The third official adaptation of Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend is by far the best of the lot, thanks in no small part to Will Smith’s performance as Robert Neville, but the film suffered from a weak third act and an unconvincing denouement that too obviously revealed the heavy hand of Hollywood post-production tampering. It was no secret that the conclusion underwent a last-minute alteration, leaving fans to hope that the original version would surface on DVD. It has, on Warner Brothers’ Two-Disc Special Edition DVD, which offers both the theatrical cut and an alternate cut with an additional scene and the original ending. Unfortunately, this new version fails to take the film that final step toward the greatness that it fell just short of reaching.
Smith’s thoroughly believeable portrait – of a solitary man surviving in a world where the rest of the population has been reduced to night-lurking monsters – goes a long way toward turning this action-horror film into an in-depth character study. Although the film supplies the expected gunfire, explosions, and car stunts, Smith never turns Neville into an invulnerable action hero. He perfectly registers a combination of distress, despair, and fear (when confronting the Dark Seekers in their lair) that captures the borderline mental breakdown of a character coping without human companionship, whose only friend is a dog (one of the screen’s most memorable canines).
In fact, I AM LEGEND provides such an excellent show case for a virtual one-man performance, and Smith rises to the challenge so well, that the film borders on genre classic status. Sadly, the story starts to fall apart when it is revealed that the “Last Man on Earth” is not alone, and the initial intensity of horror dissipates in the light of day – or rather, in the neon glow of the computer-generated imagery that provides the unconvincing “Dark Seekers.”
Most of the flaws stem from the ill-advised decision to base I AM LEGEND as much on 1971’s THE OMEGA MAN as on Matheson’s novel. The original story was a clever attempt to craft a science-fiction version of the vampire legend, in which the hero spent much of his time sifting fact from fiction, determining exactly how much these blood-drinkers truly resembled the creatures of folklore. THE LAST MAN ON EARTH, the first film version of the book, retained this plot element, but OMEGA MAN substituted biological warfare that resulted in mutant humans who shunned the sunlight.
Like OMEGA MAN, I AM LEGEND features a man-made plague; although in this case it is a cure for cancer gone wrong, rather than a deliberate weapon, the result is more or less the same: live people stricken with plague, rather than an undead menace. This set-up leaves open the possibility of a cure, which forms the focus of Neville’s quest. The plot then becomes an effort to set things right, to return to normalcy, whereas the book dealt with the far more disturbing concept that the entire definition of “normal” had been irrevocably changed, and that there would be no going back. Not that a film should ever be obligated to hew strictly to the original text, but in this case, the effort to twist the story toward an upbeat ending undermines the concept, leaving us in no doubt that we are in Hollywood blockbuster land, where happy endings must happen, no matter what.
This finale takes the form of a weakly realized religious character arc, in which Neville goes from cynicism to faith, thanks some contrived “signs” that fall into conveniently place (as in the M. Night Shyamalan film). I AM LEGEND does not descend to the heavy-handed imagery of OMEGA MAN (which ended with Charlton Heston adopting a crucifixion pose), but the religious symbolism is almost as obvious.
I AM LEGEND is hardly helped by the cartoony computerized imagery used to realize the “Dark Seekers.” They look like really well rendered videogame monsters that we would enjoy picking off one by one in a first-person shooter game, but they are easily most frightening when briefly glimpsed in the dark. Once fully revealed, their digital origins are too obvious, deleting any vestige of lost humanity and undermining the script’s implication that these things can be restored to what they once were.
This results in the unintentionally funny moment when the Dark Seekers invade Neville’s lab at the climax, and Neville pleads, “Let me help you” whle the lead monster batters his head repeatedly against a glass door, obviously long past wanting or benefiting from any help.
Rather than solving this problem, the alternate cut aggravates it. After the sequence of Neville reciting lines from SHREK, there is an additional sequence (titled “Icy Inspiration” on the DVD), wherein Neville takes Anna and Ethan outside and shows them where he received his leg injury. Realizing the Dark Seekers laid a trap for Neville, Anna suggest they may be evolving, but Neville insists that they have no higher brain function and are incapable of planning or laying a trap or loving or hating.
Clearly, Neville doth protest too much, and his dialogue is obviously setting up his later change of heart. However, the scene renders Neville’s later appeal to “Let me help you” as even more absurd than in the theatrical cut. Why, we wonder, is he even trying to communicate with beings who he believes are incapable of understanding anything?
This leads to the alternate ending, in which Neville realizes his error, unhooks the female Dark Seeker he has been curing, and returns her to her mate. Here the script attempts to reimagine elements from Matheson’s novel, in which Neville finally realized that the vampires considered him to be the monster, because he had been ruthlessly killing their loves ones. (In the book, Neville was deliberately eradicating the vampires; in the film, his experiments inevitably kill his test subjects.)
However, the intent is undermined by the CGI. The monsters look like monsters, and the sudden attempt to humanize them is comical: they are simply too inhuman and savage to believe that any kind of truce can be reached with them. The unintentional humor strikes again when the monster and his mate tenderly reunite, and we cut to a close-up reaction shot of Smith raising his eyebrows (in a manner that would have done Mr. Spock proud), perfectly mirroring the incredulity of the audience.
The “prisoner exchange” is also slightly nonsensical: if the cure works on the test subject, she will become human again and be victimized by her fellow “Dark Seekers.” The film attempts to fudge this with a brief glimpse of her deathly pallor returning, as if the cure has been reversed, but it is not at all clear that Neville knows this or cares.
Having come to terms with the Dark Seekers (and presumably having given up his obsessive compulsion to find a cure for them), Neville joins Anna and Ethan on their trip out of Manhattan to join other human survivors – an ending almost as hokey as the theatrical version. The implication seems to be that Neville’s faith has been restored because he realizes the Dark Seekers do not want to be cured – hardly the most inspiring thought one can image, and yet we are supposed to accept this as a “happy ending,” even though it leaves the (presumed)remnants of humanity sharing the planet with savage monsters that out-number them 1000-to-1.
This ending also omits any explanation of the title. In the book, Neville was destined to become a legend in the new society of vampires, who would regard him with the same awe and fear that we hold for monsters. In the theatrical cut of the film, Neville’s sacrifice – and the cure he discovered – would make him a legend among the new generation of humans to repopulate the Earth.
The primary interest of this alternate ending is that it shows another sign of the film’s evolution away from the novel and toward THE OMEGA MAN. It reveals that the original intent of I AM LEGEND’s script was to at least echo the book’s twist of perspective, in which the hero realizes that the monsters he has been killing are the new majority, with as much right to live as he. The theatrical ending deletes this idea (as it was deleted in OMEGA MAN) and replaces it with the martyred hero whose blood contains the cure that will save the world. There is a certain melodramatic grandeur in the idea, but it comes nowhere near the power of the existential despair Matheson achieved to awesome effect in his novel.
One final note: It is interesting that I AM LEGEND exonerates the military from any culpability in the plague the wipes out mankind, resting the blame squarely on well-meaning but misguided medical science. Matheson’s novel had the plague of vampirism spreading on clouds of dust that resulted from a nuclear war. Even OMEGA MAN laid the blame at an exchange of biological/chemical weapons between the U.S. and China. I AM LEGEND, however, points the finger at a medical doctor’s attempt to cure cancer with a mutated measles virus. Why the eagerness to point the finger at health instead of warfare? Perhaps an answer lies in the DVD bonus features, which emphasize the tremendous cooperation the film received from the military.
Warner Brothers’ Two-Disc Special Edition DVD offers the Theatrical Version on Disc One and the Alternate Version on Disc Two. Both versions are divided into 27 chapters, which are identically entitled until the alternate version inserts an extra chapter (called “Icy Inspiration” because Neville gets the idea that lowering his test subject’s body temperature may improve his experiment’s chance for success) at Chapter 21.
After Chapter 21, the alternate version picks up with Chapter 22, “Marley’s Namesake” (which is Chapter 21 in the Theatrical Cut) and continues to follow the Theatrical Cut through the chapter entitled “I Can Save You” (Chapter 24 in the Theatrical Cut, Chapter 25 in the Alternate Cut). The Alternate Cut then omits the Theatrical version’s Chapters 25 and 26 (“Exit Strategy” and “His Legend”). In their place, is Chapter 26, “Reunion and Revelation.” The Alternate Cut’s final scene – of Neville, Anna, and Ethan driving out of the city – is included as part of Chapter 27, which contains the closing credits in both versions.
DVD BONUS FEATURES
Apparently, this double DVD is Warner Brother’s trial balloon for moving into the world of digital downloads and copying. Bonus features available for your DVD players are limited to four animated comics. The other bonus features are accessible only through the DVD-Rom drive in your computer. (Beware: This is one of those DVDs that self-starts via its own software application when you insert it into your drive. If you want to use your computer’s DVD-playing software, you must shut down the automatic application; otherwise, you will get a message incorrectly informing you that no DVD is in your drive.)
The “Animated Comics” are little vignettes, mostly unresolved, showing the impact of the virus around the world
- “Death as a Gift” – set in Hong Kong – is a lyrical visual poem of someone who gives up in despair.
- “Isolation” is an ill-conceived bit about an anti-social terrorist who escapes from prison to find himself in a world overrun by Dark Seekers.
- “Sacrificing the Few for the Many” has some random bloodshed at a medical camp in Central America.
- “Shelter” – set in India and written by Orson Scott Card – is the only episode to tell much of a story, about a girl whose farewell to her boyfriend prevents her from reaching the family shelter in time to avoid the plague.
DVD-ROM BONUS FEATURES
Both discs contains bonus features accessible only through the DVD-Rom drive on your computer. On Disc Two, the feature is clearly identified on the menu visible when watching the disc in your DVD player. Disc One is less clear; if you do not look closely, you might not realize there is reason to pull the disc out of your player and put it in your computer.
On Disc One, there are two featurettes that you can launch by clicking on links that open Windows Media Player: “Cautionary Tales: The Science of I AM LEGEND” and “Creating I AM LEGEND.” The video quality is good but no match for a full-screen DVD resolution, and you will have to wait for the video to download onto your computer – which can eat up too much time when going through the multi-chapter “Creating I AM LEGEND.”
CAUTIONARY TALES: The Science of I Am Legend
This featurette makes a token effort at suggesting the film’ s portrayal of virology is scientifically accurate, at least in terms of Smith’s performance as a virologist. However, this is mostly a mini-documentary featuring alarmist interviews from real scientists about epidemics and dealing with them. There are a few clips of Smith, screenwriter Akiva Goldsman, and director Francis Lawerence discussing the virus in movie, but 90% of the interviews are with virologists.
CREATING I AM LEGEND
- “Closing Down Fifth Avenue” deals with advantages and difficulties of shooting in New York – the impact of seeing the city empty, for example.
- “The Creatures Break In” does not tell us much about creatures, except that they are “Dark Seekers,” not vampires.
- “The Story” details developing script from Richard Matheson’s novel.
- “The Joy Ride Jump” shows stunt double Randolph LeRoi working with Shelby Mustang for early driving scene.
- “Will in the Driver’s Seat” includes interviews with stunt coordinator Vic Armstrong, discussing the Go-Mobile, which was attached to side of the Mustang, allowing the stunt driver to control the car while Smith appeared to be driving.
- “Canine Co-Star” has animal coordinator Steve Berrens explaining how he trained three dogs to do the action, mostly with a lead dog named Abby. The dog fight was achieved with CGI, but the wounded dog was portrayed with safe makeup, which the dog could lick without getting sick.
- In “NCY Gone Back to Nature,” director Francis Lawrence explains that he wanted New York city to look abandoned and neglected, with grass growing back, rather than looking destroyed.
- “Robert Neville’s Psychology” tells us that the character’s routine is what helps keep him from falling apart.
- In “Quiet Imagination,” Smith discusses acting in a role where he has little opportunity for dialogue and/or interaction with other human characters.
- “Evacuation, Part 1: Family Convoy” gives a behind-the-scenes glimpse of the evacuation sequence. Vic Armstrong says thirteen cameras were used to film the background plates, which were used behind actors in scenes filmed later.
- In “Neville’s Weapons,” weapons expert Samuel Glen explains that the military provides everything except weapons, because real weapons are too dangerous to use on set. The production opted for a gun that looked big enough to have some stopping power but was reasonably sized so that the character could carry it all day long without growing exhausted. Smith had to modify his approach to weapons because safety protocols were not necessary in a world without other people who might be accidentally hurt.
- “That Scary Place Inside All of Us” has Smith and Goldsman analyzing Neville’s mentality when the audience first meets him, after he has been alone for many years.
- In “Shooting on the Intrepid,” Francis Lawrence discusses Neville’s need for some kind of entertainment to break the tedium of his day, leading to the concept of knocking golf balls off the U.S.S. Intrepid.
- “Building the Pier” deals with coordinating the construction of a pier for the evacuation scene, which was shot during cold winter weather to contrast with the majority of the film, set during summer.
- “Evacuation, Part 2: Military Cooperation” reveals the extent to which the National Guard was used both as on-camera extras and as off-camera crowd control during location shooting.
- In “Will’s Physical Training,” Smith tells us he stays in shape, so it takes only two or three weeks to prep for film. Smith’s trainer discusses the potential problems of over-training, which can affect the actor’s performance.
- “Creating the Dark Seekers” has Goldsman, Matheson, and Smith discussing the change from vampires (in Matheson’s novel) to the infected characters in the movie adaptation. After a few days of second-unit shooting, the decision was made to abandon prosthetics in favor of compute-generated monsters.
- In “Evacuation, Part 3: Choppers,” weapons coordinator Samuel Glen enumerates the various real helicopters, military and civilian, used in the sequence.
- “The Conflicts of Isolation” has Goldsman and Smith discussing Neville’s state of mind, resulting from thinking of himself as the last man on Earth.
- In “Trusting the Unknown,” Goldsman and actress Alice Braga discuss her character, which represents the hope that Neville no longer has.
- “Will Smith in Action” offers a brief portrait of Smith as a nice guy eager to sign autographs for fans on location.
Disc Two, which contains the Alternate Cut of the film, offers a DVD-Rom special feature that allows you to make a digital copy of the film on your hard drive. This is not a download, but you must log on to the Internet to input a code that unlocks DVD for copying. This copy can then be loaded onto portable video devices.