Richard Matheson's 1954 novel has garnered plenty of attention from Hollywood. Legendary horror actor Vincent Price starred in the first big-screen adaptation in 1964's "The Last Man on Earth." The rugged and charismatic Charlton Heston took his turn as Robert Neville in the 1971 version titled "The Omega Man." After years of Arnold Schwarzenegger failing to create his own adaptation of the short novel, Warner Bros. moved the action from Los Angeles to New York City and signed the talented and well-loved Will Smith to star in the third major version of "I Am Legend" and for the first time, the novel's title was retained.
When it was announced that Will Smith was going to star in a new version of "I Am Legend," my only major concern was "How can you kill Will Smith?" If you have read the novel or sat down and enjoyed Heston in "The Omega Man," you should be familiar with the notion that the title refers to Neville's legacy after his death. Neville always dies. Price died. Heston died. Will the filmmakers of "I Am Legend" allow Will smith to die? Smith is such an affable and charismatic actor, that I was generally concerned that the film would not work. In order to remain at least somewhat true to the story, the main character must perish and leave a legacy. He must become a legend. I wasn't sure of whether or not the filmmakers would remain true to the story and allow the main character to die.
Another concern was the nature of Neville's legacy and the original sense of Neville being a genocidal villain who was a legend because he hunted down and killed countless infected who lived in fear of Neville and regarded him as a monster. Neville lived under the impression that he was researching a way to understand what he regarded as monsters. He viewed himself as the last remaining member of society, but those he hunted and murdered were members of a new society that learned to function in a life with the plague that had stricken them. The novel ends with Neville being the villain and not those that the reader perceived to be evil.
Warner Bros. and screenwriter Akiva Goldsmith wisely reinvented the story to capitalize on having Will Smith star in the new adaptation of "I Am Legend" and to bring an updated sense of adventure and terror, while retaining many of the elements that have made the novel such an attractive property to base films upon. Neville is portrayed as a man who desperately researches a cure to the vampiric disease that was spawned from a potential cure for cancer. He captures and kills the infected during scientific experiments and only when his last resort for protection is to fire upon them. Neville fears those that are infected and doesn't actively hunt them for anything more than scientific reasons.
The new adaptation takes a radically different approach to portraying the new society of humans. Whereas they were previously shown to be literate and intelligent, the new breed of monsters is shown initially to be overly rabid madmen who have superhuman speed and strength because of their mutations created by the virus. They are shown as organisms that have shed any semblance of humanity and this is the belief held by Neville during the film. However, a clever twist during the film introduces a ‘leader' to the vampires and they are shown to have an ability to organize and the leader goes as far as setting a complicated trap for Neville that mimics his means of capturing specimens. This new society, as shown in "I Am Legend," has an underlying desire to survive as a society, but they possess terrifying qualities that separate the ‘monsters' of this new movie from previous tellings of the novels antagonists.
A female character is again introduced in this version of "I Am Legend." Previous incarnations of the female lead have engaged in lustful or romantic feelings with Neville. Instead, Anna (Alice Braga) is a survivor who has heard Neville's communication that he is a survivor and she has come to collect him on her way to what she believes is a sanctuary of survivors in New England. She travels with a young boy and assists in providing the Will Smith version of Robert Neville become a legend in a light that is fair to Will Smith. Unlike previous versions of the story, where the female lead (usually named Ruth) is a spy for the vampires, Anna is wholly innocent and truly wants to help Neville. This is one of the film's most radical departures from the source story, but it works well considering a actor considered to be the ultimate nice guy is starring as Neville. How could anybody betray Will Smith?
The film does take its liberties with the original Matheson novel. While I typically prefer for films to retain faithful to the novels and stories they are based upon, I found this new version of "I Am Legend" to work well. Much of my acceptance of the changes to the story and spirit of Matheson's work are due entirely to the decision to cast Will Smith as Robert Neville. Smith is such a charismatic and likable person that it is hard to imagine his casting working in a film where he is ultimately the villain and betrayed by a potential love interest. The film is the first to retain the novels name and in some ways, it is the most unfaithful adaptation. However, I feel this is the most entertaining and best told variant of "I Am Legend" out of the three films.
There is a lot of action and a lot of adventure with "I Am Legend." The filmmakers wisely decided to change the location of the story and bring the apocalypse to the Big Apple. New York is a city with far more character than Los Angeles and its numerous locations and sights are far more familiar than pretty much anything in the enormous California city. Part of the fun of "I Am Legend" is the incredibly well done CGI that makes New York City look as if it has been empty and poorly maintained for a number of years. The apocalyptic visuals of "I Am Legend" are easily some of the most impressive to yet appear in any major Hollywood production. Unlike "The Omega Man," which had cars and homeless people hiding in the shadows and distance, "I Am Legend" creates a wholly believable world that feels frighteningly empty.
Will Smith is the sole actor to appear on-screen for a majority of the film. His only co-star for much of the film was Sam (Kona) the German Shepard. The dog held her own nicely against one of the more recognizable and talented actors working today. However, "I Am Legend" largely succeeds because of Smith. He brings emotion, confidence and fear to his character. Flashbacks are provided to show the pain he suffered in losing his family during the plague and you easily get a solid sense that Neville is an emotionally fragile survivor that hangs on by a thread. He interacts with mannequins as if they are his friends and shows the emotionally fragile side of his character. When the action hero needs to flex his muscles and fight to survive, the "Bad Boy" star shows his ability to handle the action as well. Will Smith is one of the only actors working today who can command the screen when he is the only actor in the frame for over half of a film.
In the end, I thoroughly enjoyed this new adaptation of "I Am Legend." The film combined some very tense moments that allowed the film to have a genuine survivor-horror feel to it. The vampiric creations of "I Am Legend" easily trump previous incarnations of the plague-ridden beings created by Richard Matheson. The so-called monsters of "I Am Legend" felt like "28 Days Later" rage-infected zombies on crack. They were fun and exciting and worked perfectly in this film. Will Smith is an amazing talent and he has a commanding presence through the film and only an actor of his caliber can pull off something like "I Am Legend." Following Vincent Price and Charlton Heston is no easy task, but Smith shows them who the master is. The effects, visuals and story of this adaptation of "I Am Legend" work brilliantly and considering director Francis Lawrence had previously directed only the Keanu Reeves film "Constantine," he has helmed a well built film. "I Am Legend" is engaging and exciting.
"I Am Legend" looks quite dapper on Blu-ray disc with an ultra-detailed and highly colored transfer mastered with the VC-1 codec at a resolution of 1080p and maintains the film's 2.40:1 theatrical aspect ratio. I guess the time has come where I really don't need to point out the 1080p resolution anymore. This has become pretty much standard on both high definition formats. However, the supplements are included in a mix of 1080i, 1080p and 480p. I should also point out that the added scenes for the alternate version blend seamlessly with the theatrically presented footage. This Blu-ray release is easily one of the better looking films I have seen on the Blu-ray format.
Detail is incredibly strong. The individual hairs on Will Smith's closely cut hair could be counted and I found myself wondering if Smith is going grey or if this was makeup. The blades of grass growing up through the streets of New York are again countable because of the high level of detail. There is never any drop in resolution and the film continues to impress even during the darkest moments, which is a testament to its strong shadow detail and black levels. Colors are also strong and I found the red Ford Mustang looked stunning. This is a colorful film and the filmmakers nicely decided to keep natural colors and not play with saturation or contrast. Every hue is perfectly rendered and flesh tones are as faithful as it gets; at least Will Smith's skin tones look good considering you don't see too many other non-dark seeker faces. The image is clean and there are no instances of edge enhancement, film grain or flaws from the source materials. "I Am Legend" shows how good Blu-ray can look.
While the Alternate version of "I Am Legend" is available in only English Dolby TrueHD 5.1 and English Dolby Digital 5.1 surround, French and Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1 mixes are provided in addition to these two tracks for the theatrical version. "I Am Legend" is a film with some very solid moments that show off the full capability of TrueHD, but it is an uneven experience with an equal amount of time spent with nary a sound in the apocalyptic quiet of New York. Thankfully, the quite moments still exhibit a sense of ambience and while "I Am Legend" may move between being an incredibly aggressive mix to being quite timid, it is technically sound and a very good example of high definition sound. The front speakers do a very good job of carrying the load of the film, but the rears have plenty to do throughout the viewing of "I Am Legend" and some scenes contain wonderfully placed elements in the rear speakers. When Neville captures the female dark seeker, the sound of the trap being sprung is nothing less than incredible. The .1 LFE channel is deep and throaty. Vocals are strong and clear. When "I Am Legend" is getting busy, this is a reference quality soundtrack.
Before digging into the actual supplements contained on the Bu-ray disc, it should be pointed out that "I Am Legend" contains both the theatrical version of the film and an alternate version. The expanded version of "I Am Legend" runs for about four minutes longer than the theatrical release and has a completely different ending tacked on. From the moment when the dark-seekers invade Neville's laboratory, things change. The ending completely changes the tone of the film and allows for a ‘happily ever after' vibe to the picture. One or two minor scenes are thrown into the film, but aside from the ending, nothing is Earth-shattering. Neither ending delivers the tone of the novel, but the alternate version seems more in line of what I was expecting with Will Smith starring as Robert Neville.
The disc starts off with the featurette Cautionary Tale: The Science of I Am Legend (20:41). This takes a look at the real world epidemics and touches on the recent social fear of pandemics. With the world in a state of worry that an avian flu may become easily passed among humans, pandemics are a hot topic and this supplement digs into that fear and shows the relevance of events depicted in "I Am Legend" and discusses how they are pertinent today. Many experts in the viral field take a few minutes to speak their mind and although this doesn't dig too deeply into anything, it looks at the history of pandemics, discusses AIDS and a few other epidemics. I'm not sure if we'd ever seen an epidemic that reaches the proportions of "I Am Legend" or induces similar symptoms, but this seems fitting given the subject matter.
The making-of feature Creating I Am Legend (51:58) is a series of twenty one vignettes that take a deep look into all aspects of creating the film. They may be played separately or collectively. I found the features on the special effects to be quite intriguing and also enjoyed learning how they created the empty and apocalyptic version of New York City. While the entirety of these featurettes clocks in at nearly an hour, this is not a lot of time given the fact that there are twenty one subjects covered. Therefore, only about two to three minutes is spent on any given topic and while this does cover a lot of information on the making of "I Am Legend," it never digs too deep.
A series of four Animated Comics completes the supplements provided on the Blu-ray disc. These comics expand the world of "I Am Legend" and focus on events not told in the film. Death is a Gift (3:03) is a quick look at a girl who is the lone survivor of the outbreak in Hong Kong. The second, Isolation (6:36) is set in Colorado and looks at a prisoner in a secure facility surviving the infection and the dark seekers due to being contained in isolation. Sacrificing the Few for the Many (3:30) is a horrific look at a disease care center getting ‘cleansed' by the military to prevent the spread of the disease. The final short, Shelter (8:40) is the longest of the animated shorts and focuses on the spread of the disease in India. There are some tasty moments contained here. These comics are quite the downers and can be played individually or collectively.
I wasn't sure of what to expect with the latest big-screen adaptation of the Richard Matheson novel "I Am Legend." For one, Will Smith is the star of the film and I didn't know of how the filmmakers would handle the end result of the main character and how much they would change it for this film. Secondly, I couldn't see anybody throwing Smith into a role where he is ultimately a bad guy. Sure, Smith wasn't the nicest character in his early film "Six Degrees of Separation," but that was a long time ago. Thankfully, "I Am Legend' works and while this isn't an overly faithful adaptation, it is highly entertaining and packs a nice mix of action, thrills and chills. Smith is able to fly solo for most of this film and shows why he is one of today's top actors. The Blu-ray release features sight and sound that is as good as it gets on the format. The supplements are a little lackluster considering this was a very high profile release for Warner Bros., but I enjoyed the attached alternate version. This is a must-have release for any Blu-ray collection.