Most audiences will predict a few elements of this tense, thrilling and emotional experience, but Will Smith’s tour de force performance (similar to Tom Hanks in Cast Away) and high level of audience involvement still produce a great film. The strong themes include family, hope, perseverance and, most importantly, survival.
A famous British star sets the stage for the deeply involving story, which tragically puts New York City in turmoil due to a well intended medical cure gone horribly wrong. After a time, audiences meet Robert Neville, well played by Will Smith, who contends with the antagonist mutations, seeking human elimination for their own survival. These baddies might seem to be remediated zombie/vampire hybrids of other films, but consider the original 1954 source material, which preceded most of the amazing modern-day monster/thriller models created through expensive special effects.
Screenwriters Akiva Goldsman (Cinderella Man, Practical Magic) and Mark Protosevich (Poseidon, The Cell) adapt this 1954 Richard Matheson novel well while stripping down several scenes to the basic human functions. This surprisingly basic format lets the audience enjoy a largely non-manipulative ride where they can inject their own thoughts into the visuals.
Screenwriters put great continuity as every presented elements ties together well. The film may warrant repeat viewings for billboards and other environmental elements viewers might not pick up the first time through. Not a good enough reason? Reliving the passionate experience is also recommended because you get a better perspective of Neville’s motivations after the first viewing, which emotionally depleted most viewers in my sold out theater.
The plot manipulates emotions at times as filmmakers know when to hold the brakes and add a little humor to the plot during the tense moments. Filmmakers do not show two of the most graphic scenes, which are also the most emotional…and they don’t have to. Less visual is more, especially when lives are a stake. It’s also nice to see a film that presents the “end of the world” danger without a bunch of government officials pacing around trying to decide what to do.
Will Smith again shows this considerable talent holding the screen all himself for the majority of the picture as Army officer Robert Neville. He thrives on the theatrical set up of each scene on all levels. He encounters situations reeking of fate and purpose, which yield the strongest reactions from the characters and audience.
A charismatic actor who can switch from hunter to scientist to resourceful survivor in a heartbeat while echoing his previous performances – his necessary physical training (I, Robot), steadfastness against overwhelming odds (Ali) and realistic sentiments (Pursuit of Happyness) provide his obvious motivations. These roots produce great results while sustaining the plot right until the very end. Smith certainly won’t get an Oscar nomination for his performance (definitely if there was a category for best athletic performance), but continues to prove his worth as one of Hollywood’s most talented actors.
Robert’s canine companion, Sam, also takes top dog in one of the most emotional connections with audiences since Old Yeller. Other actors, especially Alice Braga, do a great job filling in the holes of Richard’s past, present and future, but it’s the startling scenery that wins the bronze medal in this film. You can’t determine if backgrounds have been matted in while filmmakers create several authentic action sequences where Smith looks like he’s taking the fall and the ending hit…literally. The seamless special effects creating a bleak, realistic canvas that makes Neville’s quest even more emotional.
Director Francis Lawrence (Constantine) does an outstanding job except for a shaky, misplaced hand-held camera sequence as Neville hunts near the beginning. Smith’s performance and the successful emotional tugging in the plot push this strongly themed film to a high level. Great morals and themes complimented with plenty of surprises and realistic action. Recommended (*** out of four stars) and rated PG-13 for action violence and related gore.
Copyright © Michael Siebenaler