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Will Smith’s Apocalyptic One-Man Show Proved He Was a Serious Actor

I Am Legend has its ups and downs, but no one can question Smith’s performance.

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Warner Bros. Pictures

Time hasn’t been kind to I Am Legend, the apocalyptic thriller directed by Hunger Games auteur Francis Lawrence. Middling reviews, slapdash special effects, and a polarizing finale have all hurt its reputation, but when the film premiered in 2007, it was a clear win for both Warner Bros. and leading man Will Smith.

It’s also a clear turning point in Smith’s career, who had been working hard to extricate himself from the goofy slate of films he’d become known for. Blockbusters like Men in Black, Bad Boys, and Independence Day had facilitated a seamless transition to the big screen, but Smith was set on becoming A Serious Actor next. His Oscar-nominated role in the boxing biopic Ali was a swing in the right direction, but his next challenge brought him back to his science-fiction roots.

I Am Legend is essentially a solo vehicle for Smith, as his character, Dr. Robert Neville, is the sole survivor of a viral cancer cure gone wrong. It’s also an adaptation of Richard Matheson's novel of the same name. Matheson’s work was the OG zombie apocalypse story: it sired countless copycats and had already been adapted twice.

Even so, I Am Legend was a gamble. It’s not every day one actor is tasked with carrying a $150 million film all on his lonesome. But if there was any doubt that Smith was movie star material before I Am Legend, his performance certainly put those doubts to rest.

Smith puts on a compelling one-man (and dog) show.

Warner Bros. Pictures

When we first meet Smith’s Robert Neville, it’s 2012, and a virus has turned the infected into vampire-esque mutants called Darkseekers. They’re averse to sunlight, which leaves Neville free to roam the streets of New York City by day and work to engineer a cure by night. Aside from his trusty pup Sam, Neville is completely alone and slowly slipping into madness.

The first act plays out like a reverse-engineered Castaway. Instead of one man cut off from the rest of the world, Neville has the entire world to himself. So long as he’s back at his plush, boarded-up townhouse by the time the sun sets, he’s free to do what he likes. The Darkseekers own the night, and Neville isn’t interested in encountering any unless he needs a test subject. Neville is very close to finding a cure for the virus — it’s just a matter of completing it before it’s too late.

I Am Legend’s Darkseekers didn’t have the greatest designs, but they were still scary.

Warner Bros. Pictures

I Am Legend is arguably the definitive adaptation of the Matheson novel, and for the most part, it’s in tune with the author’s intent. Smith is a singular force, completely embodying the pathos required of a “last man on Earth” storyline even as his trademark goofiness keeps the film from sinking under the weight of its own despair.

I Am Legend tries to be hopeful where it can, but that was to its detriment. The film got a lot of flack for straying from its source material in places, especially when it came to its discrepant ending. Not even Smith is a fan of the route the film went, but his performance is the buoy that keeps it all afloat regardless. With a supposed sequel picking up from the alternate ending supposedly on the way, maybe Smith will get a chance to write those wrongs and further entrench his leading man legacy.

I Am Legend is streaming on HBO Max until April 30.

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