I AM LEGEND - DVD review

...a triumph of set design and CGI over story line or credibility.

John J. Puccio's picture
John J.

Note: In the following joint review, both John and Jason provide their comments on the movie, with John also writing up the Video, Audio, Extras, and Parting Thoughts.

The Movie According to John:
One thing you can say for certain about this latest adaptation of Richard Matheson's 1954 sci-fi novel is that it's better than the previous two versions, "The Last Man on Earth" (1964), starring Vincent Price, and "The Omega Man" (1971), starring Charlton Heston. "I Am Legend" (2007) at least went back to Matheson's original title, and it carries with it much of Matheson's dark tone. It still may not be a great movie, but at least you can't discount its serious intent.

Since this is a science-fiction film, naturally it stars Will Smith. An exaggeration, of course, but it does seem like Smith has made an acting career out of sci-fi. Just don't expect the same old glib, sassy, amusing, happy-go-lucky fellow we've seen Smith play in movies like "Independence Day," "Men in Black," and "I Robot." Here, he's in straight dramatic mode as a more real-life, naturalistic character; and while he continues to be the ever-charming Will Smith, he's Smith wearing a sullen countenance most of the time.

You'd be sullen, too, if you thought you were the last human being left alive on the planet. Smith plays a military doctor, Lt. Col. Robert Neville, who is struggling to find a cure for a virus that has wiped out most of the Earth's population, leaving only him immune. Oh, and it's a virus that has also turned a small percentage of the populace into mutant vampire zombies with an aversion to light. Well, Matheson had to give Neville a proper adversary, after all, so why not?

"I Am Legend" is a triumph of set design and CGI over story line or credibility, so make up your mind before starting that you are going to have to suspend your belief more than usual for this fantasy to work. Now, I know it sounds a little odd for me to suggest that "I Am Legend" might require more suspension of disbelief than, say, a goofy, far-out flick like "ID4," but, remember, movies create their own worlds for us to believe in. With "ID4," the filmmakers simply told us that aliens were invading our planet, and we could pretty much go with that idea; we just accepted it as a part of the film's make-believe. Yet with "I Am Legend," the filmmakers try to create a more realistic scenario for the world's destruction, and in their trying to do so, it means that we as an audience have an even bigger job trying to accept it. The more a film wants us to believe that something could genuinely happen, the more the filmmakers have to work to convince us. And "I Am Legend" has its fair share of issues in this regard.

For instance, most of us might agree that a virus could wipe out the world's population. But why would it also turn some select folk into blood-seeking monsters with superhuman strength and agility, who go nuts and die at the prospect of light? It makes for great entertainment, to be sure, but if you're going for reality, it makes no logical sense; nor do the filmmakers ever try to explain it.

Anyway, I digress. "I Am Legend" is really about the look of the world and the state of Dr. Neville's mind after the catastrophe, and it's in these areas that the movie succeeds. The year is 2012, three years after the virus outbreak, and we see a deserted New York City with all its familiar landmarks covered over with weeds and decay, its bridges crumbling and destroyed. That's the spookiest part of the movie: the appearance of desolation and deterioration everywhere; and the computer-generated graphics that create these impressions are quite convincing.

Likewise, Smith is good at conveying his character's sense of solitude and despair. Neville is not just fighting isolation; he's fighting off depression and guilt, too, and possibly the onset of suicide. He feels that he alone must work to save humanity, perhaps turning the mutants back into normal people. He feels that he alone is responsible for the fate of Mankind, that somehow by not preventing the virus in the first place he was accountable for it, and he's seeking redemption through his work.

With only a faithful German shepherd, Sam, as his boon companion, Neville toils tirelessly to find a cure for the disease, look for nests of mutants by day, and lock himself up against the creatures by night. From this premise, the plot unfolds slowly, with continual flashbacks filling in the back story.

The movie may not be what everyone expects, however. I've already mentioned its dark tone. Indeed, it is grimmer and sadder than most other films in its genre. For example, when the film opens, Neville has been isolated for three years. To combat his loneliness, he has resorted to talking to store mannequins, setting them up in strategic locations around the city to give him a sense of human contact and companionship. Before long, though, the film's bleak outlook becomes oppressive.

This is not an action movie in the traditional sense, although there are several action sequences involved (probably too much toward the end). It's more of an introspective, psychological character study, with Smith's Neville practically the only person involved. Because it is essentially a one-character drama, it puts a load on Smith's shoulders, and though he does his best with it--and he is good--he needs more help than the intriguing set design and redundant script offer.

"I Am Legend" is basically a sullen, sombre affair, without much character involvement and with long stretches of quiet solitude where not much seems to be happening. As I have said, it can become more than a bit depressing at times. Partially to relieve the story's joyless spirit, the film also carries a cautionary message, which doesn't go very far before the crash-and-burn violence takes over. Neville exclaims, "God didn't do this...we did." Well, no, actually, Matheson and the filmmakers did this, and they want us to accept it. Much of it we can; much of it we can't. I went away feeling that the film was a bit sluggish yet oddly fascinating as well.

John's film rating: 6/10

The Movie According to Jason:
"I Am Legend" might as well be called "The Will Smith Show." Alone on screen for the majority of the 100-minute running time, Smith draws the audience into the story about the (presumably) last man on Earth using a combination of his former personas. Part father from "The Pursuit of Happyness," part action hero from "Bad Boys," and part "Fresh Prince" wisecracking smart ass, his Robert Neville commands the screen like few actors can.

In the near future, the human race is nearly exterminated by a virus designed to kill cancer. The population has turned into pale, blood-hungry creatures, sensitive to sunlight. Neville is one of the only survivors along with his dog, Sam. He has New York City to himself as his search for a cure slowly progresses. What does the last man in the city, and maybe the world, do?

Will Smith's performance here has been compared, perhaps unfairly, to Tom Hanks's work in "Castaway." Both actors are put on screen for prolonged periods of time with no other human actors to play against and with a non-human (in Hanks's case, inanimate) co-star. But whereas "Castaway" is a triumph of the human spirit, "I Am Legend" showcases the race at its very worst…or at the very least, the over hubris in our ability to control nature. And it's not only the cancer cure that gets away from the human race; it's the virus it mutates into.

Take notice of one of the flashbacks of an evacuating New York City. The military clearly is out of its league in trying to contain a mass panic. Forget the idea that an Executive Order quarantining the city comes down before all the necessary personnel have been airlifted out or the bridges and tunnels destroyed. To control the populace, logic dictates a quiet evacuation of VIP's and then the Presidential order. In a previous flashback, watch the technology developed to screen for the virus. It's an eye scanner. How it works, we don't know nor does the movie really care, which gives false positives. By extension, isn't it reasonable to expect it would also give false negatives, thereby condemning virus-free people to whatever fate the government decides? And, by further extension, a false negative would allow the virus to get out while it is attached to infected "safe" people?

This is but one part of the narrative that doesn't hold up to any sort of scrutiny. What does hold up, though, is Smith. He is the anchor, the soul, the reason for watching. His is an emotional performance, that of a man with the weight of the world on his shoulders. He makes reference several times in the film to having to correct the mistake, to make everything right. Is he merely trying to motivate himself, or does he truly believe he can bring the dead back to life? An argument can be made for both, but whatever the reason, he's never anything less than captivating. And it isn't until the last twenty minutes when new characters enter that the picture stumbles just a bit. Not because of poor acting, but because their inclusion is an obvious way to end the story.

Let's face it: Neville has survived in NYC by himself for three years. He's fought these dark seekers, conducted medical tests on them and rabid animals, constructed elaborate defenses in his home, and built a pseudo-life with mannequins in stores. There's nothing in the film to suggest he wouldn't have been able to keep going for another twenty. Which would make an entirely boring movie with no real resolution. Unless he makes a mistake.

That's what happens, without giving too much away. A mistake. An innocent mistake, but one nonetheless. When his companion is taken away, it seems to sap Neville's strength, sending him on a road to utter destruction, perhaps as suggested, even suicide. It's the same thing Tom Hanks faced while on his makeshift raft with Wilson. Neville treats Sam as a real person, carrying on complex conversations with an animal he knows he'll get no response from. For three years, the dog is his only companion and he'd go to great lengths to keep it safe. It's no more obvious than in our first encounter with the creatures.

And there is the thematic turn in the movie. Instead of remaining true to the premise of "the last man on earth" trying to make things right, "I Am Legend" devolves into an action film. Running, shooting, fighting, screaming, exploding. It's all very much by the numbers. The ending looks spectacular with top-notch effects, but nothing created in a computer (or practical on set) can compare to seeing the skyscrapers of the city shrouded in weeds and the eerie silence of a jungle. We're conditioned to expect all the sounds associated with a bustling city, and when there is nothing, it's the greatest effect the film can have. Those scenes of the empty New York streets create a mood no music cue, no line of dialogue can. It's far more effective in involving the audience than any action sequence.

However, I will concede the ending would not be possible without that action climax, let alone the name of the film. Certain things have to happen in order for a person to become a legend (hence the title). A long and celebrated life isn't one of them.

Now, considering "I Am Legend" takes place in the middle of New York City, it is perhaps inevitable that businesses and other products are featured. Nevertheless, there comes a moment early in the film when the product placement becomes entirely too much. As Neville and Sam zip around in a red sport car, it comes to a sliding stop, eventually showing the car model squarely to the camera. It's not just the car, though. Name brand companies are prominently displayed on skyscrapers, retail stores and restaurants, Broadway productions. The camera seems to take extra time to look for the product placement. Among the strangest is a clip from "Shrek" late in the film. Strange considering it has little to do with anything in the movie and doubly so as "Shrek" is a DreamWorks production, not a Warner one.

Despite my small nitpicks--including a puzzling lapse that sets up the climax--"I Am Legend" is completely recommendable. Viewers looking for action won't be disappointed and those looking for something a bit more involved will find new questions come to mind long after the credits roll. Unfortunately, as already mentioned, the script hopes we get on board for the ride without asking those extra questions. It's then, and only then, that the chinks in the armor of "I Am Legend" come out. The movie is enjoyable throughout without holding up to detailed dissection.

Jason's film rating: 6/10

Warner Bros. use a high-bit-rate, anamorphic transfer to render the 2.40:1-ratio picture as well as possible on disc. What we get are deep, solid colors, evidenced from the very beginning in the vivid red of Neville's Mustang; a minimum of print grain; and no added noise or halos. The screen hues are never bright, sometimes even a tad subdued, but they are always natural, never flashy. Finally, definition is good without being great. There is a soft fuzziness about some of it, especially in medium shots, while close-ups are generally excellent.

The disc includes a satisfying Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack, representative of what most good action soundtracks offer these days. It has a potent bass that roars when necessary; a generous use of the surrounds, although interspersed with vast stretches of quiet; and a strong dynamic impact, evidenced by the several gunshots and explosions we hear. I wish the filmmakers hadn't anchored out voices in the center channel as usual, but I guess that's a necessity for modern motion-picture theaters.

For a "Two-Disc Special Edition," there are relatively few extras involved, probably because the WB powers that be have given over the whole of the second disc to an alternate version of the film with a new ending. So, disc one contains mainly the original theatrical version of the film and four animated comics, the comics totaling about twenty-one minutes: "Death as a Gift," "Isolation," "Sacrificing the Few for the Many," and "Shelter." In addition, disc one contains some DVD-ROM bonus material; a few theatrical trailers at start-up only; twenty-seven scene selections but no chapter insert; English, French, and Spanish spoken languages and subtitles; and English captions for the hearing impaired.

Disc two contains an alternate rendering of the film that is four minutes longer than the theatrical version, including what Warner Bros. claim is "a controversial ending." Well, I wouldn't call it controversial, but it is certainly different from the ending that accompanies the theatrical version. Like night-and-day different. On this second disc, by the way, you get only English as the spoken language, with French and Spanish subtitles and English captions for the hearing impaired.

Parting Thoughts:
"I Am Legend" is a sullen, somber affair, so don't expect a whiz-bang sci-fi action thriller along the lines of earlier Will Smith projects. "Legend" is darker, more introspective, and a whole lot slower; it's serious in purpose but not always as entertaining as it could be, thanks to its generally dour attitude. Nevertheless, it's good to see a Hollywood sci-fi film at least attempt to do something more than provide a gore fest of exploding heads.


Film Value