What would it be like to be the last man on Earth? It's a question that has endlessly tickled science-fiction writers, and often made fodder for visual exploitation on TV (the very first Twilight Zone: "Where is everybody?") and in films. It's been a chic cinematic trick in recent years to take a heavily populated urban area and spookily empty it out for the film cameras. Cameron Crowe and Tom Cruise used their clout to empty Times Square for Vanilla Sky, Danny Boyle shot a seemingly deserted London in the opening scenes of 28 Days Later, and now Cruise's buddy Will Smith is prowling a deserted...well, Times Square, in I Am Legend.
The gag still has juice, and director Francis Lawrence squeezes it for all it's worth in multiple arresting sequences of NYC as urban jungle. It's all a part of adapting Richard Matheson's novella, previously filmed as The Last Man on Earth and The Omega Man. Smith plays military scientist Robert Neville, who appears to be the last man standing after a purported cancer cure results in rampant mutation (the scientific culprit allows a terrific cameo by a noted actress). The disaster leaves Neville alone, save for trusty dog Sam, to contend with the vampiric, day-shunning mutants. The film is best in its patient first half, as man and dog walk the quiet streets, hunting game, and we gradually get hip to the situation via surgical flashbacks and the slow unraveling of Neville's tenuous mental state.
Smith carries the picture for most of its running time on his own (unlike Boyle's zombies, these mutants are all weightless CGI—an error on the part of Lawrence). With his emotionally hardened demeanor, it's almost possible to imagine Smith as the brilliant career military scientist he's supposed to be, and Smith sells his transition into suicidal recklessness. But the script by Mark Protosevich and Akiva Goldsman keeps undermining that persona for cheap movie star yuks, like revealing that a bored Neville has not only chosen Shrek as his favorite movie (as opposed to, say, reading the great books he never got around to) but also, in fact, memorized the entire film. In his defense(?), he also has Van Gogh's original "The Starry Night" hanging over his plasma TV.
At around this point, it's clear: I Am Legend is downright hokey. It's deepest thought, hammered home in repeated Bob Marley references, is "Light up the darkness," a sort of apology by the filmmakers after its ironic use of "Three Little Birds" ("don't worry about a thing"--yeah, right). Though I Am Legend is an improvement for Smith as classic science-fiction revamps go--I haven't forgiven I Robot yet--Matheson's oft-copied story feels like old news by now, and its remaining power slowly fizzles out as the picture attempts to reach closure, its cliched ending the strained result of reshoots. Back in Times Square, circa 2012, is a billboard for a Batman-Superman team-up movie--it will elicit more gasps from the fanboys than anything else in I Am Legend.
[Not so incidentally, Warner has value-added the first seven minutes of Batman Begins sequel The Dark Knight--in IMAX format, no less--to I Am Legend's IMAX prints. Now there's an incentive that ought to sell a few extra tickets...]
The home video release of I Am Legend offers the film another chance at capturing people's imaginations. In fact, it offers two chances by including the original theatrical release and an alternate version with a couple of short additional scenes (collectively a little over a minute) and a notably different alternate ending (the alternate cut runs 104 minutes). Obviously the differences aren't radical—the visual "tail" stills wags the story "dog"—but the ending is a mild improvement. It's less melodramatic, more tense and, in its way, more meaningful, despite an uncorrected lapse of logic in the third act and final image.
On Blu-Ray the film looks very impressive most of the time, with an image that replicates the film's visual impact on the big screen. The scene that finds Neville chasing Sam into the dark doesn't translate well in this transfer, and there are a couple of instances where color seems blown-out, solid patches seeming to crawl a bit. But these are nitpicks to a presentation that has a strong visual and aural impact: this is the type of film with a notably immersive surround-soundtrack, and this disc loses none of its subtleties.
For fans of the film, the alternate ending is enough to make the home video release an event, but Warner has provided an extensive battery of cool bonus features. "Creating I Am Legend" (51:58 with a "Play All" feature) is a massive "minidocumentary gallery" comprising twenty-one segments: "Closing Down Fifth Avenue," "The Creatures Break In," "The Story," "The Joy Ride Jump," "Will in the Driver's Seat," "Canine Co-Star," "NYC Gone Back to Nature," "Robert Neville's Psychology," "Quiet Imagination," "Evacuation, Part 1: Family Convoy," "Neville's Weapons," "That Scary Place Inside All of Us," "Shooting the Intrepid," "Building the Pier," "Evacuation, Part 2: Military Cooperation," "Will's Physical Training," "Creating the Dark Seekers," "Evacuation, Part 3: Choppers," "The Conflicts of Isolation," "Trustung the Unknown," and "Will Smith in Action."
These segments include extensive comments from director Francis Lawrence, Will Smith, co-writer/producer Akiva Goldsman, Alice Braga, and Charlie Tahan, as well as select members of the crew and military advisors. The doc avoids tricky areas (little talk about the troubled script development and none about the reshoots), but is otherwise comprehensive about the production's logistical challenges and how they were overcome, special effects, and character motivation, with excellent behind-the-scenes access. One of the early segments expounds on a St. Patrick's Cathedral shoot that, unless I'm missing something, never made it into the movie; an even bigger surprise is that original I Am Legend author Richard Matheson gamely contributes a few comments to the doc.
"Cautionary Tale: The Science of I Am Legend" (20:41, presented in high definition) gives an engaging crash course in the history and modern threat of pandemics. Doctors, some from the CDC, explain the work that is being done today to combat the very real threat of another outbreak (and, by the way, we're reminded, Outbreak is available from Warner Home Video!). Smith, Lawrence, and Goldman also throw in their two cents here.
Warner deserves "extra credit" for a cool feature many critics are blowing off as fluff. Dawn Thomas & Jada Pinkett Smith developed four "Animated Comics" based on work published in Vertigo Comics, and they are presented in potent high definition (Goldsman gets a "creative editor" credit). Each gives a different perspective of the virus' impact from around the globe: Hong Kong, Colorado, Central America, New Delhi. The non-animated comics have been kicking around for a while on the film website, but they'll be new to most people, and they have some strong talent attached, including celebrated science-fiction novelist Orson Scott Card—who penned the sickest entry, "Shelter"—and the film's co-screenwriter Mark Protosevich, who wrote second-best entry "Isolation." "Death as a Gift" and "Sacrificing the Few for the Many" are less narrative than tone poems, both with story credit by Dawn Thomas. The art is based on original art by David Levy and Jason Chan.
It's hard to imagine fans being dissatisfied with I Am Legend's various special editions (it's also available in one-disc and two-disc DVD editions), and particularly the Blu-Ray is up to snuff, providing the best audio-visual quality.
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