An attempt to create a cancer cure from the measles virus becomes lethal, infecting 99% of the human race. Those who don’t die become vampiric, albino, cannibalistic mutants who are vulnerable to sunlight and prey on the few who are unaffected. Three years later, in 2012, U.S. Army virologist Robert Neville (Will Smith) lives in isolation in deserted New York City, experimenting on rats in search of a cure, searching for food and supplies, sending out radio signals, and fighting the Darksiders.
In flashbacks, we see his wife Zoe (Salli Richardson) and daughter Marley (Will Smith’s daughter Willow Smith) dying in a helicopter accident during the evacuation of New York. Now, his only companion is a German Shepherd named Samantha, though he talks a lot with the mannequins in the stores he is looting. At night, he barricades himself inside his fortified Washington Square Park home. He runs into a nest of Darksiders while pursuing a deer, but the Darksiders are killed by sunlight. He thinks he might be able to create a cure from his blood. He captures and injects a female Darksider, but to no avail.
The next day, he notices that a mannequin friend named Fred has been moved and he realizes the Darksiders are watching him. He blunders into a trap, hits his head, and wakes up at dusk. He is attacked by infected dogs, which he and Sam fight off, but Sam is infected and he has to kill her. Driven by rage and grief, he attacks Darksiders at night, and is rescued from them by a pair of immune humans, Anna Montez (Alice Braga) and a young boy named Ethan (Charlie Tahan), who have heard his broadcast and travelled from Maryland.
They take Neville back to his home. Anna explains that they survived the outbreak on a Red Cross evacuation ship from Sao Paulo and are headed for a survivors camp in Bethune, Vermont. He doesn’t believe it exists. Neville thinks that by lowering the female Darksider’s temperature, he can make the treatment work. The next night, Darksiders invade the house and the humans barricade themselves in the basement. It seems the last treatment was successful. He gives the blood serum to Anna and Ethan and shuts them in a coal chute. He kills himself and the invading Darksiders with a grenade. Later, Anna and Ethan arrive at the survivors camp in Bethel with the cure.
In an alternate ending for the DVD release, Neville returns the Darksider female to her mate, realizing that they have intelligence. They forgive him and depart. He leaves with Anna and Ethan for Vermont.
The film was directed by Francis Lawrence from a screenplay by Akiva Goldman and Mark Protosevich, from the original story by Richard Matheson. It is the third movie based on that story, after 1964’s Last Man on Earth with Vincent Price and 1974’s The Omega Man with Charlton Heston. It received generally positive reviews, particularly Will Smith’s performance. Arnold Schwarzenegger was involved with the production at first and was supposed to star, and Guillermo Del Toro was supposed to direct, but he did Hellboy II: The Golden Army instead. Will Smith won a Saturn Award for his role. He tried to adopt Abbey, the dog, but her trainer wouldn’t give her up. She was a brilliant actor, it seems, and a real trouper.
Director Francis Lawrence watched the Pianist (2002) with the sound off so as not to disturb his sleeping baby and came away thinking how powerful silence can be in a movie. That worked brilliantly in the eerie scenes of a completely uninhabited New York City. During a press conference, Will Smith accidentally revealed the ending and Warner Brothers asked the reporters not to tell, which they actually agreed to. The studio had to get permission from fourteen government agencies to film in New York. The Darksiders were done in CGI after the actors in makeup looked too much like angry mimes. The infected dogs were of the Mexican Hairless breed. The mannequins were played by actors, who sometimes moved slightly, just to mess with the audience’s mind. Richard Matheson was involved with the script and ended up liking this version best. So do I.