Every time Will Smith has a hit, he talks about running for president. He’s certain he’d win. After Men in Black, Smith told USA Today “I feel like I could be the president of the United States. I really do,” and when I, Robot raked in the cash, he announced to a Swedish newspaper “Of course I could be president if I wanted to.” Back in 1999, Smith said he’d be the first black Commander in Chief; Barack Obama, he now concedes, may pave the path. (“Barack stole my idea,” he jokingly gripes.) But it’s clear why he’s so confident: He’s got Bill Clinton’s charisma, John Wayne’s grit, and Tom Hanks’ appeal—and every blockbuster he’s picked shows that off as America’s most beloved rapper saves us from aliens, robots, and poverty. I Am Legend has refueled his political fire, and while I’d consider voting for Smith, his Robert Neville has my ballot locked up.
Neville is the world’s most perfect human. Partially because he may be the last human on earth, but also since he’s a brilliant, methodical, and strong ex-soldier and scientist with a sensitive streak. He’s a muscle-bound brainiac who cries and plays a mean golf game. When he wakes up in his fortressed brownstone, Neville and his only friend, a dog named Sam, run on matching treadmills before heading down to his lab in the basement to try to develop an antidote for the deadly KV virus that’s wiped out 90% of the population and turned the rest (including his wife and daughter) into carnivorous zombies or prey. Neville is so good that three years after the decimation of Manhattan he still returns his DVDs to the video store on time.
Given that the best credit on director Francis Lawrence’s résumé is Britney Spears’ “Slave 4 You” video, his graceful and miserably tense sci-fi film is as shocking as the first shots of a depopulated New York City where weeds sprout through the cracks in Times Square and herds of deer flee a pride of lions that must have busted out of the Bronx Zoo. It’s ghostly, ghastly, and beautiful to watch Neville speed through the emptied streets dodging abandoned cars as he, like the lions and the zombies he calls “dark seekers,” hunts fresh meat. The flick is based on Richard Matheson’s 1954 novel of the same name, yet it bears little resemblance to the films that have already spun off of it including Vincent Price’s more morally-ambiguous The Last Man on Earth and Charlton Heston’s brutal The Omega Man, which is basically Planet of the Apes in a post-apocalyptic Los Angeles. Mark Protosevich and Akiva Goldsman’s script is simpler and stiller; it’s less a knockout punch than a hushed action flick that creeps up on you from behind and throws a bag over your head.
But the movie is squarely in Smith’s pocket as he sets about battling the dark seekers and his own desperate loneliness. It’s a toss up as to which is ultimately more destructive; what’s apparent is Smith is that rare thespian who can go five minutes without speaking and still hold our interest. The big idea that’s at stake is at what point must a man realize he can’t always be a hero—a revelation that Neville comes to grudgingly as he, like Smith, is a big talker who just might back up his ego with action. There’s too much God talk for my comfort, with lines like “God didn’t do this—we did!” and “The world is quieter now—if you listen, you can hear God’s plan,” but mostly Neville’s found comfort in shifting his worship over to Bob Marley, whose save-the-world goals he says he identifies with “as a virologist.” But whatever his characters idolize, let’s pray they spill over into Smith’s personal life because the only thing standing between him and a democratic nomination is his ill-advised openness towards Scientology—we’ve put Conan in office, but Tom Cruise doesn’t have a chance.