Can Will Smith save us?

Philly's own film hero lends his star power to a story of devastation.

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Will Smith and his daughter, Willow, making her film debut as Marley. Smith, as the scientist Neville, searches for a cure for the deadly virus.

The weeds are sky-high in Times Square. Deer run the avenues, hopscotching around abandoned cars. Mass graves fill Central Park.

Manhattan, in the year 2012, is a ghost town. Not even Rudy Giuliani could save the place.

But maybe Will Smith can.

In I Am Legend, a big-budget adaptation of Richard Matheson's 1954 sci-fi novel (and two film versions: the 1964 Last Man on Earth and the 1971 Charlton Heston-starring Omega Man), Smith plays Robert Neville, a military scientist who seems to be the last man in Manhattan. Each day, Neville will wake up, do his pull-ups, feed himself and his dog, and then take his gun and go a-huntin' - tooling around the empty streets in a red Mustang. Neville even stops at the video store, chats up a foxy mannequin. He's working his way through the Gs.

But come sunset, it's back to his townhouse, where he yanks closed the steel shutters, tightly turns the locks, and curls up with his big German shepherd in the tub - hoping that they make it through the night.

A virus that killed pretty much everyone, turning all but the fewest of the few survivors into rabid, night-crawling zombies ("dark seekers," they're called), hit the city, and then the world, in 2009. Neville, a crack microbiologist who luckily is immune to the deadly strain, has vowed to stay behind, find a cure. (In the kitchen of his lovely home, attached to the fridge, is a Time magazine cover with his face on it; the headline reads "Savior, Soldier, Scientist.")

Directed by Francis Lawrence, a music video guy (Britney, J.Lo) who made his 2005 feature debut with Constantine, a dark, dopey comic book adaptation starring Keanu Reeves, I Am Legend is essentially 28 Days Later . . ., or 28 Weeks Later . . ., only with millions more for special effects, and with nothing approaching the heart-pounding, bloodcurdling power and smarts of the two British-made yarns.

What is good about I Am Legend - until it starts shooting itself in the proverbial foot, leaving plot holes the size of New York potholes across the screen - is Smith, alone or with his trusty pooch. There are long stretches of the film that are wonderfully quiet, as Neville and Sam (short for Samantha) prowl around, or sit by the South Street Seaport hoping a sane, healthy human will drop by for a chat. It's almost as if the filmmakers wanted to say something about isolation, and loneliness, in the urban environment. Almost.

And Smith is a true movie star: He could stand alone before the camera reciting those page-long drug ad disclaimers, and still command our attention.

But then the explanatory flashbacks start coming, and the viral dogs, or Neville and Sam will stumble on a "hive" of crazed, rabid, flesh-chomping creepazoids. I Am Legend starts feeling like a high-end video game, with very cool but not quite real digital effects, with those endless troops of wild-eyed, slimy, all-sinew villains emerging into the dark, banging their snarly heads against Neville's door.

And not that I want to reveal any SPOILERS, but who's the knucklehead who signed off on a script that has helicopters destroying the bridges leading into and out of Manhattan - to isolate the infected - but forgot about the Holland and Lincoln Tunnels?

How else do the woman and the kid who - oh, never mind, not going to go there. If you've got a logical explanation after you've seen I Am Legend, let me know.


I Am Legend **1/2 (Out of four stars)

Directed by Francis Lawrence. With Will Smith, Alice Braga, Charlie Tahan, Salli Richardson and Willow Smith. Distributed by Warner Bros. Pictures.

Running time: 1 hour, 40 mins.

Parent's guide: PG-13 (violence, profanity, scares, adult themes)

Playing at: area theaters


Contact movie critic Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or srea@phillynews.com. Read his blog, "On Movies Online," at http://go.philly.com/onmovies.