What I saw this afternoon was about 9/10ths of a brilliant film. Which is to say — while in most respects Lawrence's I Am Legend is more genuinely a remake of The Omega Man* (1971, dir. Boris Sagal) than it is an adaptation of Richard Matheson's 1954 novel — it almost manages the the trick of creating a brutally honest and sublimely bleak vision. But at the end, at the very end, it flinches. And it's not a little flinch. It's a gargantuan flinch that in no way follows logically or artistically from the first 9/10ths of the film. In short, it's a cop-out, and I suspect it's a cop-out arising from the belief of the studio that the same huge audience that will be drawn to a Will Smith film about the end of humanity as we know it wouldn't be pleased to discover it really is a film about the end of humanity as we know it. Call me cynical, but I'd wager the studio is right.
What makes commenting on this film so difficult (to me at least), is that right up until that grand flinch at the end, I Am Legend is almost a perfect film. Will Smith, who finally impressed me last year as an actor with non-comedic talent in The Pursuit of Happyness, delivers a superb performance. And this really is one-man's film. It's success or failure is carried on the shoulders of one actor, and Will Smith succeeds completely. Moreover, the film is visually breathtaking, delivering one of the most convincing and arresting visions of a post-human world ever filmed. I Am Legend is, by turns, terrifying, heart-breaking, and utterly stunning. It is almost an Oscar contender.
Except for that flinch at the end. I won't even get into the absurd science required to make the ending work, because I try not to pick on iffy and bad science in otherwise good films. But morally, the ending is a failure, letting down both the film and the film's audience. The ending is, quite simply, a lie, both in its deviation from Matheson's novel and its deviation from the rest of the film and, most importantly, in its propagation of the conceit that no matter what hell mankind visits upon itself and the world, everything will be okay in the end. One moment, we have a tour de force speech from Robert Neville proclaiming that there is no god and no safe haven and no happy ending on the horizon for those who keep The Faith. Half an hour later, the film tries to convince us that, despite this, just the opposite is true. You only have to drive as far as Vermont, where a gated community guarded by soldiers keeps the last humans safe from the Big Bad. The ending is, to be blunt, bullshit.
I am not opposed the apocalyptic films with endings wherein the world is somehow saved, despite the odds against it. For example, I was fine with the ending of Steven Spielberg's War of the Worlds (2005), and, more recently, with the concluding scene of Danny Boyle's triumphant Sunshine. In neither case are the "happy endings" deceits. Considering both the successes and the failed ending of I Am Legend, I am reminded (because I just saw it again Wednesday night) of Carpenter's Starman and the title character's declaration that mankind "is at your best when things are at their worst." That is the message that those first 9/10ths of I Am Legend presents, through the perseverance and compassion of Robert Neville. But it is not a message supported by that scene of Anna and Ethan driving through the autumn splendor of a picturesque New England countryside into the "safe zone."
I still recommend this film, and I still recommend it strongly, because what works here works in spades. But I also recommend that you walk out the moment Neville spots the butterfly tattoo on Anna's neck. Meanwhile, I shall keep my fingers crossed that the DVD release will contain an alternate and more truthful ending.
* It should be noted that the screenwriters of The Omega Man (also an adaptation of Matheson's novel), John William Corrington and Joyce Hooper Corrington, are credited in Lawrence's film.