Warner Bros. // 2007 // 100 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Judge Dennis Prince (Retired) // March 18th, 2008
"God didn't do this -- we did."
Regardless who you point to -- for blame or applause -- the facts bear out that novelist Richard Matheson's 1954 post-apocalyptic tale, I Am Legend, has been done over many times in the cinema. As we now behold this latest incarnation, one that arrives as a highly anticipated retelling of the end of days, we wonder if we'll ever cease in our preoccupation with mankind's demise, how it will transpire, and what might be left in the aftermath. This new Blu-ray disc gives us a crystal clear view of the latest imagining of civilization's final decline.
The sun shines down indifferently on a dilapidated section of cityscape, certainly another sign of progressing urban blight that continues to go unchecked despite the promised benefits of a new millennium. The sunlight catches the shiny exterior of a lone vehicle racing madly through the otherwise deserted streets, unclear of whether it is in pursuit or is being pursued. Suddenly, a wild pack of deer bursts out from the side streets, surrounding the bright red Shelby Mustang. The animals dart around and about the speeding car, at the same time weaving between an unusual collection of abandoned vehicles, forgotten transports that are quickly giving way to the sprawling weeds that grow around the long-stationary tires. But the red Mustang speeds on as if insistent upon cornering or capturing one of the fleeing beasts. When the city street is finally impassable, the weathering and discarded cars uncaringly left oddly parked in what makes for a barricade, the Mustang screeches to a halt.
Robert Neville (Will Smith, Independence Day) emerges and squints at the descending sun on the horizon and realizes its time to get back to his home, before it becomes dangerous again.
After methodically obscuring his steps to his front door and dutifully barring, barricading, and bolting every door and window in his home, Neville prepares for another night, hopeful that he can sleep, with his dog Sam at his side, through the horrible chorus of wails and screams that threaten to ferret him out. Somehow, when the miracle cure for cancer was bestowed upon the world three years ago, Neville, a military virologist, never expected his cherished New York state would become "ground zero" for the aggressive and completely annihilating disease that unflinchingly eradicated the entire human race -- all except for him, that is, and those creatures that wait until dark.
When the disease began to spiral out of control, victims would become immediately ill, their eyes weeping blood, their hair falling out in locks, their flesh dulling to a deadened gray, suddenly falling dead in their tracks. There were some, though, that didn't expire and, instead, became filled with an animalistic aggression and instinct to attack any non-infected human within reach. Animals were similarly afflicted, also either expiring or becoming enraged and ravenous within minutes. Except for Sam...and those deer.
Neville has methodically toiled every day trying to discover why he and Sam had survived the plague that hadn't spared any others. Dangerous though it may be, he's determined to capture one of the vicious "Dark Seekers," hopeful he can develop and administer an anti-agent that can reverse the effect of the disease. He teeters on the brink of madness, though, knowing that he is but one man living in nightmarish solitude while facing an army of creatures that seem to be growing more and more resilient, even risking the decimating effects of exposure to the burning sunlight -- especially that one alpha-creature (Dash Mihok, Hollywoodland) that seems to lead the others. That one looks at Neville with an unsettling sort of recognition -- and rage -- that is far too determined to ignore.
By this year 2012, in the heart of New York, as well as around the globe, civilization has ceased to exist. Robert Neville anguishes in the realization that he is the last man on Earth.
But Robert Neville is not alone.
Anticipating this version of author Matheson's most-adapted novel, I was guardedly optimistic. Will Smith is certainly maturing as a skillful actor yet he is saddled with box-office appeal that can just as easily undermine a story and a role that is more important than he. Smith surprises his critics by delivering a performance worth taking note of, especially given the role of Neville is not as "sexy" as his usual big box-office indulgences. Here, though, he appears to completely wallow in the despair of the situation and he shows us the appropriate fear and frailty of a man trapped in an unimaginably overwhelming situation. He has only his makeshift routine to cling to, that which includes the positioning of and interaction with store mannequins, an attempt to restore everyday normalcy in a visit to the video rental store. Smith is perfectly ill at ease with the situation and delivers the sort of gossamer-thin facade that only the strongest among us could ever hope to muster.
I Am Legend begins much like 1971's The Omega Man, the character of Neville racing through the deserted and overgrown streets of a city, unleashing a daytime havoc that likely serves to vent his claustrophobia and dread endured every night. We soon discover that there are other creatures inhabiting the city, they who were once human yet now have become bestial. This is where I Am Legend veers off course with the original novel as well as with the 1964 Italian-produced, The Last Man on Earth (available and definitely worth a look within the Vincent Price Double Feature DVD from VCI Home Entertainment), and The Omega Man. In the 2007 re-imagining, the undead creatures are ravenous and rage filled, though seemingly without critical thought processes. With this, Neville is faced by a horde of monsters -- quasi-zombies though without the insatiable hunger for human flesh -- and must fend them off as such. In the previous adaptations, however, the night-dwellers are more rational in their thinking process and are intentionally pursuing Neville. In The Omega Man, Neville is hunted by a newscaster, Jonathan Matthias (Anthony Zerbe), who doubted the military scientist's response to biological warfare waged between China and the Soviet Union. In the 1964 take, Robert Morgan (the Neville character) is pursued by shuffling vampires who have been transformed by an airborne plague. The army of vampires converge upon Morgan's barricaded home nightly, the lead of these creatures being Ben Cortland, Morgan's former colleague. In both cases, the horror and unease is heightened by the fact that a known individual is intent upon exterminating the hero, he who is now targeted as the "monster" in a new world order. This was a key device unapologetically discarded in the 2007 rendition.
Still, I Am Legend is to be welcomed within the pantheon of Matheson-inspired adaptations. For roughly 65 minutes, it dares to excel in its mission before the final third of the film unravels in front of us. There is such a promise of character-driven drama at the outset of I Am Legend, the bleak cityscape mocking the futile attempts of Neville as he struggles to re-establish some sort of normalcy to the world around him. His marked determination is but a mask for his despair. Yet, with his dog, Sam, by his side and serving as spotter for any creatures lurking in the nearby shadows, he presses on to avoid the threat of total emotional collapse. Perfectly underscored by composer James Newton Howard's deftly constrained queues (and heightened even more by long stretches of stark silence), the film draws you in like few ever achieve today, let alone even attempt. But then it becomes an unwieldy mess of action and explosion that derails our attention and leaves us realizing it's just another remake cash-in. This is shameful and severely disappointing.
Technically, this is one of the best releases from Warner Brothers to date. The 1080p / VC-1 encoded transfer delivers a remarkable image that's arguably top tier among its high-def peers. The 2.40:1 widescreen presentation looks pristine, both in regards to the source elements as well as the manner in which they deliver eye-pleasing dimensionality on a high-definition display. The detail is exquisite, the shadow detail perfectly attended to, and colors that are rendered entirely life-like. There were only a few instances of unnatural grain that kept this one from achieving a perfect score. The audio is also an admirable achievement, the Dolby TrueHD 5.1 Surround mix providing a convincing soundstage that effectively drops you into Neville's decaying world. Since there is comparatively little dialogue in the picture, the sound design wisely utilizes ambient noises to provide proper exposition to the situation at hand. The previously mentioned lapses of silence are excellently executed, the audio track actually punctuating the lack of score or dialogue in a remarkably unsettling manner. Of course, when the action picks up in the debatable final third of the film, the soundscape explodes pleasingly, if only for technical merit.
Extras on this disc include a touted additional four minutes beyond the theatrical cut's 100-minute run time. Of this, only the alternate ending is noteworthy, one that concludes the story on a different tone (though not necessarily as "controversial" as the packaging would have you believe), yet this doesn't do enough to erase the film's previously mentioned flaws. A 52-minute documentary, "Creating I Am Legend " is a multi-part look into the production and includes behind-the-scenes footage plus interviews with the cast and crew, all who speak in largely marketing-friendly thought circles. A featurette, "Cautionary Tale: The Science of I Am Legend," offers 20 minutes of the usual what-if-a-pandemic-struck-our-world-tomorrow prodding, typical to a picture of this sort. It doesn't offer much in the way of entertainment and certainly very little substantive food for thought. Last up are 22 minutes of "animated comics," four short tales of post-apocalyptic dread that are not tied to the feature film at all. Noticeably missing are any trailers, TV spots, or other marketing material used to promote the film.
Distinct care has been taken not to reveal many of the plot devices or situations, as it's conceivable that I Am Legend might, indeed, offer surprise and intrigue to those unfamiliar with Matheson's novel and the previous adaptations already noted. Certainly, there is plenty that works well within the scope of the narrative and its execution on screen. However one aspect that cannot be overlooked is the woeful application of CGI technology. It's no spoiler to discuss that the Dark Seekers are CGI-skinned creatures that spasmodically dart about in the darkness, their tortured faces contouring with anguish for Neville's demise. They look patently unrealistic and, therefore, are difficult to overcome. Again, had this version been satisfied with the strong character focus of Matheson's original novel instead of adding modern-day Hollywood "punch" to the picture, it certainly would have fared much, much better that what ultimately unfolds here.
To those unfamiliar with the original works cited, it's suggested you view I Am Legend first, then work backward through the '70s-laced but still entertaining The Omega Man, proceeding on to the very low-budget but still effective The Last Man on Earth. The final assignment, of course, would be a reading of Matheson's original novel.
In the final analysis, though I Am Legend shows some flashes of brilliance and promise in its unfolding, it inexcusably lapses into typical action sequences that undo all that was once good within it. If it were possible to view the film disconnected from the source novel that has inspired it, there could be cause to lessen the judgment against it. However, since it dares to cite the original novel then sets about to undermine the impact of the original conclusion, the picture must bear the indifference it deserves, the same sort that it showed to its source of inspiration.
Guilty of attempting to incite public panic with a poorly developed argument of impending viral outbreak. This charge is exacerbated by the court's recognition of stronger facts (by way of Richard Matheson's original novel) that have been disregarded by the production company as it prepared its case.
Review content copyright © 2008 Dennis Prince; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
* 2.40:1 Non-Anamorphic (Widescreen)
* TrueHD 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Spanish)
Running Time: 100 Minutes
Release Year: 2007
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13
* "Creating I Am Legend"
* "Cautionary Tale: The Science of I Am Legend"
* Animated Comics
* Official Site