Will Smith plays the last man on earth in this third movie based on Richard Matheson’s novella. Scientist Robert Neville was immune to the virus that wiped out everyone. He spends his days hunting for food in the deserted streets of Manhattan, now overgrown with brush and inhabited by deer, and working in the lab to find a cure for the virus. And he spends his nights barricaded to protect himself from the infected creatures who are hunting him. Once human, they are now mindlessly enraged vampire/zombie killers who can do nothing but devour.
Okay, they can do one other thing. They can learn. In their feral, furious way they can cooperate and plan. Neville can trap them for his experiments or throw them off his trail, but they keep getting smarter. He is not just their prey — he is their teacher, and he is teaching them how to get him.
The scenes of Smith roaming the streets are dazzling. In the longest sustained solo turn since Tom Hanks in “Cast Away,” he holds on to our interest and attention. We see him thinking through problems, keeping himself focused, establishing a routine. And we see him talking to his dog, Sam, his only companion. It is perhaps that interaction more than anything else that reminds Neville that he is human. Other reminders, a photograph, a song, memories of the evacuation of New York, are too painful. So, he is organized and always alert. He sends out a radio broadcast in search of other survivors but after three years, has given up. He puts aside a special treat for some occasion sometime that might be worth celebrating. And he keeps testing his own blood to see if he can isolate whatever it is that has kept him intact. The movie takes a turn in its final act that is likely to split the audience. While some may find it satisfying, it weakens the dramatic force of what has gone before.
The visuals here are stunning, with deer leaping across New York City streets and lush vegetation buckling the concrete. Glimpses of human occupation remain, with Times Square billboards, including one for the not-yet made “Batman vs. Superman” projected for 2009. Smith keeps getting better. He goes deeper here than he ever has on screen to show us the desperation and devastation that are attacking the infratructure of his rational mind like the grass is overtaking the city streets.
Parents should know that this movie focuses on disturbing themes including worldwide apocalyptic catastrophe with humanity almost completely wiped out. It features intense and graphic peril and violence, characters injured and killed, and scary zombies. A strength of the film is a character’s acknowledgement of faith in God.
Families who see this movie should compare the ending of the movie to the very different conclusion of the novella. Why do you think they changed it? Which ending do you like better? What do you think is realistic about this story and what do you think is not?
Families who enjoy this film will also enjoy the book by Richard Matheson and the two (very different) previous movie versions of the story, The Last Man on Earth with Vincent Price and The Omega Man with Charleton Heston. They will also enjoy Smith’s I, Robot. The World Without Us is a non-fiction book that explores what would happen if the human population were extinguished from the earth. As in this film, vegetation would quickly take over, but it would not be so tidy.