*/**** Image A+ Sound A+ Extras B
starring Will Smith, Alice Braga, Dash Mihok, Willow Smith
screenplay by Mark Protosevich and Akiva Goldsman, based on the novel by Richard Matheson
directed by Francis Lawrence
by Walter Chaw I, Robot with CGI versions of the rage zombies from the 28 movies, Will Smith's latest action joint (he alternates them with his family™ films) pummels another revered genre masterpiece, Richard Matheson's novella I Am Legend, into your typical, mainstream action chum. At least the fourth post-apocalyptic action picture this year (following Resident Evil: Extinction, 28 Weeks Later, and The Mist), this I Am Legend opens nonsensically, if awesomely, in an empty, overgrown Manhattan, as lone survivor Robert Neville (Smith) hunts gazelle with a tricked-out GT, a trained German Shepherd, and a high-powered rifle. Devotees of the source material will note immediate, stark differences from Matheson's amazingly affecting yarn--not the least of which the dog's change in role from tragic mendicant to action hero. (Rest assured that the canine's populist transformation mirrors Neville's own.) This Neville is a brilliant research scientist and stud alpha male at "Ground Zero" of a deadly plague brought on by a virus introduced by well-meaning scientists trying to cure cancer. Why said virus would result in legions of hairless, angry, incoherent acrobats is anyone's guess, but Neville dedicates himself post-Fall to endless conversations with his dog, working out, and discovering The Cure. Political allegory flies thick and furious, from calling NYC "Ground Zero" to the central suggestion that biological weapons could cause a lot of damage in a population centre; but I Am Legend is really just a dimwit's idea of science-fiction (see again I, Robot, another Akiva Goldsman-adapted piece of shit) that takes its high concept and uses it as an excuse for a lot of cool, expensive special effects.
Smith carries the film, needless to say, and he's great at being Will Smith: charming, energetic, resourceful-seeming, clean, and articulate, yes? Scenes where he carries on imaginary conversations with mannequins he's arrayed in a video store (he's up to the Gs in the DVD section) are probably impossible in a film like this without someone with the self-deprecating charm of a Will Smith (see, or better yet don't see, a similar stunt gone badly awry with Ryan Gosling in Lars and the Real Girl). But pulling it off is a lot different from fulfilling a need to do it in the first place: like juggling chainsaws, say, it's kind of a neat trick, but why the fuck are you doing it? Like The Pursuit of Happyness, I Am Legend marks the acting debut of a Smith offspring, Willow, leading me to suspect that the best way to get Smith to star in your movie is to promise a key, tearjerking role for one of his spawn.
None of this explains how it is that Neville has a TiVo full of pre-apocalyptic "Today Show" episodes (and furthermore, if he's watching them to make himself feel better about society's collapse) or whether he parrots an entire dialogue from Shrek as an example of either his good memory or his extraordinarily bad taste. The whole film is about this ephemeral, worthless idea of "the nifty": that filmmaking philosophy that eschews a strong story with complex underpinnings and artistic aspirations in favour of a series of bullshit scenarios the only purpose of which is to demonstrate how clever everyone thinks they are. When push comes to shove (as in a particularly stupid sequence where three hell hounds go after Neville), the picture demonstrates that it has no real idea of how to conceptualize an action sequence beyond immediate, things-jumping-out-at-you peril.
I Am Legend is one great big stinking pile of missed opportunity. It's fun that it opens with Neville hunting game, but as it never shows Neville successfully bringing down a nice, juicy beef-alope despite, on the contrary, showing him scavenging and eating tons of canned goods in his luxury brownstone, well, what's the point of all that but to be nifty? It's interesting that good intentions result in the extinction of humanity, but beyond "interesting" there's simply nothing except a lot of weird religiosity from Neville pausing in prayer with his family pre-plague to an extended speech at the end wherein he denies the existence of God...just before accepting the existence of God. Pandering at best, at worst it's this sickeningly equivocal posture suspended, cowardly, halfway between espousing any particular viewpoint and doing its level best to give everybody a giant hard-on. It hates God! It loves God! Timely that the latest shootings in Colorado--the first just about two minutes down the street from me--involve a kid from a strict religious upbringing (I guess posting the Ten Commandments in the classroom doesn't do jack shit after all--why not the Beatitudes, asked Kurt Vonnegut) apparently testing some kids at a missionary school before opening fire in the same season The Golden Compass appears--in the same year that the best pictures (There Will Be Blood, No Country for Old Men, The Darjeeling Limited, Into the Wild) all seem to be rejecting organized religion for a little of that older variety. Sadly, predictably, I Am Legend isn't skeptical: it's an idiot caught in a lie and babbling away to the conviction of no one--a guilty, ill-bred child trying to get out of the lamplight. Not a great screen fate for one of the great short novels of the twentieth century, but I'm sure it's going to do gangbuster business. And the beat goes on. Originally published: December 14, 2007.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
by Bill Chambers Warner's Blu-ray release of I Am Legend not only consolidates all of the Two-Disc Special Edition DVD's material onto a single platter but also features another 71 minutes' worth of material exclusive to the format. Colour me theoretically impressed--the actual content leaves a little something to be desired. First, a word about the "alternate version" (AV) of the film that shares space with the theatrical cut (TC): it basically strips away the last vestiges of integrity that hung on from Richard Matheson's source novel by keeping Will Smith alive and erasing the title of even connotative meaning with a moral about love's imperishability. The frustrating thing is that the AV has the better, more ambiguous ending in terms of the closing shot (an open-road tableau inspired by any number of post-apocalyptic thrillers, including Romero's Dawn of the Dead)--but a sequence awkwardly restored to the middle of the picture further tips the scales in the TC's favour, as it breaks whatever melancholy spell the film has cast over the viewer with leaden exposition foreshadowing the new finale in which the BigBad explicitly comes for his bride. Ironically, much of the behind-the-scenes ephemera is devoted to documenting this previously-excised footage, shot in and around St. Patrick's Cathedral at great inconvenience to New Yorkers.
Both the AV and TC look phenomenal in HiDef. The 2.40:1, 1080p transfer is demo/reference quality from beginning to end, making the leap from IMAX to the small screen less precarious than you would think. I'll spare you the hyperbole, but HD newbies, especially, won't believe their eyes. The Dolby TrueHD track that decorates each incarnation of I Am Legend is likewise phenomenal, though a certain restraint means that the showcase moments are fewer and farther between. Extras begin with "Cautionary Tale: The Science of I Am Legend" (20 mins.), a sort of companion piece to The Invasion disc's pandemics primer. Interviewee Nathan Wolfe, a young, black virologist, obviously served as the model for Smith's character, retroactively rendering at least one dubious aspect of I Am Legend (i.e., Neville's youth) more palatable. "Creating I Am Legend" is a multi-part making-of that mostly deals with the logistics of faking martial law in New York. (Answer: repeat whatever worked for Spielberg's War of the Worlds.) The insufferable Akiva Goldsman glosses over his changes to the book in his soothing shrink voice but does attempt to rationalize the switch from prosthetic to CGI monsters mid-shoot. ("It looked like Attack of the Killer Mimes"--and from the one production still we get of the original Darkseekers, indeed it did. Not that the new creatures are a staggering improvement.) It is, I might add, time to change the title of the next Goldsman/Smith joint (Tonight, He Comes), pronto. Rounding out the platter is a batch of four interminable "Animated Comics" (22 mins. in toto and mastered in HD) depicting the fates of other plague survivors in different parts of the globe. Frankly, if I never see another one of these anime-influenced, comics-based tie-in gimmicks again, it'll be too soon; your mileage may vary. Originally published: March 18, 2008.