I Am Legend Review
Loneliness is a killer. Life without intimacy and companionship is hardly worth the effort, and the latest attempt to adapt Richard Matheson's book to the big screen is keen to show you what you might do if your physical survival led to isolation from peers, the communion of friends, and the kindness of others. To get us feeling empathy with the situation, we are given the man we'd all like to be, Mr Will Smith, to identify with as the last remnant of humanity. We get to see the Fresh Prince getting a little bit narky, looking a bit gray around the chops, and emotionally attached to a German Shepherd in ways that no grown man should be.
Clearly to have this normally irrepressible and cheeky chappy starting to loop the loop, normalises the fact that he is losing his grip - this is no psycho, but an everyman pushed beyond endurance. His Robert Neville is an army virologist whose obsession to reverse the pandemic that has laid ruin to the world we know is all that he has left. He tries to deal with the grief he feels for his family, and not even his carefully orchestrated routines of pretend interaction can keep him from his singular madness. In the wasteland of New York, Neville has tried to build a fortress and a laboratory to find out why the virus hasn't taken him, and to use the answer to bring him back the companionship he craves. Neville's vivisection means he needs new subjects to practise on, and he sets a trap for one of the zombified creatures born out of the husks of mankind. His bait yields a specimen and he can runs his tests on, but he is soon living with the consequences of his hunting as his own tricks catch him out, and the supposedly loveless zombies become hell-bent on recovering his "guinea pig".
Any political subtext to this tale is decidedly anodyne and the careful product placement shows that even in a world of no money and only one consumer, there are still consumer durables and lifestyle accessories to be advertised. In fact, it's almost as if the worst thing about Neville's fate is that he can't watch live TV again. No matter how much the story requires emotional depth or offers the opportunity to take risks, essentially this film has nothing more to say than loneliness makes you crazy, and isn't death sad. Furthermore, the back-story places the blame for the pandemic on pioneering and smug English scientist, Emma Thompson, for trying to cure cancer and mess with the established order of things - just how reactionary is that?
The direction of the film is occasionally surprising and I am glad to say that the use of long takes is heartening when other blockbusters sacrifice shot duration for a particularly low opinion of audience attentiveness. Still, even this relative contrary technique is undercut by a lack of confidence in letting the viewer experience the boredom and the dissociation, and, with Will Smith as the lead, the film never allows the audience to question their sympathies. My biggest beef with the film is the endless stream of CGI which undermines the beauty of the natural world and the bestial nature of the darkseekers. My least favourite use of CGI in modern films is to capture images of deer, see Ecoute Le Temps, Tell No One and Antibodies for examples, and here the supposedly admirable, natural and symbolic animals are animated in a way to rob them of their beauty and presence. Similarly, the darkseekers are computed and this is particularly bizarre given the central comparisons drawn to their humanity by the arc of the story - the shared emptiness of hunter and hunted is rather undermined when one is the charismatic Smith and the other is a collection of poorly integrated pixels.
And this lack of humanity in the film's look is rather crucial given this being the story of the last man on earth. The film suffers from an unwillingness to take risks in terms of its violence, its politics and its handling of the persona of its leading actor. Sure, Smith is a bit cranky and almost suicidal but it's all kept within careful and conservative parameters - he looks cool, he's a good man and he must survive like in every film in his career. The anger and depression are more of a stretch than throwing one-liners about whilst saving the universe, but Smith can do much more than this, and as an actor he could really grow if his image as a "good guy" slips a little. Go on, if Henry Fonda and Jimmy Stewart could play villains so can you.
With two rampantly different endings, it is not surprising that I am Legend seems so equivocal and so lacking in a perspective of its own. From my point of view this seems to be a case of commercial necessity rather than timidity. The film wants to please those who are frightened of scientific change but don't want to see the violence of dystopia, and it wants to keep the hip kids who like a bit of Reggae and want some horror. In the final reckoning, the movie wants to please more than it should, and it loses all integrity because of its pandering to the many. This is a shame because this could have been a tale that was either genuinely moving or viscerally scary, but here it tries too hard to be all things to all men.
Once you pop the disc in your player, you are prompted to choose the theatrical or the alternate cut of the film to watch. Do yourself a favour and choose the alternate cut for a much more sensible and intelligent ending, the other ending requires the belief that the zombie/vampires are poor misunderstood creatures who are looking to turn over a new leaf - kinda Dracula, Prince of Social Work. Once playing you can choose the in motion menu and it will offer you the chance in the special features menu to choose the other cut of the film, as well as the choice between audio tracks. The transfer is so good that the CGI I complained about will irritate the crap out of you as its fakeness becomes more and more evident. If you are watching on a large screen you will marvel at the detail and clarity of this transfer, the locations will look ever more impressive and the management of colour and contrast are perfect. This transfer is the kind that you will show off to your mates when they ask you "what's all this I hear about Blu ray then?".
The audio options come in Dolby 5.1 and True HD. The surround mixes on both tracks are quite excellent and give the listener a wonderful immersive experience which enables the spookier moments to creep you out and the action sequences to be seriously intense. The spread of the effects, music and voices is three dimensional with the soundtrack mix following changes in camera angles instantly. The original True HD mix is truly powerful with the bass popping and surging with explosions and crashes, and it improves on the impact of the fine 5.1 track along with greater clarity as well.
The supplements on the disc include a science featurette dealing with viruses and virologists. It should have been called "All you wanted to know about the pox but were afraid to ask", but it is interesting enough and tries to convince the viewer that this film was well researched and bang on scientifically. Cast and crew interviews alternate with virus experts, and I dare you not to be scratching after seeing the various pictures of wounds and infections by the end of it. Creating I am Legend is a collection of over 20 mini featurettes capturing the film's shooting, production and casting. We get to see how the New York Locations were used, how the CGI was prepared for and to appreciate what a darned nice man Will Smith is. Smith always acts as if the camera is on him and his unstoppable personability charms everyone, but sometimes I just want him to be a little disrespectful or unpleasant just to prove he isn't CGI too. I know, I know, I am a bad misanthropic man!
The above extras are standard definition and the remaining cartoons are actually fully HD. The four cartoons are inspired by the pandemic and they are based in Hong Kong, India and the US. Quality varies, as does style, and sometimes there are just too many ideas for a 5 minute story, but these extras are very welcome in exploring territory that the main feature was a little too loathe to do.
The film is a mixed bag and seems motivated as a cash in on the success of 28 Days Later but with less art and guts than that film. I don't expect all zombie films to be gut munching epics with political overtones, still I am Legend would have been far more satisfying if it had been a little less cautious and tasteful. This Blu Ray is a marvel in terms of transfer and if you do appreciate the film more than me, this may be a safe purchase.