Home > Reviews > I AM LEGEND – James Newton Howard

I AM LEGEND – James Newton Howard

December 14, 2007 Leave a comment Go to comments

Original Review by Clark Douglas

Dear reader, I would like to ask you a question. Which sort of film frustrates you more: a film that is bad from start to finish, or a good film that features some bad moments? I find myself picking the latter. I can sit through a stupid movie and accept it for what it is… it’s often a painless and clinical experience for me. However, when a movie is as frequently good as “I Am Legend” is, it really hurts me to see it turn sour. “I Am Legend” is often such a thoughtful popcorn movie that you might as well not even bring the popcorn. It’s a big-budget extravaganza that spends most of it’s time paying attention to more important things than explosions. Most of it’s time.

Will Smith plays Dr. Robert Neville, a scientist who may very well be the last man on the face of the earth. A horrifying virus has swept across the nation, either killing human beings or turning them into mutant vampires. Neville survives on the island of Manhattan, spending each day scrounging for food and supplies. Neville also attempts to hunt down packs of vampire during daylight hours, and sometimes captures them to use in medical experiments. Neville has been desperately attempting to find a cure for three lonely years, but to no avail. His only companion is his dog… well, there’s also a series of carefully-placed mannequins placed in various locations throughout the city. Neville talks to them in an attempt to keep his social skills alive, in case he should happen to meet a fellow human being again someday.

The film is mostly a very thoughtful meditation on what life would be like in a world without human beings, and the depopulated Manhattan presented by director Francis Lawrence is very convincing in a “Children of Men” sort of way. Smith’s performance is even more impressive, quite possibly the very best of his career to date. There are scenes here that a lot of other actors would have treated with disrespect, but Smith plays them with utter conviction. Smith allows for a small amount of levity now and then, but it’s always tinged with sadness. His performance moved me immensely, and I believed every single thing his character did even when I shouldn’t have.

Unfortunately, Smith must confront the vampires every once in a while. I’m not against this idea, but apparently the entire budget was spent on hiring Smith and creating a convincing setting for the story. The CGI monsters on display here look just terrible, some of the least convincing effects I’ve seen all year. The vampires of “I Am Legend” make the creatures in “The Mist” look terrific. Every twenty minutes or so, we’re given an obligatory action scene just to keep the ADD-riddled audiences in their seat, and these scenes feel a lot more like filler than anything else in the movie.

Music is provided by composer James Newton Howard. Without wanting to cause offense to Howard or his fans, the best thing about this score is how little of it there is… director Lawrence is unafraid of leaving many scenes un-scored, lending those that are a considerably stronger impact. Most of the musical material heard here is centered around a bittersweet main theme, usually heard on strings. It appears during several moments of introspection, sadness, or warmth during the film, and works quite well. That aside, the only other material I heard was some underwhelming percussion music that pops up in a couple of action cues. Varese is releasing the score album soon, I can only wonder whether there is more there than there was in the movie. I would guess there’s no more than twenty minutes actually heard in the film. Still, what’s here is solid enough, and kudos to the film for being willing to go score-less.

Many of you sci-fi fans out there will know that “I Am Legend” is based on a good book by Richard Matheson. The book was first adapted into a film in 1964, the Vincent Price vehicle “The Last Man on Earth”. That was a very good film, and featured one of Price’s most touching performances. The next version, “The Omega Man” (starring Charlton Heston) was not as successful, but still served as an okay piece of entertainment. This latest effort was on track to be the very best version of “I am Legend” to date, despite a few flaws and some bad CGI effects. However, Lawrence makes a crucial mistake: he changes the ending of the book. I’m not a literary purist, but the book’s ending was a strong one, something that only the Vincent Price film has recognized. Interestingly enough, by changing the events of the film’s final third, Lawrence manages to completely rob the title “I Am Legend” of its meaning. He attempts to rectify this by adding a ridiculously cheap and hokey piece of narration to the film’s final scene, a sentence that attempts to give the title a new, much less interesting meaning.

Normally an ending this misguided would be enough for me to condemn a film, but I simply can’t. Too much of “I Am Legend” is too good, and you really ought to experience Smith’s portrayal of Dr. Robert Neville. As I have mentioned, the film is thoughtful, and it is also thought-provoking. Most of the scenes are honest and sincere, for the simple reason that Smith is honest and sincere. I admire “I Am Legend” a great deal, but it does truly pain me to think of what it might have been. If only they had made the vampires more convincing, if only they had left the ending alone, if only… well, “if only” is a phrase that Dr. Neville undoubtedly found himself thinking a lot, too. Leaving the theatre, I felt just a small portion of what he had been feeling, a sense of regret and frustration about what might have been if only small changes had been made.

Rating: ***

Track Listing:

  • My Name is Robert Neville (2:51)
  • Deer Hunting (1:17)
  • Evacuation (4:27)
  • Scan Her Again (1:42)
  • Darkseeker Dogs (2:17)
  • Sam’s Gone (1:48)
  • Talk to Me (0:56)
  • The Pier (5:17)
  • Can They Do That? (2:09)
  • I’m Listening (2:10)
  • The Jagged Edge (5:16)
  • Reunited (7:50)
  • I’m Sorry (2:22)
  • Epilogue (4:13)

Running Time: 44 minutes 35 seconds

Varese Sarabande VSD-6878 (2007)

Music composed by James Newton Howard. Conducted by Chris P. Bacon. Orchestrations by Jeff Atmajian, Brad Dechter and Jon Kull. Recorded and mixed by Alan Myerson. Edited by Jim Weidman. Score produced by James Newton Howard and Jim Weidman.

  1. Rui Lima
    July 6, 2013 at 8:35 am

    Not that the film deserves great expectations, but you cannot condemn the score.
    The Score deserves 5 stars. The score is tragic (the doom of humanity and reborn of a new sociaty), have action cues (for the action) and electronic cues (that enhance the spirit of desiese and vaccines etc). Maximum quality for the score.

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