I Am Legend, the third and latest cinematic embodiment of Richard Matheson’s 1954 science fiction/horror novel of the same name (the first two being 1964’s The Last Man on Earth and 1971’s The Omega Man), was a project that had been laying around Hollywood almost as long as its lead, Will Smith, has had a film career. Over the past two decades, directors among the likes of Ridley Scott, Michael Bay, Guillermo Del Torro and Rob Bowman and stars such as Tom Cruise and Arnold Schwarzenegger were either approached to join or attached to the project at one point or another.
Despite the talent connected and thanks to budgetary and script issues, I Am Legend remained a permanent resident in the development hell department of Warner Brothers Studios. That is until a few years ago when Akiva Goldsman was hired to produce the film and rewrite Mark Protosevich’s screenplay adaptation, Francis Lawrence was picked to direct and Smith, previously pegged to star when Bay was going to direct, was locked in as its star.
Being the big fan that I am of The Omega Man, any sort of revision would be looked upon with fanboy contempt. When I had heard that the writer of Batman and Robin and the director of the dreadful Constantine were the driving forces behind the new version, contempt turned into fear and dread. Fear that a couple of hundred million dollars would be poured into yet another empty remake high on visual effects and low on character and story, and dread that I would be exposed to a film as boring as the duo’s last collaboration (that would be Constantine). Much to my surprise though, I Am Legend isn’t dreadful. In fact, it’s actually pretty darn good.
In the near future, a doctor (an un-credited Emma Thompson) proclaims on television that via a genetically re-engineered measles virus, the cure for cancer had been discovered and been administered to over 10,000 people so far. Unfortunately, the miracle cure turns out to be a curse as over the course of the next three years, the virus has mutated into a lethal airborne strain that has killed most of the human race and turned the remainder of the survivors into a group of mutants who have an aversion to bright light.
Cut to three years later. It is here that we meet Dr. Robert Neville (Smith), a military virologist who is immune to the virus and, at least in his mind, the last healthy person alive on the planet. Along with his dog, Samantha, Neville leads a solitary existence in Manhattan, hiding from the growing hordes of the infected (whom he refers to as ‘Dark Seekers’) in his heavily-fortified townhouse while continuing to use his own blood to create an antidote to save the Seekers. When Neville discovers a possible antidote, he captures a female mutant to test his discovery on, which sets off a chain of events that may cost Neville his life.
What really surprised me about I Am Legend, aside from the fact that Akiva Goldsman can actually be associated with a decent movie, is the level of restraint it possesses. Instead of filling the movie with wall to wall visual effects and action (relax, the film still has plenty of both) like one would expect from a modern-day sci-fi epic, Lawrence’s directing and Goldsman’s screenplay focus — for the film’s first two-thirds anyway — on the loneliness and monotony that occupies Neville’s day-to-day routine, while presenting his back-story through a small but effective series of flashbacks. The duo present a New York City filled with deafening silence and unseen terror that may be lurking in the city’s many dark, abandoned buildings. The consistent levels of quiet intensity and effective eeriness are done largely without the assist of sound effects, a non-stop, manipulative music score (James Newton Howard’s music pops up only on occasion and does so in a welcome, low-key way) or armies of computer-generated mutants.
The core to Legend’s success is, of course, its star. Much like Tom Hanks had to do in 2000’s Cast Away, Will Smith’s performance is what will make or break the film, and the talented actor does a fine job handling this enormous responsibility. Neville’s inner conflict, loneliness, slipping sanity and dogged determination to right the wrongs of his past are perfectly conveyed by Smith’s nuanced turn, one that fits nicely with Lawrence’s handling of the story. Even if Smith’s work doesn’t match the level of excellence of his turns in Pursuit of Happyness and Ali, Smith’s Neville is one of his more fascinating performances to watch if only to see the popular star get another chance to play a flawed individual that the viewer could still get behind and empathize with.
The film’s downside, at least in the theatrical cut, is in its third act. This is where Neville encounters two other survivors, a woman named Anna (Alice Braga) and a young boy named Ethan (Charlie Tahan). This is also where the inevitable showdown occurs between the leader of the Dark Seekers (Dash Mihok) and Neville, complete with the requisite-for-a-scifi-blockbuster quota of guns, explosions and visual effects, all which kind of clashed with the subtlety the first two acts. The interaction between Neville, Anna and Ethan feel a bit forced and routine, while the showdown with the leader of the Seekers, nothing more than an underdeveloped, mediocre digital effect that roars a lot, comes off as pointless and rather depressing.
Fortunately, the 104-minute alternate version of I Am Legend, also contained on this Blu-ray release in addition to the 100-minute theatrical cut, rectifies most of these issues and makes for a more satisfying film viewing experience (even if neither version stays true to Matheson’s original story). Thanks to approximately a minute of re-inserted footage at the beginning of the third act as well as a different, more upbeat ending, the Dark Seekers are given a little more development and the relationship between Neville, Anna and Ethan is strengthened a bit. Most importantly, the actions of our protagonist during the conclusion makes more sense, and in the process produces some much needed emotional resonance to wrap things up with.
Arriving a scant three months after its theatrical release, Warner has given I Am Legend a nice but somewhat unspectacular Blu-Ray release. As one would expect from a brand new, mega-budget event film, the print is in perfect condition with zero scratches, nicks or dirt to be found anywhere. The 1080p/VC-1 encode is beautiful on both cuts. Colors, contrast and black levels are all excellent, with only the slightest bit of grain to be found in the background on a few sequences.
Getting back on track with lossless audio tracks, Warner has supplied both cuts of Legend with a 5.1 Dolby TrueHD and a 640kbps 5.1 Dolby Digital audio track (5.1 French and Spanish audio tracks are also included on the theatrical cut). Either track is fine to go with. There is a lot of quiet to be had, but that doesn’t mean that the surrounds and bass don’t get an aggressive workout when needed. Sound effects are as well-placed as the music is, and the audio tracks perfectly compliment the atmosphere created by the filmmakers.
While the video and audio presentations are excellent, the supplements are a bit on the scant side. The lack of supplements is not quite as dire as other recent Warner Blu-ray titles (Michael Clayton, The Assassination of Jesse James…, The Brave One), but one can only imagine what could have been included had the window between theatrical and home video release was a bit longer than twelve weeks.
The 20 minute mini-documentary Cautionary Tale: The Science of I Am Legend provides an interesting — and unsettling — look at real-life diseases and is presented in very nice 1080p video. Pandemic Viral Infections, both past and present, their origins and possible cures are discussed by doctors and scientists from around the world, as well as the writer, director and star of Legend.
Also presented in 1080p, four Animated Comics related to the movie have been included and can be viewed either separately or as one 22-minute short. While the animation was quite nice and I can understand the need to include them on this disc (I believe these were on the movie’s website prior to Legend’s theatrical release), overall I felt that these animated shorts felt better suited for 28 Days Later than they did I Am Legend and added very little overall.
The real meat of the supplements lie in the 50 minute collection of mini-docs entitled Creating I Am Legend. There are 21 shorts that run anywhere from one to three minutes in length and examine various aspects of the production that one can watch either separately or all at once. There is a lot of nice behind-the-scenes material and interviews with the cast and crew that shed light on the story and production. These shorts are presented in surprisingly solid 480p widescreen video.
Alas, and this is becoming a regular thing on Warner Blu-ray titles, there are no theatrical trailers or television spots for I Am Legend on this disc. Apparently, the theatrical and TV spots have mutated into thin air during the past three months.
Part Cast Away and part 28 Days Later, I Am Legend may not bring anything new to the table in terms of interpreting Matheson’s story (aside from moving the location from Los Angeles to New York City), but it does a solid job at creating a world of isolation and fear without going overboard on visual effects, while allowing its lead actor an ideal showcase to display his talents. Warner’s Blu-ray edition offers two cuts of the film to choose from, each supporting a beautiful audio and video presentation. I found the supplements to be decent, but they also left me wanting a bit more. That aside, the disc comes recommended for both fans of the movie and for fans of Big Willie.
- Score: 8.1
- An intelligent sci-fi drama and solid performance by Will Smith provide the right foundation for a well-produced and impressively presented Blu-ray Disc release
— Shawn Fitzgerald