Credit: Barry Wetcher
  • Movie

In I Am Legend, Will Smith plays Robert Neville, a brilliant scientist who believes himself to be the sole survivor of a man-made plague that has wiped out most of humanity and turned the rest into nocturnal, vampiric mutants. Hopelessly alone, Neville spends his days looking for a cure — and his nights trying to avoid becoming monster food.

Adapted from the 1954 novel by revered sci-fi/fantasy author and storied Twilight Zone scribe Richard Matheson, the enigmatically titled Legend marks Hollywood’s third pass at the material, after 1964’s Vincent Price vehicle The Last Man on Earth and 1971’s Charlton Heston cult classic The Omega Man. While those took a rather conventional horror-movie approach, this $100 million-plus version aspires toward themes both timeless and timely (existential plight, xenophobia, pandemic jitters) and is filled with panoramic, how’d they do that? shots of an eerily empty Manhattan. ”It’s a deeply quiet movie,” says writer-producer Akiva Goldsman (A Beautiful Mind). ”It’s epic yet intimate; huge but tiny at the same time.”

For the actor at the center of what’s largely a one-man show, I Am Legend represents the fulfillment of an elusive goal: perfecting a blend of populist popcorn fare with ambitious art films, or what Will Smith terms ”summer movies” and ”fall movies.” ”There’s a sweet spot I’ve been chasing in my career,” says Smith. ”Gladiator, Forrest Gump — these are movies with wonderful, audience-pleasing elements but also uncompromised artistic value. I Am Legend always felt like it had those possibilities to me.

”It’s a $100 million-plus movie where the lead doesn’t talk for the first hour,” says Smith. ”It’s really just me and a dog. That’s tough. We desperately had to get in there and figure out how to make it riveting.” That took work: improvising scenes, meeting with experts on infectious diseases and solitary confinement, and exploring earlier films in which an isolated soul struggles to survive. In other words, says Smith, ”we took a big hint from Tom Hanks in Cast Away.”

Now that Legend has given him a taste of true solitude, ”As much as you wish people would just get the hell out of your face…that is so not true,” Smith says. ”Because if everyone really did, that would be a miserable existence.”

This is an online-only excerpt from the EW Fall Movie Preview issue. Click to read the full feature on I Am Legend.

I Am Legend

  • Movie
  • PG-13
  • 100 minutes
  • Francis Lawrence