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HTF DVD REVIEW: I Am Legend: Two-Disc Special Edition



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#1 of 17 Ken_McAlinden

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Posted March 18 2008 - 06:04 AM

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I Am Legend: Two-Disc Special Edition

Directed By: Francis Lawrence

Starring: Will Smith, Alice Braga, Dash Mihok

Studio: Warner Brothers

Year: 2007

Rated: PG-13

Film Length: Theatrical - 100 minutes; Alternate - 104 minutes

Aspect Ratio: 2.4:1

Subtitles: English, French, Spanish, English SDH

Release Date: March 18, 2008

The Film

I Am Legend is the third cinematic adaptation of Richard Matheson's 1954 novel of the same name. Preceded by the low budget 1964 Vincent Price film "The Last Man on Earth" and the 1971 Charlton Heston vehicle "The Omega Man", this latest adaptation is the first one to use the title of the original novel, but it still takes great liberties with the plot. The basic premise remains intriguing, though, and it is easy to see why filmmakers have been drawn to it multiple times. Will Smith plays Dr. Robert Neville, a military scientist and a survivor of a viral pandemic initiated by a failed attempt at creating a cancer vaccine. He is apparently the only living man on the island of Manhattan. His days are filled with a disciplined routine of scavenging for food, working on a vaccine based on his own blood's immunity, and trying to contact any other survivors with only his dog as a companion. His nights are spent holed up in his Greenwich Village home in order to avoid marauding bands of "Dark Seekers". The Dark Seekers are a fraction of the humans who have been infected by the virus who lived but were mutated into bloodthirsty bad CGI effects with an aversion to ultraviolet radiation that prevents them from venturing outside during daylight hours.

Smith gives perhaps the best performance of his career, and absolutely carries the first two-thirds of the film. He immerses himself in the character of Neville and is completely convincing in scenes with only limited amounts of dialog. To be completely honest, I did not know he had a performance like this in him, and did not expect so much from a genre film. In a few scenes, he exchanges dialog with mannequins and even makes them look good.

Aside from its lead actor, the film's other strength is the combination of production design and special effects used to create an abandoned Manhattan. There is something downright eerie about seeing familiar Manhattan sites completely devoid of people, and the filmmakers clearly put a lot of though and effort into realizing this cinematically. Another impressive sequence happens in flashback as we see the evacuation and sealing off of Manhattan early during the outbreak of the viral pandemic.

As spectacularly rendered as the film's vision of a post-apocalyptic Manhattan is, the special effects employed to render the Dark Seekers are a big disappointment. They look like the CGI demons that they are and never seem to belong in the same reality as the rest of the film frame in which they appear. The film would likely have worked better with actors in standard zombie-style make-up and cost less, too. I usually have a fair amount of tolerance for CGI beasties, but these are the most jarringly wrong looking movie creatures I have seen since Blarp from the 1998 Lost in Space adaptation. Whenever the Dark Seekers are lurking in the shadows, they are menacing and the film is working. As soon as you see them, the scene falls apart.

Setting that gripe aside, the film's final third is not quite as strong as what comes before it. The filmmakers devise a completely different ending than Matheson's novel and either do not try to or just plain fail to capture the fatalistic spirit of the original story. What comes before that is strong enough that I still enjoyed the overall experience despite a whiff of disappointment.

Did I say they devised a completely different ending than the novel? In fact, they devised two completely different endings than the novel. The second disc of this Two-Disc Special Edition includes an alternate version of the film that runs four minutes longer than the widely released theatrical cut. Billed somewhat prosaically as an "Alternate Theatrical Version", the only significant difference I noticed was the ending which takes things in a whole different direction. Without giving too much away, the widely released ending is more heroic whereas the alternate version has more of a cynical twist and also seems to be better foreshadowed by the events that preceded it. I did not have a strong preference for either one.

The Video

The 16:9 enhanced 2.4:1 transfer is outstanding. It is among the best video presentations I have seen for a new theatrical release since I began reviewing Warner titles for the HTF. There are occasionally very minor video and compression artifacts that remind one that they are watching SD DVD, but other than that, color, detail, and contrast/shadow detail are all very good. The theatrical version has a slight edge over the Alternate Theatrical Version, but both are strong presentations.

The Audio

The English Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack is a very strong representation of an effective theatrical mix. Long periods of silence underlined by low level ambient sounds are punctuated by extremely active and bombastic passages that employ all 5.1 channels aggressively. The James Newton Howard score is also employed sparely and effectively, emphasizing the isolation of the Neville character.

The Extras

Extras available via conventional DVD menus consist of the Alternate Theatrical Version on the second disc and a series of four Animated Comics on the first disc. They are presented in 16:9 video with Dolby Digital 2.0 sound. As their description suggests, they appear to be a series of comic panels to which very limited animation touches are applied. Each tells a brief story about how the virus depicted in the film impacts peoples in different places around the globe. The titles, locations, and running times are as follows:
  • Death as a Gift (Hong Kong, China) 3:01
  • Isolation (Colorado, USA) 6:35
  • Sacrificing the Few for the Many (Central America) 3:27
  • Shelter (New Delhi, India) 8:37
The first and third are too short and slow moving to generate much narrative thrust, and are only mildly effective as mood pieces. The second gets a bit caught up in its own stylization. The fourth, which keeps all of its dialog in comic book captions, borrows familiar elements from post-Romero zombie films, but is the most satisfying of the group. Even if not entirely successful, all four feature appealing art.

The remaining special features are relegated to the realm of DVD-ROM Extras which are only accessible to PC users (Sorry, Mac nation).

When disc one is placed in a PC, a menu screen appears offering the choice to either "Go to DVD Main Menu" or "Go to DVD-ROM Special Features". The DVD-ROM Special Features menu includes a radio button choice for connection speed: high or low, and two links to downloadable featurettes.

The first link takes one to a single downloadable featurette in WMV format called Cautionary Tale: The Science of "I Am Legend". It runs 20 minutes and 41 seconds and is presented in a 16:9 aspect ratio with available subtitles in English and French. It covers a number of topics relating to viral outbreaks, including Virus Research, Vaccines, Pandemics, HIV as a Case Study, Avian Flu, SARS as a Case Study, and Field Virologists Hunting for the Next Virus. It consists largely of on-camera interviews with occasional inserts of graphics. Strangely, it also contains a handful of clips from the 1995 film Outbreak

Interview participants from the film's production include Will Smith, Francis Lawrence, and Writer/Producer Akiva Goldsman. The remainder of the participants consist of several doctors, authors, and academics specializing in the field of viruses including Julie L. Gerberding M.D., M.P.H. CDC; Dr. Nathan Wolfe, Professor of Epidemiology; Mary Elizabeth Wilson M.D. Harvard Medical School; Paul Rota, Ph. D. Microbiologist, Division of Viral Diseases, CDC; C.J. Peters, M.D. University of Texas Medical Branch, Galveston; Dr. Eric Delwart Principal Investigator, Blood Systems Research Institute, UCSF; Dr. Anthony Fauci National Institute of Health; Linda Rosenstock, M.D., M.P.H.Dean, UCLA School of Public Health; Don Burke Dean, Graduate School of Public Health, University of Pittsburgh; Dr. Michael B.A. Oldstone The Scripps Research Institute; Laurie Garrett Author, The Coming PlagueDr. Michael B.A. Oldstone: Scripps Research Institute; Terrence Tumpey, Ph. D., Team Lead Microbiologist, Influenza Division, CDC; T.C. Ksiazek, D.V.M., Ph. D. Chief, Special Pathogens Branch, CDC; Paul Rota, Ph. D. Microbiologist, Division of Viral Diseases, CDC; C.J. Peters, M.D. University of Texas Medical Branch, Galveston.

The second link connects the user to a series of 21 downloadable featurettes under the umbrella title of Creating "I Am Legend". They are also presented in WMV at a 16:9 aspect ratio with available English and French subtitles. They mix behind the scenes footage of the making of the film with EPK-style talking head interviews. The titles and running times are as follows:
  • Closing Down Fifth Avenue (5:48)
  • The Creatures Break In (4:54)
  • The Story (2:58)
  • The Joy Ride Jump (2:22)
  • Will in the Driver's Seat (1:46)
  • Canine Co-Star (3:26)
  • NYC Gone Back to Nature (1:49)
  • Robert Neville's Psychology (2:03)
  • Quiet Imagination (2:15)
  • Evacuation, Part 1: Family Convoy (1:05)
  • Neville's Weapons (2:19)
  • That Scary Place Inside All of Us (1:53)
  • Shooting the Intrepid (1:35)
  • Building the Pier (2:31)
  • Evacuation, Part 2: Military Cooperation (2:02)
  • Will's Physical Training (2:18)
  • Creating the Dark Seekers (2:44)
  • Evacuation, Part 3: Choppers (1:42)
  • The Conflicts of Isolation (2:07)
  • Trusting the Unknown (2:19)
  • Will Smith in Action (1:44)
Taken together, these featurettes present a decent overview of different aspects of the film's production with only one or two interview bits re-used over the course of the total running time of 51 minutes and 40 seconds. It was more than a little inconvenient and annoying to have to download them to watch them.

The second disc allows the user to retrieve a digital copy of the widely released theatrical cut of the film. It can only be viewed on a PC or a "PlaysForSure" portable media device. It does not support Mac, iPod, or Zune according to the documentation provided. To be honest, I had a hard time figuring out exactly what portable devices it would support even when looking at the web sites Warner and Microsoft set-up for explaining digital downloads and "PlaysForSure".

When this disc is first spun up, the viewer is greeted with the following skippable promotional spots, all presented with Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo sound and in letterboxed 4:3 video unless otherwise indicated:
  • Lost Boys: The Tribe DTV Trailer (1:27)
  • Warner Blu-Ray and HD DVD Promo (2:05 - 16:9 Video)
  • The Dark Knight Theatrical Trailer (2:09)
  • Speed Racer Theatrical Trailer (2:01)
  • Appleseed: Ex Machina DVD Trailer (2:04)
  • Justice League: New Frontier DTV Trailer (1:23)
Packaging

The discs are enclosed in a standard Amaray-style case with a hinged tray allowing it to accommodate two discs. The case is enclosed in a slipcover that redundantly reproduces all of the art from the hard case with no additional embossment or foil enhancement. The only insert inside the case is a sheet explaining how to retrieve the digital copy from the second disc.

Summary

I Am Legend is a fairly entertaining apocalyptic sci-fi film with an intriguing premise, a visually fantastic rendering of an abandoned Manhattan, and an outstanding central performance from Will Smith. It is undermined somewhat by unconvincingly excessive CGI creatures and a slightly disappointing final third, but there is still a lot to enjoy about the film. It is presented on disc with an outstanding audio/video presentation. Unfortunately and quite annoyingly, the most interesting behind the scenes extras are relegated to downloads from a PC-only web interface. Also, an entire second disc is filled up with an alternate version of the movie that only differs significantly from the widely released version for less than ten minutes of its running time and an on-disc digital copy of the film that is incompatible with the most popular portable media devices on the market.


Regards,


[PG]118373406[/PG]
Ken McAlinden
Livonia, MI USA

#2 of 17 Neil Middlemiss

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Posted March 18 2008 - 07:28 AM

Excellent review (as usual) Ken. You saw exactly what I saw in the film, particularly Wil Smith's super performance. I have the Blu-ray on order and can see me enjoying this one frequently at home!
Thanks!
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#3 of 17 Josh Steinberg

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Posted March 18 2008 - 08:19 AM

Great review, Ken... that's pretty spot-on with how I felt about the film. One question: could you (or anyone else) post a description of the alternate ending maybe with spoiler tags on it? I'm very curious to know what it is, but not that interested in watching the film again.

#4 of 17 Ken_McAlinden

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Posted March 18 2008 - 08:34 AM

Quote:
Originally Posted by Josh Steinberg
Great review, Ken... that's pretty spot-on with how I felt about the film. One question: could you (or anyone else) post a description of the alternate ending maybe with spoiler tags on it? I'm very curious to know what it is, but not that interested in watching the film again.
No problem...
Starting with when the Dark Seekers have Neville, Anna, and Ethan trapped behind the plexiglass wall in his lab, things go off in a different direction. The "lead" Dark Seeker who is repeatedly banging against the plexiglass seems to be trying to communicate something, and Neville senses what it is. He disconnects the "cured" Dark Seeker from her medication, opens the plexiglass wall while the "lead" Dark Seeker keeps the others at bay, and returns her to her "mate". While standing among them and realizing that the Dark Seekers have more humanity than he previously speculated, Neville stares guiltily at all of the polaroids on the wall of his lab. After retrieving the woman, the Dark Seekers leave Neville, Ann, and Ethan unharmed. The final shot shows Neville, Anna, and Ethan driving away in an SUV without indicating how they managed to get off of Manhattan Island.
Regards,
Ken McAlinden
Livonia, MI USA

#5 of 17 Guest_Hank_*

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Posted March 18 2008 - 11:21 AM

Going to watch this for the first time, should I watch the original theatrical ending version?

#6 of 17 Steve Y

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Posted March 18 2008 - 11:41 AM

I highly recommend you watch the Alternate (non-Theatrical) ending first, which is far superior to the Theatrical ending. I can't remember the last time I saw such a small change affect the overall quality a movie so much. The spoiler below doesn't give away the ending, but hints at it, so don't read it if you want to go in fresh.
Neither ending will win awards for logic or tie all the loose ends you might want, but the Theatrical cut is ludicrous and lacking in emotion. The new ending at least hints at the themes of the original novel, and left me at least thoughtful INSTEAD of how I felt at the end of Kevin Costner's "The Postman". (apologies to survivors of that experience for scrounging up the memory again)


#7 of 17 Bonedwarf

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Posted March 18 2008 - 12:05 PM

Without going into any spoilers, I have to say I much prefer the alternate ending.

#8 of 17 Matthew Clayton

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Posted March 19 2008 - 08:39 AM

Thank goodness Warner Brothers is rebounding after their sub-par transfers for their recent film releases. Perhaps WB is taking a leaf from Sony and Disney and downconverting their HD transfers for DVD? I hope that's the case.

I was worried we'd get subpar transfers for the DVD releases of The Dark Knight and Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince later on this year (and early 2009). I hope I am Legend is a return to form for future releases.

#9 of 17 Lou Sytsma

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Posted March 19 2008 - 08:52 AM

Neither ending is preferable for me - they both have issues.

Excellent review Ken. I concur with your thoughts on the film's weaknesses and strengths.
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#10 of 17 Roy Batty

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Posted March 19 2008 - 10:53 AM

Am I the only one here to find it quite worrying that "downloadable extra features" stuff?

And the reason behind it really eludes me, other than the possible intention on the studios' part of getting people used to streaming media, in anticipation of future Video-On-Demand systems.

Not my preferred scenario, really.

#11 of 17 Bleddyn Williams

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Posted March 20 2008 - 01:40 AM

I'm totally at a loss as to how they put this cockamamie set together! This has to be the worst use of a premium two-disc set yet...

* Filling disc two with the film again just for a different ending, instead of using branching to put both versions on disc one.

* Having to download the featurettes rather than having them on disc two (which would have been sensible, if branching had been used on disc one)

* Two-disc special edition - where's the trailers, TV spots, etc? Is having a digital copy supposed to make up for this absence?

I got the blu version, which simply includes the featurette material. I assumed incorrectly that it would be on the two-disc standard def set.

Following Paramount's Into the Wild two-discer, where you pay a premium for two 20 minute by-the-numbers featurettes, it seems right now that folk might really want to see exactly what's on that two-discer, rather than perhaps automatically going for the "fancy" version.

Ugh.

#12 of 17 Jay*W

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Posted March 20 2008 - 01:48 AM

And what happens when the links to those extra features go dead?

#13 of 17 Sam Posten

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Posted March 20 2008 - 02:37 AM

Great review, HORRIBLE features!

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#14 of 17 Josh Steinberg

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Posted March 20 2008 - 04:21 AM

Quote:
Originally Posted by Bleddyn Williams
* Filling disc two with the film again just for a different ending, instead of using branching to put both versions on disc one.

My guess for why they'd do this is so they could use Disc 1 of the two-disc set as the single disc release, saving the time and expense of making a separate disc while still keeping the "alternate version" as an exclusive to the two-disc set. I'm not saying that that's the right thing to do, but I'm guessing that was the reason.

Also... what's the point of "digital copy" if it doesn't work on the overwhelming majority of consumer devices? Aren't there more iPods that pretty much all other kinds of comparable devices combined? If they're trying to present "digital copy" as both an added value bonus feature, and as a way of having rights-managed content to thwart piracy, they need to actually present it in a format that's compatible with what most people are using. If I can't use it on an iPod or on a Mac, it's useless to me (and I'm sure a lot of other people), and if that's the case, why am I paying extra for it?

Since I don't have the disc, maybe someone else can fill me in here -- for the bonus video content to be downloaded via web, is that something that can be accessed via PCs and Macs, or like most DVD-ROM content, is it PC only? Using the internet to delivery bonus content is a great way to supplement what's already out there on the disc, to add something that might not have been essential to the release but a cool thing to have, or maybe to continue to offer content made after the DVD release. At best, the internet could be used to deliver additional special features instead of double-dipping. As it is in this release, it seems like a way of taking features that aren't really up to the quality needed for a true special edition, using them as marketing to sell the item, and then not being of much value to anyone.

#15 of 17 Ken_McAlinden

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Posted March 20 2008 - 05:11 AM

Quote:
Originally Posted by Josh Steinberg
...
Since I don't have the disc, maybe someone else can fill me in here -- for the bonus video content to be downloaded via web, is that something that can be accessed via PCs and Macs, or like most DVD-ROM content, is it PC only? ...
The documentation says it is PC-only. I do not have a Mac to test that assertion, but it seems kind of silly for straightforward linked WMV files. IMHO, it would have made much more sense for the digital copy to be a download and the supplements to be on the disc rather than vice versa.

I may have understated it, but the collection of featurettes has a nice amount of behind the scenes footage, and even if the interviews surrounding them are standard on-set EPK type fare, they do touch base with a large cross-section of the folks who made the film including interesting guys like stunt director Vic Armstrong.

Regards,
Ken McAlinden
Livonia, MI USA

#16 of 17 CraigF

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Posted March 20 2008 - 03:11 PM

Decent movie, lousy 2-DVD set. Very limited usefulness without the goods on the DVD...I sure hope they don't think this methodology will sell right now...and I can't watch the extras on my main displays either. I'm going to have to think about this one for now, seems like a BD no-brainer at this point. Thanks for the review and warning though.

#17 of 17 Will_B

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Posted June 27 2008 - 11:38 AM

Edit: Nevermind, I was confused about whether the current version includes the alternate version as an extra or within the full film, on the BluRay release.
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