Dir: Francis Lawrence US. 2007. 100mins.
Will Smith makes up what is essentially the one-man cast of I Am Legend, a darkly intense sci-fi/horror drama based on the classic Richard Matheson novella and directed, with the same kind of flair he brought to 2005's Constantine, by Francis Lawrence. Genre afficionados should be easily won over, in spite of the liberties taken with Matheson's tale. And Smith's star power could help producer-distributors Warner Bros and Village Roadshow reach a much broader mainstream audience as well.

Warner launches the film in the US (as well as Japan) on December 14, gambling that moviegoers will welcome a moodier (though still PG-13-rated) alternative to frothy pre-Christmas fare. With only a couple of other counter-programming contenders on offer, the gamble could pay off, and it will certainly prepare the ground for a lucrative video run.

In the international marketplace -- where Roadshow is handling a few territories and Warner the rest of the world - the film is opening in the UK and a couple of other markets during the holiday period and elsewhere in January. Smith's previous thriller and sci-fi outings have done particularly well internationally, so another strong performance in many territories could be on the cards.

Mark Protosevich (Poseidon) and Akiva Goldsman (A Beautiful Mind) wrote this third screen adaptation of the 1954 tale by Matheson (also known for his work on The Twilight Zone and more recent features Stir of Echoes and What Dreams May Come).

In this near-future version of the story, Smith's Robert Neville is the last human survivor in what is left of New York City. Three years after a man-made virus turned most of the human race into vicious mutants who can only come out of hiding at night, Neville, a former military scientist, spends his days collecting provisions around the deserted city and searching for a way to turn his own mysterious immunity into a cure for the plague. At night, he barricades himself in his Manhattan brownstone and tries to shut his ears to the eerie howls of the creatures outside.

The first act follows Neville and his dog through their strangely mundane daily routine. Flashbacks reveal how the plague took over the city and led to the deaths of Neville's wife and child, and the film, budgeted at a reported $100m, makes impressive use of its New York locations (adapted by Constantine production designer Naomi Shohan and shot by The Lord of the Rings cinematographer Andrew Lesnie). Behind the flashy effects, though, is a skillfully maintained atmosphere of foreboding.

The mutants first appear in a terrifically tense set piece half an hour in. They're more like monsters than the vampires of the Matheson tale and though actors are credited with playing them they appear to be as much the product of CG work as of flesh and blood performance. They're certainly scary, but making them less recognizably human than Matheson's creatures removes an element of pathos from the story.

The final act follows a more familiar post-apocalyptic line as another survivor (Brazilian-born Alice Braga) and her son appear to rescue Neville from his isolation and eventually lead the story to a hopeful conclusion.

Braga (best known up to now for City of God) gives the film a refreshing new face but this is still very much Smith's show.

The Neville character has been cleaned up a bit for this screen version. Instead of killing vampires by day and drinking at night, this Neville works out, practices his golf swing and consoles himself by chatting to mannequins liberated from city stores.

Yet Smith still manages to find something touching and occasionally even tragic in the character. The role doesn't offer much scope for the kind of cheeky comedy at which Smith excels, but it does have something of the same appeal that the actor brought to his performances in the likes of I, Robot, Independence Day and Enemy of the State.

Production companies/backers
Warner Bros Pictures (US)
Village Roadshow Pictures (Australia)
Overbrook Entertainment (US)
Weed Road (US)

US distribution
Warner Bros
International distribution
Warner Bros Pictures International, Village Roadshow (selected international territories).

Akiva Goldsman
James Lassiter
David Heyman
Neal Moritz

Executive producers
Michael Tadross
Erwin Stoff
Dana Goldberg
Bruce Berman

Mark Protosevich
Akiva Goldsman

Director of photography
Andrew Lesnie

Production design
Naomi Shohan

Wayne Wahrman

Costume design
Michael Kaplan

James Newton Howard

Main cast
Will Smith
Alice Braga
Dash Mihok
Salli Richardson
Willow Smith