Anybody who has ever felt that New York City would be an awesome place if it weren’t for all of the people crowding you in wherever you go will find a lot to love in the first hour or so of I Am Legend, a post-apocalyptic story about a guy who can drive a Mustang down Fifth Avenue at top speed and find no traffic for miles, a guy who can go into any store he wants and not bother with a checkout line, a guy who can go golfing off the wing of one of the jets on the USS Intrepid. Yeah, that must be the life.
Only it isn’t. It’s a living hell. Robert Neville (Will Smith) is a U.S. Army scientist who somehow survived a viral plague that killed off 95% of the entire human race. 4% turned into vampire-like mutants who burn up in the sun. The remaining 1% are regular people left to figure out how to survive in a world like this. Only if there really are other people left out there, Neville hasn’t seen any in a long, long time. And it’s starting to get to him.
His daily routine is spent roaming Manhattan with his faithful German Shepherd companion as he scavenges for supplies, maintains a radio broadcast calling out to any other survivors who might be listening, and gathering test subjects for his vaccination experiments.
Neville is working on a cure for this disease that ended the world, only he needs to fine tune it, so he regularly captures mutants and injects them with a serum that is meant to undo their mutation and return them to normalcy. It’s close to working, but so far all it does is kill the subject, and so day after day, he must keep working on his formula, keep capturing mutants to test, and keep trying to stave off his impending insanity.
Meanwhile, when night falls, Neville retreats to his fortified home as the mutants come out and range across the city, looking for something to hunt or perhaps looking to retrieve their missing comrades. Every night, Neville must turn off the lights and lay quietly until dawn, hoping that tonight isn’t the night that the mutants find out where he lives.
Humans are not solitary animals, and Smith does a great job of portraying a man with remarkable inner strength and resourcefulness who nevertheless has been stretched to his breaking point by being deprived of any kind of human companionship. You can only have conversations with store mannequins and enjoy the lack of traffic for so long before all that quiet emptiness starts talking back to you. Halfway through the movie, Neville finally meets a pair of other survivors, which should be cause for celebration, but by now, Neville has been out on his own for so long, he can hardly figure out what to say to these people. He knows he is dangerously close to going around the bend for good.
Before too long, Neville has a final showdown with the hive of mutants living near his home, and when it is all said and done, we are left wondering, exactly who is the real monster here? (At least, we do when we watch the alternate ending of this movie, rather than the simpler, tidier, and far less satisfying theatrical ending.) But the movie’s moment of truth comes before that big showdown, when Neville is still adjusting to life with a few more people in the house. One morning, they help themselves to some of his supplies and make a hearty breakfast for everyone, including a prized stash of bacon. When Neville finds out they cooked it, he hits the roof. He had been saving that for a special occasion, and they just took that from him. It’s kind of a funny scene because up until now, Smith hasn’t really had much reason to react emotionally to anything. But beyond the humor of his ranting, you can see a heavier Catch-22 in his head. All he wants is to be with people again, so how can it be that the first people he meets do something so inconsiderate that he wishes he was all alone again? It’s almost like Neville knows that even if he does succeed with this cure of his and restore the mutants back to their previous humanity, the last thing he’ll want to do is hang out with them. After a mind-breaking stretch of solitude, all he’s going to want is some peace and quiet. Some guys just can’t catch a break.
But Neville does calm down, and he remembers that living with people means making compromises, and that a world where you can have everything you want when you want it, the way you want it, still isn’t preferable to a world that’s a little more crowded, a little more difficult, a little more challenging. That’s just how we’re wired. Alone time is good. Being alone forever is not.