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Richard Matheson had early success in both TV and the movies. His The Incredible Shrinking Man is undeniably a classic, but his celebrated Sci-Fi / horror blend I Am Legend has been filmed three times without a fully satisfactory result. I Am Legend is a post-apocalyptic tale of a biological catastrophe. A plague has turned almost everyone into mindless blood-seeking ghouls. The lone human survivor Robert Neville is a researcher who is somehow immune. He divides his time between hunting down the vampires, scavenging for survival supplies and tinkering with a plague cure. Matheson's novella is a nightmare with a downbeat ending.
British horror specialists Hammer Films hired Matheson to adapt his novel, but the BBFC denounced the subject matter as too gruesome. Matheson's script was re-written for the ragged 1964 A.I.P. Italian co-production The Last Man on Earth. It is the only version that retains Matheson's spooky interpretation of the zombie-vampires, the shambling ghouls that batter the hero's barricaded house and chant, "Morgan -- Come OUT!" Vincent Price was a bit shaky as the lonely survivor, but did fine enough under the circumstances. 1971's The Omega Man had an interesting performance by Charlton Heston, who if anything was too "heroic" for the story. Heston's version got rather silly toward the end with its portrayal of pasty-faced mutants who seemed to have escaped from Beneath the Planet of the Apes.
A second remake percolated around Hollywood for decades, most notably as an action platform for Arnold Schwartzenegger. It finally came to pass in 2007 as a vehicle for star Will Smith, whose presence guarantees that a movie will open. Smith is also a fan of Sci-Fi tales, having previously played in the hits Independence Day and I, Robot. He makes a good showing in the new I Am Legend, but the movie (in its final theatrical form) is not much of an improvement on the earlier versions. Instead of starting from scratch, it's an acknowledged remake of Omega Man.
A remake is not a bad thing when the original didn't live up to its potential. I Am Legend covers the same territory as the earlier versions, adding little beyond the expected good special effects that establish the crumbling, depopulated New York City. Three years after the plague, the streets are already choked with weeds; Central Park is like an African Veldt. Scientist Robert Neville (Smith) hunts for wild deer in the concrete canyons, occasionally running into a pride of lions, presumed zoo escapees enjoying the abundance of venison. Neville is accompanied by his pet dog Sam, a clear nod to The Road Warrior but also a good way of explaining why he hasn't gone crazy in the loneliness of the dead world. Neville talks to mannequins and to himself, but is able to maintain his research routine thanks to his relationship with the dog.
Unfortunately I Am Legend is a prisoner of the commercial need to provide constant action. Neville stalks deer for sport and, in what amounts to a fancy Ford commercial, rips through town behind the wheel of a hot red Mustang. So much of interest happens that Neville should be having a good time -- we certainly are. Apocalyptic isolation is a movie commonplace these days. For sheer mood I Am Legend can't match 1959's The World, The Flesh and The Devil. That early End-of-the-World movie also envisioned a handsome black man as the last human alive in New York. Harry Belafonte wanders alone in the empty streets pulling a child's wagon, singing to himself. We feel the full weight of his solitude. By contrast, Will Smith's situation is almost a wish-fulfillment fantasy.
In this movie the zombies are called "infecteds", or "Darkseekers". Neville is operating a mad lab in his basement, trying out plague antidotes on crazed zombie rats. They're scary enough not to be funny, or the scene would become a Tim Burton parody. Neville conducts experiments on captive infecteds, as do the researchers in George Romero's Day of the Dead. Because every idea in I Am Legend has been exploited in zombie movies going back to Romero's original Night of the Living Dead, I Am Legend spends a lot of time spinning its wheels on overly familiar ground.
Like the Vincent Price movie, I Am Legend uses flashbacks to spell out how Neville ended up the last man on earth. The film's most spectacular scenes show Manhattan being quarantined. Jets knock down the bridges and the tunnels are mined. Army doctor Neville evacuates his family but stays behind "at ground zero" to work on a cure: "I can fix this". Outside the flashback format, Neville looks at old videotapes celebrating a cure for cancer. Emma Thompson appears in a cameo announcing the breakthrough, which unfortunately results in the unexpected side effect. The cancer serum changes people into ghoulish Darkseekers, hairless creatures with translucent skin that die if exposed to sunlight.
The excellent vistas of a ruined New York are achieved with computer effects and digital matte paintings. But all of the CGI character animation looks exactly like what it is ... obvious animated figures imposed on the live action. The deer look fairly good, mainly because they're mostly blurs as they leap and bound through acres of abandoned cars. The lions seem pasted into their scenes. The Darkseekers have more problems. The filmmakers abandoned live-action zombies in makeup for CGI- enhanced motion capture animations. They're very well done, but they don't mesh with the realism of the rest of the film. They attack in hordes and can tear their way through masonry and heavy wooden flooring. They can also climb on ceilings. I guess the fact that they're cancer-free is meant to motivate their super strength and spider-like agility. In the extras, we're told that the Darkseeker's motion-capture actions were enhanced, made more violent. That may be what makes them seem fake. Their sharp movements have more in common with cartoon characters than physical beings operating under the laws of gravity and inertia. They look like fugitives from a video game.
In other words, whenever the Darkseekers are around, Will Smith still seems to be alone on the screen. It's a matter of clashing stylistics. (spoiler) When Neville's dog turns vicious, the shot is almost funny -- it's much too exaggerated, like the Tex Avery cartoon dog transformation in Jim Carrey's comedy-effects movie The Mask.
At least some of the infecteds are very smart. Like a mirror image of Neville, the Alpha Male Darkseeker uses zombie dogs and rigs a deadfall trap identical to Neville's. If they're that intelligent, we wonder how Neville is keeping his address a secret. We know he spreads some substance on his doorstep to throw the dogs off his scent. But zombie dogs should at least be able to track Neville to the right street.
The script jumps the rails when Robert Neville deals with the plague mutants directly. He doesn't actively try to kill them until later in the picture, and he never becomes the dedicated vampire hunter of Matheson's novel. The theatrical version attempts a bogus clash between the issues of science and faith based on the prejudiced assumption that a scientist will by definition not believe in God. An idea that could give a genre action film a leg up on a greater significance, is never developed. Will Smith is given plenty of room to build a characterization, an effort that works within limits. But the last-act introduction of a pair of additional survivors is too little drama, too late. Anna (Alice Braga) and her son both arrive and are gone so quickly that we hardly get a chance to know them (see below for a discussion of the Alternate Version of the film).
(spoilers) The movie's finish resorts to the kind of forced melodrama that didn't work in shows like The Day of the Triffids. Nevlille finds his anti-serum in the middle of a zombie attack. We're left with an unearned message of faith: a pocket of survivors exists because Anna believes they exist. Nobody's saying that the movie needs to be faithful to Richard Matheson's relentlessly pessimistic original novel. I Am Legend proves the theory that exciting beginnings for doomsday stories are easy, but satisfactory endings are rare.
Warner's I Am Legend was a shining box office success, and their Ultimate Blu-ray Collector's Edition gives it a classy presentation in a fancy oversized gift box suitable for display. About the size of a cigar box only longer, the package opens up to reveal a glossy softbound souvenir picture book of the movie (30 pages). A Lucite "lenticular" image display block shows Will Smith in action against a zombie. Inside an envelope are six glossy art cards showing artist's renderings of ruined world capitols (Utter devastation! Collect 'em all, kids!) A folding card & plastic holder contains the three discs. Disc one has the feature and extras, disc two an Alternate Version and more extras, and Disc three is a Digital Copy of the film, which is incompatible with Macs or IPods.
The main feature contains a commentary by the filmmakers Francis Lawrence and Akiva Goldsman, but their presence is also heavily felt on all the extras. Instead of a single docu the Making of Gallery has a couple of dozen topic-specific short featurette pieces replete with on-set footage. Several effects pieces show a gallery of finished scenes and then reveal the means by which they were achieved (without mentioning the artists involved).
Also included are four animated comic stories (in HD) much more dark and grim than the film itself. The first is a lyrical ode to a suicide and the others have a violent, sick Sin City bent. Although they come with a disclaimer; child psychologists would probably not be happy to see these things on a PG-13 presentation. Trailers are included as well.
Prominent among the extras is A Cautionary Tale: the Science of I Am Legend (HD), a rather alarming piece about the threat of epidemics and pandemics. Doctors and researchers describe the lowly virus as an alive/inert monster at least as threatening as The Andromeda Strain and capable of limitless adaptation. After documenting a number of historic epidemics (many of them recent, like the Bird Flu and AIDS) the speakers go on to suggest that the genetic manipulation of viruses and microbes to effect medical cures might easily create a plague as suggested in Richard Matheson's novella. The docu is suspect only in that it makes things seem so scary that the only rational response would be to shut down a goodly chunk of medical research. The polished show has terrific microphotography scenes in HD.
Disc two contains a real revelation, an Alternate Version of I Am Legend that takes the last act in a completely new -- and more satisfying -- direction. (This is all a spoiler, by the way) Neville and his new companions spend a few additional moments together. But starting with Neville's confrontation with the Alpha Male Darkseeker (who threatens to bash down the Plexiglas wall) the movie is completely different. The Darkseekers finally become something like human characters again, engaging with Neville in a way that softens my objection above about clashing visual styles. The movie also resolves itself in a more hopeful fashion -- without the "miraculous" coda of the theatrical cut. That this version wasn't approved is a shame; somebody probably decided that the movie needed to be more nihilistic and end with a bang. If you haven't seen the movie I recommend watching the Alternate Version first.
The Deleted Scenes show that a much more elaborate Neville / Anna relationship was filmed. Apparently opting to wrap things up quickly, the filmmakers stripped away more than half of the scenes with Anna and her little boy (too bad, Señhora Braga). The trio spends the whole day exploring Fifth Avenue and is well on the way to becoming a real family. Anna's religious response to the plague is more developed; she no longer reveals her belief in God's Plan all in one frenzied argument.
We can see where this material would put I Am Legend in jeopardy with Warners' Box Office Plan, as it would indeed delay the zombie action for twenty minutes. But without it the final film's commitment to the characters is greatly diminished. Hopefully someone will eventually return to this film and assemble an even longer version.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
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