dvd review: I AM LEGEND – 2 disc Special Edition

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WARNING: This review contains spoilers!!! Having already been adapted to the screen twice, first in 1964’s The Last Man on Earth and then in 1971’s The Omega Man—both with mixed-to-bad results—Richard Matheson’s seminal novella I Am Legend spent many years trying to see if the third time would be a charm. Fans of Matheson’s book cynically rolled their eyes over the years as several very bad screenplays made the rounds in Hollywood, various directors became attached, and a revolving door of actors that included Tom Cruise, George Clooney and Arnold Schwarzenegger were all rumored to play vampire hunter Robert Neville. When it was finally announced that I Am Legend was to be a reality, starring Will Smith, directed by Francis Lawrence (Constantine), and co-written by Akiva Goldsman—the man responsible for garbage like Batman & Robin and Lost in Space—it seemed like a done deal that this new version would be nothing short of terrible. But somehow, miraculously, I Am Legend turned out to be an entertaining film that works more often than not.

The casting of Will Smith as Robert Neville—a character played by both Vincent Price and Charlton Heston—seems at first like a very bad mistake. The best actor to play Neville would have been Ed Harris twenty years ago, but that is neither here nor there, as Will Smith is what we’ve got. And to his credit, Smith brings an emotionally intense performance to his work as a military scientist who may very well be the last human being on Earth. It is possible that an actor like Matt Damon or even Mark Wahlberg could have pulled off the role of Neville as well, but to give credit to Smith, he manages to carry an entire film where most of his time is spent alone with a dog. Matheson’s book creates a portrait of a man consumed by loneliness and despair, trying to lead as normal a life as possible, but slowly giving way to insanity. Smith brings that to the screen with a performance that has very little dialog, but relies heavily on physicality and facial expressions.

As the film opens, we learn that in the very near future, a scientist discovers what is believed to be a viral cure for cancer. But as I Am Legend quickly jumps ahead three years, to an eerily deserted New York City, where vegetation has overtaken the once booming metropolis, it is clear something has gone terribly wrong. What was once an urban jungle is now simply a jungle as Neville, tooling around Manhattan with Sam, his trusty dog, hunts a pack of deer, only to come up empty-handed when he is forced to compete with a family of hungry lions.

From the very beginning, I Am Legend starts out strong, delivering a great variation on Matheson’s original concept and narrative. But that’s not that hard to do. The earlier versions did it well, as have other films like 1985’s under-rated The Quiet Earth and Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later, which are among the many films to borrow heavily from Matheson. (For the record, George Romero was very influenced by I Am Legend when he made his zombie films, especially Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead, so any films that draw from either of those, are really drawing from Matheson’s work).

The problem with some of these other films—especially the previous adaptations—is that they soon fall apart after the first reel. But I Am Legend manages to hold it together, as Will Smith pretty much carries the entire first two acts of the movie with just a dog as a co-star. Several flashbacks establish the chaos as Neville tries to get his family out of the city before it is quarantined off; but those scenes with their massive crowds and supporting cast do not take away from the fact that this is essentially a one-man show. And as Neville goes about his day-to-day survival routine, which includes looking for a way to treat the rabies-like disease that has claimed over 90% of the population, Smith turns in a surprisingly complex performance as a man who has lost his mind from both loneliness, as well as the pressure of being one of the lead scientists whose failure has meant the end of civilization.

The two-disc special edition of I Am Legend features two different versions of the film. The first disc features the original theatrical version of the film, while the second disc runs approximately four minutes longer, with two additional scenes, one scene that has been slightly altered and very different ending. WARNING: THE SPOILERS ARE ABOUT TO BEGIN!!!

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Regardless of which version of I Am Legend you watch, you will be seeing an entertaining film that is not totally faithful to Matheson’s book, but still manages to capture a decent portion of the novella’s original spirit. At over 50 years old, the deceptively simple book poses many challenges in adaptation, not the least of which is making one man’s tale of solitude cinematically compelling. Most of the adjustments and changes to the original story are acceptable conceits, the notable exception being how the film treats the infected mutants. In the book, the creatures are a vampire society that is revealed to have grown to replace human beings, and they gather every night outside Neville’s home and taunt him. In the book, the vampires are a metaphor of societal and moral change. But in the film—at least within the theatrical version—the creatures exists solely as monsters, with only a hint of socialization and sophistication, and not nearly half the depth of Romero’s zombies in Land of the Dead. This deviation from the original plot pretty much negates the whole meaning of the title, which in the book comes from Neville’s realization that he is the monster among the monsters—an unseen boogey man who leaves behind slaughtered vampires by day. And if reducing the character status of the mutants is not bad enough, the CGI creatures don’t have much weight or character. They look as fake and ridiculous and dated on arrival as the albino mutants Charlton Heston battles in The Omega Man now look.

As an overall film, I Am Legend falls apart in the third act with the introduction of Anna (Alice Braga) and Ethan (Charlie Tahan), two other humans apparently immune to the virus that has decimated the planet. The script takes a turn for the worse, first by opening a huge hole in the plot, and second, by offering some cringe-inducing moments. The worst of these scenes is when Neville tries to explain to Alice who Bob Marley was, in an awkward moment that lands with a dull, resounding thud. In another clumsy moment, Neville recites dialog from Shrek, which Ethan is watching on DVD, in a scene that is supposed to reveal Neville, who is no longer used to human contact, to be less of a monster than he appears. But the scene does not work, and just comes across as a silly and unnecessary attempt to ground the film in reality.

The arrival of Anna and Ethan is also problematic in that the film establishes that Manhattan has been quarantined—all bridges and tunnels have been destroyed. So, how do they get on to the island? And more important, if there is a route on and off Manhattan, why hasn’t Neville explored it? The bottom line is that not only does the arrival of Anna and Ethan adversely affect the story, it also reveals an unexplained flaw in the story that makes the filmmakers look stupid. With all the painstaking detail given to the production design and the look of the film, it is mind-blowing that no one seemed to address that while there is no way on or off the island of Manhattan, somehow these characters managed to miraculously show up to save Neville’s life.

The biggest flaw of the film,however, is the lack of attention given to the mutants, who in the book are revealed to be the next evolution of society. This is especially apparent in the original theatrical version, where there are several pivotal moments that allude to a socialized aspect of the creatures but that is never followed up on. The version on the second disc includes a scene where Neville and Anna discuss the creatures, and the door is open to a major revelation that this alternate version provides. WARNING: MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD!!

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The original theatrical version has an ending slightly more faithful to Matheson’s book in that Neville dies. But the build up to his death is missing a crucial element, and the epilog to this version has Anna and Ethan finding a safe haven, with a cure in hand. The alternate version clearly resolves the issue of the creatures, and how they have evolved into more than the monsters Neville has mistaken them for. It is revealed that the attacks against him have been to reclaim the female mutant he has been experimenting on, who is the mate of the main mutant. This is a bit more faithful to the novel, in that Neville comes to realize that he is as much of a monster as the monsters. The Polaroid pictures of creatures he has killed in the name of trying to find a cure, suddenly become evidence of his murderous crimes, looking almost like pictures of victims of some horrific Nazi experiment. But this ending also fails, in that it Neville lives, mysteriously escaping the city with Anna and Ethan, even though there is no way off the island.

Of the two versions of I Am Legend, the second disc with the alternate ending is the better cut. And while neither version has a satisfactory conclusion, the alternate version is a more complete film, with a slightly more fleshed out story.

I Am Legend maintains a solid pace and effectively creates tension, with several very strong sequences that hold up to multiple viewings. The film also uses music sparingly to great effect, leaving some of the best moments to play without any music at all. It is unusual to build the sense of dread and imminent danger without the use of manipulative orchestration, and I Am Legend certainly deserves credit for pulling off such a trick.

Despite falling apart in the third act, the first two acts of I Am Legend work incredibly well. Will Smith gives a great performance that carries the film, and allows him a chance to flex his movie star muscles. This is not a film without its flaws, but when it works, it is entertaining. Watching it a second time, I found I enjoyed the good parts more than the first time around, and felt that with the alternate ending it was a better overall film.

There is no doubt in my mind that there will be another version of I Am Legend on DVD at some point that will include deleted scenes, but until that arrives, you are left with the choice of the single-disc version, which has the bonus material, or the two-disc version which has the alternative ending. The honest truth is that the second disc, with the alternate ending, is the better of the two. Whether you choose to rent or purchase, this is the one I would have to recommend.

http://rcm.amazon.com/e/cm?t=bamo-20&o=1&p=8&l=as1&asins=B00005JPTK&fc1=000000&IS2=1&lt1=_blank&lc1=0000FF&bc1=000000&bg1=FFFFFF&f=ifr

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