Judge Gordon Sullivan used to be a legend.
Our reviews of I Am Legend (Blu-Ray) (published March 18th, 2008) and I Am Legend: Ultimate Collector's Edition (Blu-Ray) (published December 9th, 2008) are also available.
The last man on earth is not alone
Richard Matheson must have some seriously mixed feelings about Hollywood. For every underrated but well-made film (like Stir of Echoes) there's a so-so effort (like The Omega Man). With a strong lead (Will Smith), a big budget (an estimated $150 million), and a competent director (Constantine's Francis Lawrence), I Am Legend appeared ready to combine the quality of some of Matheson's best adaptations with the notoriety of some of his least. The film doesn't quite live up to this lofty premise, but for a Hollywood blockbuster it contains some amazing acting and raises some interesting questions.
Facts of the Case
Three years after a cancer-curing virus turns the world's population into night-seeking, vampire-like creatures, scientist Robert Neville is alone in Manhattan searching for a cure in his immunity. Accompanied only by his dog Sam and his desire to reverse the infection, Neville traverses the Big Apple in search of a breakthrough.
I Am Legend is really two films: one of them great, the other merely good. No, I Am Legend, isn't a Grindhouse-style anthology film. Rather, it begins as an effective drama before modulating to a by-the-numbers action film.
For the first hour or so, the drama is truly first-rate. It's three years after the apocalypse, and we watch Will Smith's Dr. Neville dealing with the emotional fallout as he goes through the day to day business of surviving on the "wild" streets of Manhattan. Through flashbacks we learn of his separation from his family while we watch his attachment to his dog Sam unfold. We also learn that, despite the lack of human companions, Dr. Neville is compelled, some might say obsessed, with curing the disease that has wrecked humanity. The brief moments involving the creatures are accents, underscoring the importance of Neville's task while also highlighting his isolation.
Will Smith is, quite literally, the star of the hour. He effortlessly keeps attention focused on his daily struggles. There are some flashbacks, but he is the center of them as well, and their entire purpose is to deepen our attachment to him. His dialogue is sparse (and often spoken to mannequins), so Smith emotes with facial expression and body language. When he tries a new formula on a creature, his anticipation is obvious in his tight, controlled movements, and when it fails, his face holds a barely contained devastation. If it wasn't obvious to you before, it should be now: Will Smith is an actor to be reckoned with. Despite whatever shortcomings the rest of the film may have, it's worth watching simply for his performance.
After that first hour, the film devolves into more familiar Neville-versus-the-creatures territory. It's ably played, with some clever staging and effects, but compared to the brilliant drama of the first hour, it just can't compare. For the action fans, there are guns, explosions, and bits of blood here and there, but it seems incongruous after we care so much about Neville to see his story turn into a typical zombie story.
The most disappointing aspect of the last half of the film is the creatures. To sum them up in a word: ho-hum. They look like The Mummy's anemic cousins, complete with obnoxious, mouth-opening "roar." I viewed the film with my cinematic partner in crime, who can't abide even the hint of zombie-ness (and don't doubt that these creatures are inspired by the rage-infected hoards of 28 Days Later), and even she didn't flinch. They're not scary, they're not interesting, and the film would have been better off without them (except in the brief glimpses we see in the first hour). The alternate ending (available on the second disc of this edition) almost redeems them, but they are still an overly relied on generic convention.
The next paragraph contains spoilers.
I'm willing to forgive the action-oriented second half of I Am Legend, but the ending is utter crap. Neville is a character who is struggling to stay in touch with his humanity, but suddenly one argument about visions from God and he turns into a sacrificing Christ-figure. It's total, unbelievable, ridiculous rubbish. It also completely cops out on the question of the humanity of the creatures. The alternate ending does a much better job resolving the questions of the film while remaining true to the characters.
To be less spoilerific, I disliked the ending. I felt it undermined the first half of the film, cheapening the emotional depths that Will Smith's character achieved. The alternate ending (bizarrely marketed as "controversial" on the cover) goes a long way to redress the errors of the original ending, but not quite far enough. Even in the new version, the latter half of the film still devolves into a typical zombie film.
Concerns about the ending aside, I Am Legend looks and sounds fantastic on this DVD, even for a big blockbuster film. Yes, some of the digital manipulation is fairly obvious (the creatures especially look a little off), but I suspect those problems reside in the source, not the transfer. The film's use of audio was amazing, from the silence of the deserted streets to the chaos of the evacuation. The Dolby 5.1 audio on this disc reproduces this dynamic effortlessly. Bob Marley's bass-heavy music sounds especially good.
Don't look too hard for extras on these discs; the alternate cut is really it. It's a fine extra in itself, but some context would have been nice. Warner throws in four animated comics that show people in other parts of the world dealing with the plague, but this is fluff in search of a franchise. There are also 21 featurettes that cover typical production info, as well as a documentary on viral infections. They're interesting, as far as production info goes, but they're only available via a DVD-ROM PC Web link. Also, you have to upgrade to the latest version of Windows Media Player. Lame. Yes, stand-alone users get four comics and an alternate cut as the only extras, which is pretty disappointing. Those of you with a PC DVD drive (and Windows Media Player) can enjoy an extra hour of bonus material.
There's also a "digital copy" of the film on the second disc that you can transfer to your computer so you can watch the film without the disc.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Obviously, the ending is going to have its fans (Warner wouldn't have put so much money into a film like I Am Legend unless they were sure that the ending would test well), even if I'm not one of them. Those who hate Will Smith will find the film torture, although I urge anyone who is on the fence about his acting ability to give this film a shot. Also, it's a blockbuster film, and as such, doesn't deal with its subject with the depth a smaller, independent-style movie might have. Sure, some questions are raised about the nature of humanity, but they are general (and inoffensive) enough to not hurt the film's bottom line.
My feelings are seriously mixed about this release. On the one hand, the film (especially the alternate version) is worth watching for Will Smith's performance and the spectacular environmental effects. On the other hand, this release feels like its trying to seriously milk some wallets with its paltry extras and Windows Media Player tie-in. I highly recommend a rental until the dust settles and a definitive edition of the film, including both versions and the extras the film deserves (on the disc itself) is released.
I Am Legend is acquitted for its first half. Warner Home Video is found guilty of producing a PC-oriented release, leaving much of their (stand-alone player) audience in the cold.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Alternate Theatrical Version
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