in three years, waist-high grass grows through pavement cracks in Times Square. The Brooklyn Bridge has collapsed. Deer and other animals roam past abandoned cars in the streets. The human race is nearly extinct.

On the plus side, no one has cancer anymore.

As soldier/scientist Robert Neville, Will Smith has New York all to himself – by day, at least – in I Am Legend, the third and most lavish film of Richard Matheson's novel of the same name. Vincent Price and Charlton Heston previously played mankind's final survivor in 1964's The Last Man on Earth and 1971's The Omega Man, respectively, but neither offered a big-screen spectacle on the scale of director Francis Lawrence's I Am Legend. Despite its downbeat subject matter and December release, the film qualifies as the best summer movie of 2007, although its spiritual message may be too ambitious for its own good.

Three years earlier, a genetically engineered cancer cure proved far worse than the disease, killing off most of mankind, leaving a handful uninfected and turning the rest into savage mutants. I Am Legend's first hour or so introduces us to Neville's daily routine. He forages for supplies with his beloved German Shepherd, tests potential antidotes in his basement lab and looks for signs of survivors. He also pursues postapocalyptic fantasies in his spare time, like driving golf balls off an aircraft carrier, or hanging Van Gogh's "Starry Night" over his TV set.

He also tests his home's fortifications, because the nights are ruled by creatures who make the infected from 28 Days Later ... look like kids with the sniffles. They're not vampires – the "V" word never comes up – but they hate light, crave blood and are prone to vicious aggression. (Also, they look sort of like character actor Michael Rooker.) In the film's most thrilling sequences, Neville discovers that they're not nearly as mindless as he thinks they are. Director Lawrence is best known for helming music videos and 2005's underwhelming Constantine, but here he proves he's got serious action/horror-movie chops. You'll be a nervous wreck when it's over.

I Am Legend marks some of Smith's best work as an actor. It's easy to think of him as a "social" performer, charming and quipping with his castmates, but here, sharing long scenes with just the dog, he runs an emotional gamut. He can joke with the canine, outwit a monstrous adversary and grieve for his wife and child (the latter played in memories by Smith's real daughter, Willow). Nevertheless, there's something schizoid in the performance. He captures Neville's driven, obsessive traits that keep him alive, and indicates his mental strain when he chats up mannequins in more comedic scenes, but they seem like two separate characters, not two facets of the same person.

After the haunted-house thrill ride of I Am Legend's first two acts – including a lavish flashback to the abandoning of Manhattan – the film takes a surprisingly overt spiritual turn in the third section. Most vampire movies have a Christian subtext; any story that involves holy water or crucifixes as weapons implicitly accepts Jesus as its personal savior. None of these turn up in I Am Legend, but religious themes and godly notions emerge more directly. The film, set in the capital of human materialism, brought low by medical hubris, suggests that spirituality and sacrifice could renew civilization.

In genre films, such ideas usually travel further when delivered with more subtle symbolism, and I Am Legend's resolution proves disappointingly dogmatic. In addition, the film contains strange echoes of 9/11. "September 9" is conspicuously mentioned as a fateful date, and Neville repeatedly says, "This is Ground Zero. This is my site," in defending his refusal to abandon Manhattan. I Am Legend, much like Stephen Spielberg's The War of the Worlds, wants to use an apocalyptic sci-fi story to purge some post-9/11 anxieties. Apart from a few misfires, I Am Legend succeeds far better, and creates such devastating images of an emptied-out city, you'll be positively relieved to see huge crowds or traffic jams afterward.