Forget zombies, I Am Legend is an exploration of the pure horror of being alone – it’s resonant as all hell in the current climate where we know that hordes of other people exist but that they pose an actual threat of death. That loneliness is so acute that talking to a dog or a shop dummy – or indeed a plant, your computer, the TV – seems completely legit. Neville’s struggles with socialization once Alice Braga’s Anna is in the picture feel entirely authentic and familiar – has he gone slightly mad from the loneliness and isolation, the film posits? In 2021, have we?
Keeping the CGI baddies in the shadows is a wise move, and even though they really haven’t aged well, in the first hour there’s still scope for a few decent scares. The best comes when Neville is caught in a trap set for him by one of the creatures – a trap which mirrors one he himself had set earlier to capture the latest of the infected he’s experimenting on. Hung up by a foot with the sun rapidly fading, when Neville wakes from his concussion he is in a serious rush to save himself with his faithful friend Sam barking in panic below him.
When it’s him and the dog, Smith is brilliant. Sam (played by two dogs – Abbey and Kona) is also excellent. And at the end of this sequence when the dog dies, bitten by zombie hounds and euthanized by Neville, it is genuinely devastating. Forget Marley and Me, this isn’t canine grief – instead the moment a grief stricken Neville goes to the record shop and talks to a mannequin, begging her to “please say hello to me,” is deeply upsetting. Smith does some very heavy lifting and it really holds up. Neville has hit rock bottom. Without Sam there’s nothing left to live for. Neville heads out into the night on a kamikaze mission to take as many creatures with him as he dies. The end. Except it’s not.
Instead, the film is completely ruined by the deus ex machina arrival of another survivor, Anna (Alice Braga) and her son Ethan (Charlie Tahan) who rescue Neville. Anna says she believes God sent her to find Neville and take him to a survivor colony she thinks exists in Vermont.
Anna’s arrival is no doubt supposed to provide hope and redemption in the final act after the incredibly moving end of the previous act but ultimately it does the opposite. Her random appearance undermines the three years Neville has endured. Neville has lived with the frankly torturous concept that he was the last man alive, but instead he’s faced with the possibility of a survivor community that somehow she has managed to track down while he has not, and the thought that for three years (or however long he’s been sending his own broadcast) survivors, in all likelihood, did hear his missive but never responded. His strength and resilience, his battle to stay sane, these were nothing, there were other people who could have found him, or he them, all along. Bad luck Neville, you spent three years trying to find a cure when you could have just had a chat with God (or worked harder on your telecoms). Bleak for him but in this version he becomes a martyr of sorts.
Anna and her son arrive and trigger a mega zombie showdown in the house. In a stroke of luck, Anna’s arrival has coincided with the latest strain of antidote actually working, so when Neville, Anna, and her son barricade themselves in the lab, Neville is able to extract a vial of the cure to give to Anna and then sacrifices himself so she can escape the creatures. Neville is killed but the cure is safe and arrives at the encampment with Anna, his life’s work wasn’t futile, and Anna gives a speech essentially saying how much of a legend Robert Neville was.