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Legend Has It

That old "last man on earth" setup? It really works.

There are two momentous performances in the Darwinian horror fable I Am Legend. One is by the movie's star, Will Smith — but more about him in a minute. The other is by the movie's visual effects — not the ones that bring to life a nocturnal army of shrieking, carnivorous beasties (though those are by no means unimpressive), but rather the ones 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 on from a pandemic in which a "miracle" cure for cancer mutates into an incurable, rabies-like plague, the isle of Manhattan has regressed into a state of frontier wilderness, and the images rendered by director Francis Lawrence, cinematographer Andrew Lesnie, and visual effects supervisor Janek Sirrs have an awesome, iconic power. Deserted cars choke the bridges. Tree roots protrude through the surface of 7th Avenue. And Times Square bustles with a new sort of tourist — herds of wild deer stampeding through, on the run from...something.

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, the 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 that cast Charlton Heston as Neville and turned his adversaries into trench-coated social revolutionaries.

In Lawrence's version, which was adapted by screenwriter Mark Protosevich (Poseidon) and revised considerably by Oscar-winner Akiva Goldsman (A Beautiful Mind), Will Smith steps into Neville's shoes, and it's the first time an actor has been asked (or allowed) to play the character as something more than God's lonely, angry man. 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 strategically product-placed Mustang Shelby, raiding abandoned apartments for nonperishable supplies, and trapping the occasional Infected so as to have a new trial subject for his laboratory.

Will Smith ponders how to save the earth in Francis Lawrence's sublime I Am Legend.
Will Smith ponders how to save the earth in Francis Lawrence's sublime I Am Legend.

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 later, 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 (where else?) 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.

If I Am Legend is less stylistically mind-blowing and intellectually ambitious than last year's yuletide dystopia, Children of Men, it's not far off. The screenplay condenses the pre-plague backstory to brief, staccato flashbacks and manages to shift the emphasis of the novel — which was about how Neville came to be seen as a kind of monster by a new race of non-vampire mutants — without diluting its power. (Here, the crux of the narrative is a timely dialectical argument between a man, Neville, who puts his faith in science, and a somewhat fanatical woman, Anna, who puts hers in God — both of whom appear, by turns, more fanatical than righteous.)

Lawrence's direction, too, is more subdued and artful than you expect to find in a high-ticket holiday blockbuster, notwithstanding a smattering of cheap shock edits and sound effects. More often, he takes things slow and easy, staging much of the film in long, dialogue-free handheld camera shots that use space, production design 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, notably with an ingenious standoff in which 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 paintbox who seems to understand how those tools work best: to magnify the human dimension of a movie rather than extinguish it. SHORT CUTS

Antonement: Picture the fastidiously literary Ian McEwan at a pitch meeting, holding his nose. Then picture director Joe Wright — he of the broadly grinning Pride & Prejudice, talking the talk with his unerringly commercial radar for what will fly across the Atlantic — and you'll grasp the abyss between McEwan's brilliant novel Atonement, and Wright's palatable, unchallenging movie. The novel turns on a childish crime that alters the fate of a snobby British family and thrusts its younger generation into a world war, one of whose casualties will be the centuries of class privilege. Wright cross-pollinates the first half into an Oscar-buzzy brew of Masterpiece Theatre and Upstairs, Downstairs with a touch of bodice-ripper, and the second into a cheap knockoff of a 1940s war movie. There's a satisfying sexual crackle between Keira Knightley, shrewdly cast as a brittle flapper with womanly potential, and an astutely carnal James McAvoy as her below-the-salt lover. But where McEwan whispers, Wright shouts. In all the clamor of an operatic soundtrack overlaid with the rhythmic thud of typewriter keys and drumbeats of war, McEwan's most thrilling theme — of how fiction atones for life (and, sometimes, doesn't — falls by the wayside, leaving our lovers trapped in a drippy Hallmark card, snuggling on a windswept beach. Forever sepia. 

Ella Taylor

What Would Jesus Buy?: Although What Would Jesus Buy? was directed by Rob VanAlkemade, it bears the unmistakable imprimatur of its producer, Morgan Spurlock. Much like Spurlock's Super Size Me, this production is slick, well-paced and tremendously entertaining. It follows a group called Reverend Billy and the Church of Stop Shopping on a pre-Christmas tour through an endless parade of dreary Midwestern malls. According to his press bio, Reverend Billy is "an officiant of the rites of marriage in New York City, and a lifelong lover of birds of prey." More to the point, he's a performance artist riffing on the persona of an evangelical minister in order to drive home to Americans just how in thrall we are to the church of consumerism. Unfortunately, WWJB never pushes past the surface of this shtick to explore the deeper forces behind our impulse to buy. It could use more interviews with the free-trade experts and anti-sweatshop activists, and fewer shots of the Stop Shopping Gospel Choir exhorting Wal-Mart shoppers to, well, stop shopping, no matter what they're buying and why they need it.
Julia Wallace

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