I Am Legend (DVD)

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Coming to DVD Tuesday, March 18th

Cast:

Will Smith as Dr. Robert Neville

Alice Braga as Anna

Charlie Tahan as Ethan

Salli Richardson as Zoe Neville

Willow Smith Marley Neville

Directed by Francis Lawrence

Movie:

By now, with its massive box-office numbers duly noted in Warner Bros.’ ’07 annual report and its rep within the horror community settling in just above the so-so territory occupied by its two predecessors, there’s little debate about the highs and lows of I Am Legend. This third adaptation of Richard Matheson’s landmark novel drew universal praise for its realization of a dead world and star Will Smith’s portrayal of that world’s presumed last living resident, but caught critical flack for some irritatingly dismal CG characters and an ending seen by many as unfaithful at best, condescending at worst – all of which is even more evident upon revisiting the film on DVD. Like a sparkler, it ignites in a bold, brilliant flash, only to fizzle out at the end of its wick, a film that yearns for perfection but seemingly tires of its pursuit.

Pitch-perfect in concept and execution, the opening moments of I Am Legend are among the finest ever captured in post-apocalyptic cinema. A talk show prelude introduces Dr. Krippen (Emma Thompson), all but bursting with demure excitement over her newfound cure for cancer. Because we what know near-future fate awaits humanity, there’s a foreboding weight to her miraculous announcement. That weight becomes a breathtaking punch with the reveal of a decimated Manhattan three years after Krippen’s breakthrough. Vacant cars clog the city’s outbound roads, some submerged underwater. Weeds sprout up through cracked concrete. The cries of passing gulls reverberate off abandoned towers of glass. We sweep over street after empty street – each one unsettling silent – before finally glimpsing motion: a speck of red gliding up a wide avenue.

That speck is a shiny red automobile, and at the wheel is Dr. Robert Neville (Smith), ostensibly the last man left on earth and likely the first to hunt wild game via Ford Mustang. Flanked by a faithful German shepherd named Sam, Neville tracks a herd of deer to Times Square, now a nearly unrecognizable urban savannah. He is close to the kill when a pack of lions and the approaching sunset force him to retreat. Back inside his stockpiled Washington Square brownstone, Neville shares dinner with Sam and treats his four-legged companion to a bath before curling into the tub himself, M-16 clutched to his chest, as raging monsters invade the streets outside. This, we soon see, is Neville’s life – playful scavenging by day, fortified hiding at night – punctuated by ongoing tests in his basement laboratory aimed at finding a cure for the infection that created this barren metropolis.

It is here, in Neville’s day-by-day exploits in isolation, that I Am Legend shines brightest. Rich with detail and narrative clues, the film unfolds much like the novel that inspired it, lacing Neville’s daily routine with hints of the past that brought him here. The relics of the last days – quarantine banners, derelict military tanks, posters and placards promising afterlife salvation – paint a realistic portrait of society’s downward spiral, and Neville’s place in it. A Time magazine cover tacked to Neville’s refrigerator bears his own image and the headline “SAVIOR,” followed by a question mark that appears to have been scrawled on by hand – a simple but telling sign of both the obsession that drives Neville and the self-doubt and resignation that plague him.

Though derided by many, Smith’s casting here is deceptively apropos, bringing undeniable charisma, empathy, and believability to a largely impenetrable character. Though he outwardly struggles for survival against the fierce creatures “infected” by Krippen’s mutated vaccine, Neville’s most threatening adversaries are his own overzealous dedication (a compulsion that repeatedly results in the loss of his closest relationships) and his crumbling mind and conflicted social capacity (superbly manifested in his “conversations” with mannequins). In a way, though long viewed as ripe material for a testosterone-fueled blockbuster (names previously attached to the project include Arnold Schwarzenegger and director Ridley Scott), I Am Legend is in fact a deconstruction of the very action-hero archetype Smith helped create, exploring the alienation sometimes wrought by superheroic capabilities and superior intelligence, and the perceived obligation to use them.

And then, suddenly, that all ends. A bit past the hour mark, everything about I Am Legend changes. In the film’s tensest moments, we and Neville come to the terrifying realization that the infected ghouls are evolving beyond mindless aggression. Soon after another, unexpected discovery emerges, leading into what should be a harrowing third act.

Instead, restraint gives way to abandon, Smith’s sharp performance deteriorates into farce, and director Francis Lawrence assaults us with a numbing barrage of computer-generated, head-banging, putty-faced morons. Our interpretive skills as an audience, embraced earlier in the film, are here insulted with exposition and thesis that’s as bald and naked as the vampiric lemmings after Neville’s blood. His philosophic waxings on the music of Bob Marley make us long for points at which the only lame banter we heard came from the prerecorded Today show clips Neville screens over his morning Wheaties. The climactic siege lacks the creativity that produced scenes like Smith’s high-speed hunt; it’s nothing more than a stubborn chase sequence designed to force a stand-off between Neville and the apparent leader of the poorly dubbed “dark-seekers,” and it’s capped off by a resolution that’s saturated with rhetoric and spirituality that aim high but ring hollow. None of this undoes the film’s earlier triumphs, but it did temper the renewed excitement I’d felt at the outset.

Despite the film’s late slide into disappointment, I Am Legend merits repeat viewings if only to wonder at Lawrence’s striking vistas of urban atrophy, all of which are captured beautifully on Warner’s DVD presentation. Returning to the film for the first time since a theatrical viewing, I was enthralled once again by the engaging approach and masterfully crafted tale that make up the bulk of the movie. It is perhaps no more literal in its treatment of Matheson’s source material than The Last Man on Earth or The Omega Man, but it does bridge that material with contemporary concerns and themes to a largely successful degree. And while not exactly a showcase of gripping horror, there is fear to be found in the film’s darker moments; one only wishes those moments, and the movie itself, stretched just a little further.

Extras:

Animated Comics: A variety of talent from various media combine to explore the effects of the Krippen virus beyond the bounds of NYC in these four very brief, very graphic vignettes. A young girl haunts a deserted Hong Kong in the silent, somber Death As a Gift. In Isolation, a manic convict defies his merciless captors and escapes from prison, only to make a desperate return when he finds the “free” world less favorable than his cell. Sacrificing the Few for the Many renders, in stark hues, the military slaughter of a Central American camp established to treat the infected. Shelter portrays the virus-fueled transformation of a young Indian girl from her own perspective. Each of these shorts, adapted from a printed DC/Vertigo comic, is vibrantly illustrated and dynamically staged, but also largely irrelevant. Only the final story, scripted by science fiction author Orson Scott Card, dabbles in the evolutionary questions posed by Matheson’s novel, depicting the world as seen through the eyes of the infected. Still, the bulk of these animated clips deserve credit for their creature designs, all of which, despite their 2-D nature, are superior to the 3-D fiends in the actual film.

DVD-ROM Content: Lacking sufficient disc space, Warner Bros. has deposited two substantial features online, accessible only by placing the Legend DVD in a PC DVD-ROM drive accompanied by an internet connection. While this creates a certain level of difficulty for some (this reviewer spills his words on a Mac, with which the Legend online content is not compatible), much of this material is worth seeking out.

• Creating I Am Legend: This extensive, episodic making-of doc splits 50 minutes of behind-the-scenes footage among more than 20 short vignettes addressing enough varied topics to appeal to just about anyone’s interest in the film. Interviews with director Lawrence, Will Smith, screenwriter/co-producer Akiva Goldsman, and even novelist Matheson (whose appearance here resembles either a pimped out George Carlin or a Heaven’s Gate cultist) are mixed with on-set clips that explore, among other aspects of the film: the closing of Manhattan’s busy streets, special effects prep for Smith’s racing sequences and the attack on Neville’s home, the process of transforming New York into an aged, natural environment, Smith’s physical prep for the Neville role, and his K-9 co-star, Abby. The segments are too short to get into any substantial depth, but in some of the more interesting bits, Goldsman discusses the Legend script within the context of classing “serious” sci-fi like The Twilight Zone and elaborates on Neville’s conflicted search for and fear of human contact, while footage of Smith and co-stars Alice Braga and Charlie Tahan outside of St. Patrick’s Cathedral hints at scenes cut from the final film (raising the question of why those scenes were not included here, as well).

• Cautionary Tale: The Science of I Am Legend: Through archival photographs, genetic animations, and interviews with professionals from the CDC, Scripps Research Institute, Harvard Medical School, and more, this 20-minute featurette briefly chronicles the last hundred years or so of pandemic viral infections. Though it’s not exactly a correspondence course in virology, the piece approaches the topic with greater scientific clarity and less sensational fear mongering than one might expect. But the producers do manage to work in some frightening facts, including the alarming frequency of pandemic influenza outbreaks capable of killing millions (3 every century, according to one scientist). The experts consulted stop short of stating whether the virus outlined in Legend could become a reality, but do suggest that the film’s approach is grounded closer to fact than some other outbreak flicks.

Trailers: There are probably very few horror fans unaware that the Legend disc presents the first full trailer for The Lost Boys 2: The Tribe, but those who rent the disc for the sole purpose of catching it will at least be rewarded with a better clip than what debuted at MTV.com. This preview gives us a greater sense of the sequel’s storyline, but also the limitations of Angus Sutherland’s acting. Still no trace of Tim Cappella or his sexy sax, though. Trailers for The Dark Knight, Speed Racer, and Justice League: The New Frontier also roll before the feature.

Alternate Theatrical Version: A second disc included in the Legend special edition presents an alternate cut of the full feature, almost identical to what appeared in theaters apart from its ending. This version restores Lawrence’s original (and “controversial,” according to the disc packaging) ending, enabling those who prefer this less traditional conclusion to watch it in context with the rest of the film. While lacking the makings of controversy, the original ending does tip the movie’s close in a less predictable, more fulfilling direction. It’s not a literal pick-up of Matheson’s novel, but it maintains the spirit of the novel’s end, if not the tone. That said, the original version constitutes a quantifiable difference of about 4 minutes, and neither ending is good enough to negate the 25 or 30 minutes of damage that precede them.