I Am Legend: Two-Disc Special Edition
Directed By: Francis Lawrence
Starring: Will Smith, Alice Braga, Dash Mihok
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 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 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.
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 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)
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)
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.
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.