I Am Legend: Ultimate Collector's Edition
Directed By: Francis Lawrence
Starring: Will Smith, Alice Braga, Charlie Tahan, Dash Mihok
The latest film to receive an entry in Warner Home Video's "Ultimate Collector's Edition" series is their 2007 theatrical hit, I Am Legend. In my review for the "Two-Disc Special Edition", I was generally pleased with the film's audio/video presentation, but disappointed in the quantity and quality of the on-disc extras and frustrated by the relegating of significant featurette material to DVD-ROM unlock-able downloads accessible only to PC/Windows users. In addition to the premium packaging which is the hallmark of the series, the I Am Legend: Ultimate Collector's Edition remedies most of my complaints about the earlier release's on disc extras by adding a third disc that contains all of the extras from the two-disc special edition including the ones that were relegated to downloads. Furthermore, it also adds substantial new behind the scenes featurettes and deleted scenes. The disc with the theatrical cut of the film itself has been re-authored and includes a new audio commentary by writer/producer Akiva Goldsman and Director Francis Lawrence. Since only the second disc containing an alternate cut of the film and a digital copy is bit-identical to what came before, I will deviate from my usual practice of reviewing only what is new and linking to my old review. That being said, substantial portions of this review will be copied from that earlier review linked above.
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 Ultimate Collector's 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.
Whatever my gripes with the special features of the "Two-Disc Special Edition" from earlier this year, I was very pleased with the video presentation. The newly encoded 16:9 enhanced 2.35:1 video on this release is every bit as good as its predecessor, with excellent color and contrast and minimal, usually negligible, digital video artifacts. It may be even a little better, but the differences are so subtle that my eyes could just be playing tricks on me. As before, the theatrical version has a slight edge over the Alternate Theatrical Version on the second disc due to what appears to me to be subtly improved compression, but both are strong presentations.
As with the prior release, the English Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack, encoded at a 384 kbps bitrate, 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.
In addition to the theatrical cut of the film, Disc One contains two extras new to this "Ultimate Collector's Edition".
Commentary by Director Francis Lawrence and Producer-Screenwriter Akiva Goldsman spans the length of the film and features its participants making screen specific observations about the film and its production history. The commentary starts very unpromisingly with Goldsman and Lawrence sounding tentative and awkward, but this turns out to be something of a put-on, as they quickly shift gears into a more fast-paced, analysis and information-rich mode, and do a good job of eliciting comments from each other throughout the film's running time. Their comments make it clear that the film was a close collaboration between Lawrence, Goldsman, and star Will Smith, although they do not hesitate to give credit to their many collaborators, erring on the side of over-praising as is customary for these types of commentaries. As one would hope, they do get into details about why the ending was changed at the last minute for the theatrical release as well as some of the logistical issues associated with shooting the new effects-heavy ending so close to the film's release date. They also reveal that in the grand George Lucas tradition, a few effects shots had additional work done to them between the film's theatrical premier and its home video release.
The film's Theatrical Trailer (2:05) is presented in 4:3 video letterboxed to 2.35:1 with Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo sound. It is a refreshingly honest presentation of the film's premise, which shows that the filmmakers made a film consistent with what the marketing department thought audiences would want to see.
The second disc is bit-identical to the second disc of the earlier "Two-Disc Special Edition. It includes the Alternate Theatrical Version of the movie described above and a DVD-ROM accessible digital copy of the theatrical cut. The digital copy is unlocked with a code provided on a paper insert to the packaging and it can only be viewed on a PC running Windows XP or Vista or a "PlaysForSure" portable media device. It does not support Macs, iPods, or Zunes 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". Based on what I could figure out, it appears that it will work with Sony Walkman branded portable media players.
Disc three contains the balance of the extras. All are presented in 16:9 enhanced video with Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo sound and available English and French subtitles unless indicated otherwise.
Cautionary Tale: The Science of "I Am Legend" (20:38) covers a number of topics relating to real world 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.
Creating "I Am Legend" (51:21 w/Play All) is a collection of 21 featurettes. 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 Making of I Am Legend (25:55) (4:3 letterboxed video - 25:56) is, for the most part a basic electronic press kit style featurette, but it is less superficial than most such promos with some interesting behind the scenes footage and discussions during the talking head interview segments. While there is some unique material, there is also a lot of overlap with the other featurettes on the disc. My favorite segments are the clips of "animatic" syoryboards used to plan many of the film's set-pieces. Topics covered include: the psychology of the Neville character, the genesis of the project beginning with the inspiration of "The Omega Man" and Richard Matheson's novel, the choice of New York for the film's setting, the use of real locations rather than CG backgrounds, the Manhattan Joyride sequence and how it was accomplished, the Brooklyn Bridge evacuation sequence, military support for the movie, the Neville character's physical appearance, an extended animatic for the "Intrepid" Deer Chase which was shortened for the final film, the weapons used in the film and the weapons handling training, working with the dog, and Smith's approach to the physical acting. On-camera interview participants include Smith, Lawrence, Goldsman, author Richard Matheson, location manager Paul Kramer, executive producer Michael Tadross, Alice Braga, stunt coordinator Vic Armstrong, first assistant director Jeffrey 'J.P. Wetzel, weapons specialist Samuel Glen, trainer Darrell Foster, and animal coordinator Steve Berens.
I Am Legend: The Making of Shots (26:02 w/Play All) is a collection of five behind the scenes material focusing on the technical aspects of achieving certain shots and scenes in the film.
- Visual Effects Highlights (10:01) - begins with a five minute montage of effects shots from the movie and then follows with a five minute montage of before and after shots with narration explaining how the key effects were accomplished. Strangely, all most of the explanatory narration and before and after effects footage is redundant with the subsequent featurettes.
- Alpha Male (3:39) Looks in depth at the leader of the Dark Seekers beginning with a minute and a half montage of his appearances in the film followed by discussion about how he was rendered via special effects that is redundant with the last two minutes from the preceding "Visual Effects Highlights" featurette.
- Times Square Hunt (3:11) Begins with a 110 second clip from the referenced section from the film's opening sequence followed by discussion about how it was rendered via special effects that is redundant with about 80 seconds of the preceding "Visual Effects Highlights" featurette.
- Seaport Evacuation (4:05) begins with the two minute sequence from the film followed by discussion of how many of the shots were accomplished
- Alternate Ending (5:04) begins with a 100 second clip of the alternate ending sequence followed by a montage accompanied by music of various stages of effects with subtitles explaining what the viewer is being shown. It then concludes with another 80 seconds of that sequence.
- 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
Deleted Scenes with and without commentary by Director Francis Lawrence and Producer-Screenwriter Akiva Goldsman (19:49) is a collection of twelve sequences that were deleted or shortened in one or both versions of the finished film. Many of them involve additional bonding between the characters of Neville, Anna, and Ethan, and were apparently deleted when the filmmakers realized that the second act was getting long and that the appeal of a "Last Man on Earth" movie is not necessarily tied to seeing him interact with others.
- Joy Ride (1:03) Reveals the film's original opening
- Sam and the Butterfly (:32) features Sam the dog chasing a butterfly in a field and playing with Neville
- They Set a Trap (:57) is a scene between Neville and Anna where they discuss how he was injured by a trap set by Dark Seekers
- Driving on the FDR (1:19) is a scene where Neville and Anna drive on an empty FDR and have a discussion illuminating some of Anna's back story.
- You Go Around the Door (2:54) is a sequence where Neville, Anna, and Ethan go to a store on Fifth Avenue and Neville instructs Ethan on how to properly enter it. From a subsequent discussion between Neville and Anna we learn that Ethan is very attuned of the presence of Dark Seekers. Neville and Ethan bond while trying on jackets and hats.
- Do You Know How to Shoot a Gun (2:00) features more bonding between Neville and Ethan followed by Anna being upset that Neville has shown Ethan how to handle a firearm.
- 5th Avenue Walk (1:13) is a "walk and talk" between Neville and Anna along a deserted Fifth Avenue that was apparently accomplished by really shutting down the busy Manhattan street.
- Questioning Faith (1:25) has Neville, Anna, and Ethan entering an abandoned St. Patrick's Cathedral
- Eat Fish on the Couch (1:23) features Neville and Anna enjoying a recently-caught fish dinner between while Ethan sleeps.
- Death or Life (5:45) is an extended sequence from the film with Anna and Neville expressing more extremely disparate views on God.
- A Haunting Sight (:30) is a brief deleted scene from the original (i.e. "Alternate") ending with Neville, Anna, and Ethan surveying the carnage outside his home.
- Hope (:40) features a return to St. Patrick's Cathedral intended for the end of the original cut of the film
The Warner Ultimate Collector's Editions are normally distinguished by their deluxe packaging and physical extras, and I Am Legend is no exception. All of the contents are contained in a sturdy cardboard box which opens with a hinged cover when laid flat. The box features very dark graphics with foil enhancements. As a matter of fact, the box and a number of the physical gew-gaws contained within it are so dark and glossy, that the whole set could probably double as an amateur CSI kit. As soon as you remove the plastic and touch it, it becomes customized with your own fingerprints. The contents of the box are as follows:
- A tri-fold digipack with simple, predominately black graphics containg the three DVDs
- a large 44 page concept sketch book with lots of glossy art and film images reproduced on high quality paper including before and after viral apocalypse renderings of various Manhattan locations.
- A lenticular motion image of will Smith from near the film's end encased in a clear lucite frame. It is a bit small, but fun if you are into that sort of thing. The image is kind of spoilery for the theatrical cut, so consider yourself warned.
- Six postcard-sized art cards with renderings of six major cities after being devastated by the virus.
- A paper insert with the digital copy authorization code
- a paper insert promoting Warner Blu-Ray discs.
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. This "Ultimate Collector's Edition" improves substantially on the previously released "Two-Disc Special Edition", and is worth a purchase for fans of the film looking for more substantial behind the scenes extras such as a filmmaker commentary, deleted scenes, and behind the scenes featurettes. It would also make a suitable gift for I Am Legend superfans, who will no doubt be impressed with the deluxe packaging and physical extras.