Judge Clark Douglas am legend.
The last man on earth is not alone.
"If anyone is out there…anyone…please…"
Facts of the Case
Will Smith (Enemy of the State) plays Dr. Robert Neville, a scientist who may very well be the last man on the face of the Earth. A horrifying virus has swept across the nation, either killing human beings or turning them into mutant vampires of some sort. Neville survives on the island of Manhattan, spending each day scrounging for food and supplies. Neville also attempts to hunt down packs of vampires during daylight hours, and sometimes captures them to use in medical experiments. Neville has been desperately attempting to find a cure for three lonely years, but to no avail. His only companion is his dog. Well, there are also a series of carefully-placed mannequins in various locations throughout the city. Neville talks to them in an attempt to keep his social skills alive, in case he should happen to meet a fellow human being again someday. Will someone turn up, or is Robert truly the last surviving human being?
Dear reader, I would like to ask you a question. Which sort of film frustrates you more: a film that is reliably bad from start to finish, or a good film that features some very bad moments? I find myself picking the latter. I can sit through a stupid movie and accept it for what it is—it's often a painless and clinical experience for me, or even an entertaining one. However, when a movie is as frequently good as I Am Legend is, it really hurts me to see it turn sour. I Am Legend is often such a thoughtful popcorn movie that you might as well not even bring the popcorn. It's a big-budget extravaganza that spends most of its time paying attention to things more important than explosions. Most of its time.
The film is mostly a very thoughtful meditation on what life would be like in a world without human beings, and the depopulated Manhattan presented by director Francis Lawrence is very convincing in a Children of Men sort of way. Smith's performance is even more impressive, quite possibly the very best of his career to date. There are scenes here that a lot of other actors would have treated with disrespect, but Smith plays them with utter conviction. Smith allows for a small amount of levity now and then, but it's always tinged with sadness. His performance moved me immensely, and I believed every single thing his character did even when I shouldn't have.
Many of you sci-fi fans out there will know that I Am Legend is based on a good book by Richard Matheson. The book was first adapted into a film in 1964, the Vincent Price vehicle The Last Man on Earth. That was a very good film, and featured one of Price's most touching performances. The next version, The Omega Man (starring Charlton Heston) was not as successful, but still served as an okay piece of entertainment. This latest effort was on track to be the very best version of I Am Legend to date, despite a few flaws and some bad CGI effects. However, Lawrence makes a crucial mistake: he changes the ending of the book. I'm not a literary purist, but the book's ending was a strong one, something that only the Vincent Price film has recognized. Interestingly enough, by changing the events of the film's final third, Lawrence manages to completely rob the title I Am Legend of its meaning. He attempts to rectify this by adding a ridiculously cheap and hokey piece of narration to the film's final scene, a sentence that attempts to give the title a new, much less interesting meaning. The alternate version of the film is a less embarassing improvement, but it still lacks the power of Matheson's conclusion.
Normally an ending that weak would be enough for me to condemn a film, but I simply can't in this case. Too much of I Am Legend is too good, and you really ought to experience Smith's portrayal of Dr. Robert Neville. As I have mentioned, the film is thoughtful, and it is also thought-provoking. Most of the scenes are honest and sincere, for the simple reason that Smith is honest and sincere. I defy anyone not to be shaken just a little by the final scene Smith shares with his dog. I admire I Am Legend a great deal, but it does truly pain me to think of what it might have been. If only they had made the vampires more convincing, if only they had left the ending alone, if only…well, "if only" is a phrase that Dr. Neville undoubtedly found himself thinking a lot, too. Upon the film's conclusion, I felt just a small portion of what he had been feeling, a sense of regret and frustration about what might have been if only small changes had been made.
Now, what you probably want to know is whether it's worth paying 40 to 60 bucks for this three-disc "Ultimate Collector's Edition" I Am Legend double-dip. What does this collection have that the previous Blu-ray release didn't have? Well, nothing in the audio/video department. The previous release was blessed with remarkable picture and sound, and that hasn't changed here. There's no reason to tinker with a showcase disc like this one, right? Also, as with the previous release, both the original theatrical version and the alternate version (which has a slightly different ending) have been included. All of the old extras are duplicated as well: the engaging 52-minute making-of documentary, the small handful of limp EPK-style featurettes, and the somewhat interesting 4 animated comics.
So what's new? First up, we get a handful of physical extras. A nifty lenticular with an image of Smith battling a vampire/zombie/mutant/whatever is included, as are 6 art cards featuring depressing images of major cities around the world that have been destroyed by the virus. Hooray. A 44-page softcover book with lots of glossy photos is a nice addition, and is quite attractive. As for the additional supplemental material on the discs, the most notable new item is a commentary with director Francis Lawrence and producer Akiva Goldsman. Much like this duo's commentary on Constantine, it's informative enough but a bit on the dry side. We also get some deleted scenes with optional commentary and an interesting featurette called "Cautionary Tale: The Science of I Am Legend." This piece focuses on the plausibility of the concepts explored in the film. Finally, a third disc offers a digital copy of the film. Yes, rather than watching this visually rich film on my awesome Blu-ray disc, I would much rather watch a standard-def digital copy on my iPhone. Meh.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The weak ending isn't the only problem. Unfortunately, Smith must confront the vampires every once in a while. I'm not against this idea, but apparently the entire budget was spent on hiring Smith and creating a realistic setting for the story. The CGI monsters on display here look just terrible, some of the least convincing effects I've seen all year. The vampires of I Am Legend make the goofy-looking CGI creatures from The Mist look sensational. Every twenty minutes or so, we're given an obligatory action scene just to keep the ADD-riddled audiences in their seat, and these scenes feel a lot more like filler than anything else in the movie. They're dull, unimaginative, and simply not worthy of the film as a whole.
Some of the new extras are nice, but I can only recommend this release for those who really love the movie. The new material isn't worth an extra 20 bucks. In my opinion, I Am Legend wasn't exactly an ideal candidate for the super-duper-deluxe-edition treatment, anyway. You get more value for your money with the original release, so there's no need to pick up this set, much less upgrade from the previous release. This is one double-dip to skip.
The flawed film is an engaging effort with a great performance from Will Smith, and is free to go. The ultimate collector's edition release is guilty of charging too much for too little. Court is adjourned.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
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