I Am Legend: Special Edition (2 Discs) Review
I don't think that those left alive in a post-apocalyptic environment show quite the imagination that I might in a similar situation. Much like those who claim that a lottery win would not change them whereas I would be eating tenners with ketchup, wearing haute couture ballgowns and using top-of-the-range JCBs to tow vats of strawberry Angel Delight through city centres at rush hour, I can't help but feel that Will Smith wasted his time alone in New York. I can guarantee that were I the only survivor in a future New York, priceless works of art would be hanging in my apartment, I would be keeping a room solely for the mountain of cocaine within and a dozen or so secondhand-but-thoroughly-disinfected sex mannequins would be keeping my bed warm.
I would have a fleet of expensive Italian sports cars lined up outside my house, three of which I would have crashed in the first week on the makeshift race track I would have built using a stolen bulldozer. I would also have more weaponry than many a paramilitary organisation, even to having surface-to-air missiles in amongst the jars of chopped tomatoes and beer kegs. Fewer and fewer buildings would be left standing with every passing week. I would have a beard that ZZ Top would be envious of and would, with nothing and no one but deer around, spend each day wearing nothing but a pair of hiking boots. If it's not possible to get an all over tan in a post-apocalyptic New York, when could you?
All of which would, zombies or not, would make for a very much more entertaining film than I Am Legend. Starring Will Smith as Robert Neville, this follows the last survivor of a biological plague in a New York not so very far into the future. In the years between now and then, scientists celebrated the curing of cancer as doctors sought to eradicate the illness by using a modified measles virus. Unfortunately, this mutated following exposure to the rabies virus and, in a matter of months, humankind have been all but wiped out. Neville is the only survivor. The bridges in an out of Manhattan are destroyed, grass has grown out over the roads and wild deer run through the streets. He plays a recorded message each morning on all AM frequencies, pleading with any other survivors to meet him at the waterfront in New York. But with every day that passes, he realises just how alone he is. No one comes and, before sunset, he returns home, spraying the steps with bleach before closing the blinds, locking the doors and sleeping with a gun in his arms until sunrise.
Why he does this soon becomes clear. As the sun sets, the infected come out. The mutated virus, though it killed most of the human population, left many millions as creatures hungry for blood and for flesh. Each night, Neville retreats into his home on seeing the sun set on the horizon and hearing the howls of the infected. But Neville feels some responsibility for what happened. Immune from the illness, he continues experimenting on disease-ridden rats and humans, using his own blood as a basis on which to develop a cure. When he traps one particular creature, once a young woman but who is now as feral as the others, he finds that his own snares are being turned on him. The sun is setting and Neville is out on the streets, bleeding from a head wound and very far from home.
Inasmuch as it's possible to sum I Am Legend up in two paragraphs, it's only because it is a film of two very distinct parts. The first half is of Robert Neville feeling very much on his own. He and his dog Sam drive through deserted streets searching for food. They give chase to a herd of deer in a bright red Ford Mustang, only backing away when the deer escape into the subway or, later in the film, when one they've been tracking is taken instead by a pride of lions. Without human company, Neville places shop mannequins in a video rental store and, though its very much a one-way conversation, makes small talk with the behind-the-counter clerk as a way to pass the time. This is a life built on routine, of rising with the sun, of being at the waterfront by midday and returning home before sunset.
The second half of the film describes what happens when Neville breaks this routine. It's not his own fault, more that I Am Legend feels the need to break with the tension of the first forty-five minutes and requires that he follow Sam into a rundown building in which a nest of the bloodthirsty creatures live. This scene is the standout moment in the film when, having only heard noises and howling before, we watch Neville make his way through a building only by the light from a gun-mounted torch. The bloody deer that Neville followed into the building is seen at the corner of the screen but even more unsettling are the creatures standing in a huddle, from which Neville must back away without making a noise.
Unfortunately, the film never quite recovers after that. So long as I Am Legend is content to keep its infected as a mindless and savage threat, it works well, far more so than did 28 Days Later with its oft-repeated notions of rage being a disease. The pity about I Am Legend is that it seeks to add personality to these monsters, even to having one stand out from the pack and showing some signs of intelligence. This Alpha Male (Dash Mihok) as the end credits bill him, uses Neville's own traps against him, is dominant over other monsters and even restrains three zombie dogs on leashes. One suspects that there might be some conflict over any eradication of this threat given that Alpha Male presents evidence of independent thinking but that's not this kind of film, more than a blockbuster such as this needs a decent villain. Only that Alpha Male isn't particularly memorable. Indeed, he's a good deal less so than the deserted streets of the first half of the film.
Early tests using actors to portray the infected were, it is said, unconvincing. Computer generated humans were used instead with their movements based on the motion capture of actors. There are good and bad points to this. Certainly, in watching the film, it's hard to see how any actor would have been physically able to portray the physiological changes that the infected undergo. Any actor breathing as fast and as rapidly as do the CG creatures would probably have passed out long before the scene was completed. However, in the scenes where we see them attack, there's an obvious artificiality to them, particularly in the manner in which they climb, run and attack. No actor may be able to breathe as do the infected but neither can any of the creatures move as would an actual human. And no creature, infected or not, can bounce themselves off glass repeatedly without so much as a cut as these monsters do here.
There are still highlights in this second half of the film. There is a very good moment when Smith, who's fairly tested as an actor in I Am Legend comes near to flirting with a shop dummy but a better one when he narrates both parts of a conversation between Shrek and Donkey on his television in something of a daze. Oddly for what it is, no one moment conveys his loneliness as this. But for that, it is the conflict between Neville and the Alpha Male infected that drags I Am Legend down. The Alternate Edit of the film included on this two-disc set goes some way to explaining why it is so personal between the two but the Theatrical Cut does nothing of the sort, simply leaving the Alpha Male as a member of the infected but with some notion of humanity. Unfortunately, Will Smith does such a fine job of portraying what might occur to one no longer surrounded by humanity that when the infected arrive, they are a poor substitute for his own loneliness.
That I've managed to take some reasonably clear screenshots with a computer as decrepit as mine is testament to the clarity of this transfer. Although there's a slight softness to the picture when it's obvious that a certain amount of CG trickery has been used to wipe moving vehicles, people and other signs of life out of the post-apocalyptic city, the picture, particularly in its more intimate moments with Smith and Sam the dog alone in his apartment, is clean and clear. The colour is just as good, sometimes a little washed-out-looking but deliberately so given that much of the action takes place in the hours immediately after sundown. Still, almost as soon as one notices that, the film switches to a flashback and the bright searchlights of the evacuation of Manhattan.
The DD5.1 audio track is often just as good. Again, it's at its best early on in the film when the silence of the city and the minimal use of background music, save for a lot of Bob Marley, gives the film space to be heard across the front and rear speakers. As it is a highlight in the action, so too is Neville's tracking the deer into the rundown building on the soundtrack, with his panicking all the more obvious with every creak of the floorboards and his every snatched breath, all of which stands out. There are fewer moments that stand out later on in the film and fewer still as the infected attack, leaving those early moments as the highlight. Finally, there are a number of available subtitles including English.
As well as the aforementioned Alternate Edit of the film, which adds three minutes and one scene two-thirds of the way through the film as well as a new ending, this two disc set also includes four Animated Comics (21m40s) and a short feature on the real-life viruses that influenced I Am Legend. Without saying very much about the Alternate Edit as anything I could write would give away the ending of both versions of the film, there are a couple of gems within the Animated Comics, most notably Death As A Gift and Sacrificing The Few For The Many. Isolation and Shelter are less effective, largely because they're closer to the more preachy second half of I Am Legend than the first, whereas both Death As A Gift and Sacrificing The Few For The Many are not only beautifully animated but have a very quiet sense of the horrific about them.
The feature on viruses (19m48s) is actually very good and is something of a surprise given the usual standard of such nonsense that falls into a two-disc set. Virologists from various American universities explain the origins of HIV, how immunity was first discovered and how a number of named viruses act on the body. Unlike the actual film, what is included here does seem to have some basis in actual science and by explaining this with the assumption that its audience is both interested and somewhat intelligent, it makes for an interesting watch. There is also a digital download of the film available with a code included in the DVD set but in being some way behind the times in such matters, I've no idea what you're supposed to do with such a thing when you have it.