Richard Matheson's 1954 novel "I Am Legend" has, along with its subsequent film adaptations, left a continuing influence on various sub-genres of horror and science fiction, including the vampire and zombie genres. The protagonist, Robert Neville, finds himself to be the last healthy man left in Los Angeles after the population is almost entirely wiped out by a pandemic viral outbreak. The other survivors have contracted a disease with the symptoms of vampirism, leading them to stalk the streets at night in search of fresh blood. Over time and after much research, Neville sets out to find a medical cure for the disease. First adapted to screen in 1964 as an Italian co-production called "The Last Man on Earth" and then in 1971 as "The Omega Man," "I Am Legend" has intrigued generations of readers and viewers with its musings on loneliness and implications about the disintegration of modern society. It is not surprising, then, that it should be adapted to screen again in the 21st century, as we continue to question where technology will lead us.
For their new adaptation, director Francis Lawrence and writers Mark Protosevich and Akiva Goldsman have relocated the story from Los Angeles to New York City, taking advantage of the jarring effect of seeing the "city that never sleeps" completely deserted and inevitably recalling memories of 9/11 with the city's devastated condition. Will Smith takes on the role of Robert Neville, previously played by Vincent Price and Charlton Heston, bringing to it a more athletic, muscular physique and contemporary attitude. This film opens with a doctor (an uncredited Emma Thompson) revealing that she has discovered a way of curing cancer by injecting a known virus that is treatable into the patient's bloodstream and allowing it to take control over the cancer. Cut to three years later, and the population seems to have vanished. Obviously, something went wrong.
At this point, Neville takes over as the movie's focus, first seen hunting deer running loose through the streets of New York. Accompanied by his loyal dog, Neville has constructed a secure living space that keeps him safe from the infected survivors outside during the night while he continues to search for a cure in his basement laboratory. Through flashbacks and a conveniently placed magazine cutout on his refrigerator door, we learn that Neville is a scientist who was brought in to help find a cure when the epidemic first broke out, and he has not allowed years of failure to deter him from his goal. What he does not count on, however, is that the infected people, who have heretofore reverted to a primal form of existence, seem to be evolving into a more sophisticated and cunning species, going so far as to set a trap for him.
The intent with this remake initially seems sincere enough. From the film's opening with Emma Thompson to the mesmerizing early shots of New York City devoid of life, this appears to be an intelligent, frighteningly timely reworking of the original story. Unfortunately, it begins to fall apart shortly thereafter, never quite establishing a consistent thread or tone to follow. Relying on a series of sporadic jump moments early on that do more to break the growing tension than add to it, Lawrence seems torn between developing a thoughtful narrative structure and pandering to young, impatient viewers.
Character development suffers greatly throughout. For all of Smith's teary-eyed, Oscar-baity emoting, Neville never registers as a very interesting character. Even in flashback scenes in which he heroically sends his wife and daughter to safety outside New York while he stays behind to fulfill his duty, he comes across as a generically stoic character with little personality. The fault here lies mainly in Protosevich and Goldsman's screenplay, which gives Smith nothing substantial to work with. Some later scenes in which he encounters a female survivor (Alice Braga) bring promise but fail to deliver on it as even they are never explored as much as they could be. The relationship between the two characters becomes superficially romantic rather than intimate and complex.
Another problem is the depiction of the infected. Whereas Matheson's novel painted them as modern-day vampires, the filmmakers have attempted to make their condition more plausible. Unfortunately, it is never really clear what they their condition truly is or what it causes them to do. They are averse to light, and they prey after humans, but whether they eat their flesh or drink their blood remain unexplained. To make matters worse, the CGI effects used to create these ambiguous monsters do nothing to aid their depiction. In fact, the CGI only serves to make them cartoonish. With translucent skin, seemingly jawless mouths, superhuman speed, and the agility of marionettes, these creatures' bodies and movements are too alien to have ever been human to begin with. As a result, it is impossible to develop the sympathy or fear the story requires for these characters. Ideally, we should be invested in how science and technology have reduced human beings to emotionless, ravenous animals, but they are reduced even further in this movie to standard horror film bogeymen.
Outside of the visual effects, the film is good-looking. The relocation to New York was a good idea, and the sight of Times Square, complete with billboard advertisements for Broadway musicals "Hairspray" and "Wicked," overrun with long blades of grass and abandoned cars, is effective (if not as disturbing as the chillier vision of a deserted New York in Ronald MacDougall's similarly themed 1959 film "The World, the Flesh and the Devil"). But beneath the polished surface, the film never reaches the emotional or intellectual level that the premise demands. There is much to admire about the movie, but it is hard to admire the movie as a whole because it does not come together cohesively. There are some good points, but there are too many ineffectual aspects that keep "I Am Legend" from being the sophisticated film it was clearly meant to be.
Warner Home Video has re-released "I Am Legend" in an Ultimate Collector's Edition in 1080p high definition on Blu-ray. Although I did not see it, I have gathered that the transfer used for this new edition is exactly the same as the one used for Warner's first Blu-ray release. It is an absolutely beautiful image, crisp and sharp and stunningly detailed. Colors are vibrant (check out the early scene of Smith driving a bright red Mustang), and skin tones are natural. Exterior shots, particularly those featuring New York's skyline in the back, display extraordinary depth. This is truly an excellent image, perfect for showing off the marvels of high definition.
Audio is available in English TrueHD and Dolby Digital 5.1 tracks. The TrueHD track is another winner, packing a punch in the action scenes with heavy, aggressive sounds that bring the film to life. Dialogue and music are clear and well presented, and the subtle effects, such as crickets chirping and birds in the distance, contribute to the atmosphere. I have no complaints about the sound at all.
This new collector's edition boasts three discs. The first contains the theatrical version of the film as well as a new audio commentary featuring director Francis Lawrence and co-writer/co-producer Akiva Goldsman. The two offer a steady stream of information and anecdotes, but their conversation is a bit on the dull side and will probably only appeal to major fans of this movie.
Also on Disc 1 is "Cautionary Tale: The Science of I Am Legend," an interesting featurette that lasts roughly 21 minutes and features a group of scientists and researchers discussing how plausible the virus in the film is. I don't buy it completely, but these people seem earnest. This supplement is presented in high definition.
A series of featurettes under the title "Creating I Am Legend" and collectively lasting 52 minutes are largely unsatisfying, offering a bit of background and discussion on topics ranging from visual effects to the casting and then ending just as the information starts to get good. Interviews with the cast and crew as well as Richard Matheson are included.
A somewhat pointless "Focus Points" option is included, allowing you to access previously mentioned featurettes during relevant scenes during the movie.
Four animated comics, together lasting 22 minutes, are presented in HD. These are all interesting, if varyingly so, and they tell separate stories of the film's viral outbreak occurring in different parts of the world.
Finally, a trailer wraps up Disc 1.
On Disc 2, an alternate version of the film is included, lasting four minutes longer than the theatrical release (this version was also included on the previous Blu-ray release). The main difference between this and the other version is the ending. The new ending is quite baffling, actually, and does not work nearly as well as the theatrical one (and that's not saying much).
Also on Disc 2 is the 26-minute "The Making of I Am Legend." This extra is rather perplexing in that it is the only one not available in anamorphic widescreen and is comprised of many of the same interviews that were featured in the "Creating I Am Legend" featurettes on Disc 1. Most of the information here is literally repeated from the previous featurettes, so I do not understand why it is here at all.
"I Am Legend: The Making of Shots" is a 26-minute look at various special effects and complex shots, including the creation of the monsters (for lack of a better word) and the opening hunt through Times Square.
Finally, 12 deleted scenes are offered with optional commentary by Lawrence and Goldsman. The scenes collectively last 20 minutes.
With a third disc, Warner continues Hollywood's unendingly annoying trend of including a digital copy of the film (the theatrical version).
As if digital extras were not enough, Warner has packaged this edition in a large box with some attractive memorabilia. Included are a 44-page book with concept art, six cards featuring different locations devastated by the film's plague, and a collectible lenticular. For those who like this sort of thing, they should be very happy. I, personally, am not a fan of collectible memorabilia (dust collectors, as I call them), but I'm sure some people will find use for this stuff.
While Richard Matheson's novel is a classic that stands the test of time, this film adaptation will likely not have a lasting impact and will probably be forgotten altogether when another (inevitable) adaptation comes about. The filmmakers concentrated too much on capturing the look of the story to completely understand the heart of it, and "I Am Legend" stands as a nice-looking but empty film that is high on jolts but short on emotion, horror, and interest.