'I Am Legend' so-so, but it stars Will Smith!

Al Alexander

Twice they tried and twice they failed. But as we all know, the third time is charm. Or at least the producers of the budget-busting “I Am Legend” are certainly praying that’s so.

Not to worry. Will Smith is cast in the lead, and even in an industry as risky as show biz, that’s practically a license to print money. It’s also a guarantee that no matter how lame the script, you’re going to be entertained. To what degree will largely depend on how you like your sci-fi served: deep and cerebral like “Donnie Darko,” or shallow and action-packed like “28 Days Later.”

“I Am Legend,” the third movie based on Richard Matheson’s 1954 novel (the others, both duds, were “The Omega Man” with Chuck Heston and “The Last Man on Earth” with Boris Karloff), falls somewhere in between.

Me, I liked the existential aspects of the premise — a man experiencing the great joys and extreme loneliness of possibly being the last human on Earth after a man-made pandemic. But the Xbox generation probably doesn’t agree with me. They may like the fact that “Legend” shows things being shot and blown up real good — in this case, the ones being mowed down and chopped up like wheat are a nocturnal sect of mutated zombies cleverly called the Infected.

But these Infected are hardly infectious. They’re surly, flesh-eating predators, but they also look faker than Donald Trump’s rug.

It’s one of the few missteps by production designer Naomi Shohan (“American Beauty”), who is almost certain to pick up an Oscar nomination for her rendering of a post-apocalyptic New York City as a Western ghost town in which vast canyons of concrete and steel have been slowly reclaimed by nature.

Weeds and wild flowers poke through Broadway, deer gallop briskly along Fifth Avenue and lions devour the bucks as if So-Ho was the African savannah. You sit riveted and amazed, both by director Francis Lawrence’s vision and Smith’s pitch-perfect performance as a man still grasping for hope, despite the crushing loneliness and the constant threat of the Infected.

It’s superior work that will draw comparisons to Tom Hanks in “Cast Away,” although Smith is always clean-shaven and smartly dressed. 

He plays Robert Neville, a virologist for the U.S. military. As luck would have it, his blood holds the key to surviving a plague that ironically was triggered by the cure for cancer.

Searching for answers to what makes him immune occupies the hours when he’s not out with his German shepherd, Sam, raiding apartments, stores and gas stations in search of canned food and supplies. A ritual that ends each day promptly at sundown, at which point he retreats to his Washington Square condo to slam the iron-clad shutters and wait out yet another night praying he won’t become the prey of the Infected.

You’d like to retreat with him, too, so you could avoid seeing the disappointing digital monsters. Come on! It’s supposed to be 2012, haven’t the walking dead evolved into something more than salivating killing machines with bad hair? They may as well have crept out of George Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead” some 40 years ago.

Fortunately, they are mostly stockpiled for the third act, which not so coincidently is when “I Am Legend” jumps the shark, shape-shifting into a dopey religious allegory rooted in the continuing battle between science and faith, a discussion best saved for a film far more intellectually evolved than this one.

The rest of the movie, though, is quite good, structured much like an episode of “Lost” in which intermittent flashbacks gradually fill in Robert’s back story, including how he became separated from his wife and child (played by Smith’s daughter). And like “Lost,” mysteries arise suggesting that he just might not be alone in the Big Apple.

The writing by Akiva Goldsmith (an Oscar-winner for “ A Beautiful Mind”), reworking an original script by Mark Protosevich, isn’t nearly as sharp as TV’s best mystery. But the charismatic Smith more than picks up the slack, injecting much-needed levity with wisecracks that mine humor even in the dourest circumstances.

I know the masses demand that he face some sort of supernatural villain, like a dozen times before in flicks like “Independence Day” and “Men in Black.” But I can’t help wondering how much more satisfying “I Am Legend” might have been if it had simply been about him battling the various physical and mental strains put on a person confined to a prison that’s literally as big as the world.

It might well have made “Legend” legendary instead of merely OK.

Grade: B-

Rated PG-13. “I Am Legend” contains intense sequences of sci-fi violence.