by Tony Dayoub
I Am Legend is the third time that a film is adapted from Richard Matheson's novel of the same name. The first adaptation was an obscure Italian B-movie, The Last Man on Earth, starring the great Vincent Price. The second was the cult classic The Omega Man starring Charlton Heston during his sci-fi period. Legend, starring Will Smith, is directed by the promising Francis Lawrence, an experienced music video director, making his second foray into films. His debut feature was Constantine, another genre adaptation - based on the Hellblazer graphic novel series.
In the film, Robert Neville (Smith) is the apparent sole survivor of a pandemic, caused by an unexpected mutation of a genetically engineered cure for cancer. He knows this well because he is a virologist involved in the creation of this mostly lethal cure. I say mostly because though it is fatal to most, a small percentage of people display vampiric symptoms. These vampires cannot survive in the daylight, feed on human plasma, and are reduced to mindless, primal behavior. During the day, Neville forages for food, searches for a cure, and simply tries to stay sane in the face of the overwhelming loneliness. At night, he holes up in his home, a bunker designed to keep the monstrous vampires away.
Give credit to Lawrence for finding ways to improve on the source material, and the previous films. For instance, while the original novel takes place in a future Los Angeles, the action here takes place in New York City. As evidenced in the earlier Heston remake, a deserted downtown LA is not so unusual. Just go downtown on any Sunday and you can see it for yourself. But it is very disconcerting to see "the city that never sleeps" devoid of life. This stillness contributes to the eerie atmosphere. Lawrence never has to resort to loud blockbuster-film action to entertain. The anxiety created by the silence is enough to create interest.
The character of Neville is likable, but riddled with eccentricities stemming from his long solitude. And he is tragically at fault for much of the circumstances he finds himself in. Smith is able to pull this quirky, guilt-ridden performance off, never falling into his usual cute or charming mode. Instead, he trusts his natural affability to shine through his shaded portrayal of Neville, creating a multi-layered performance.
Now, the ending could use some work. Without revealing it, I can say that there is a plot point that never seems to be addressed by the ending. Throughout the film, there are allusions that the vampires are more than what they seem. This plot point speaks to that, but is left dangling by the theatrical version's ending. The DVD version (available on Two-Disc Special Edition, Blu-Ray and HD-DVD since last week) includes an alternate version with an ending that remedies this. I'm not entirely sure that ending is successful either, but at least it feels organic to the rest of the film.
The DVD is disappointing in its lack of special features. This movie practically screams for documentaries concerning how the film was shot on location while seemingly getting New York City to shut down for filming. I want to know how they did it. Don't you? I also want to hear why the monsters in the film are CGI. I'm sure there were valid reasons, but overall the effect is rather distracting. Surely Warner Home Video could have made some room for these features. I don't think it was necessary to include an entire alternate cut to the film when a simple deleted scenes feature would have been sufficient.
I have a feeling that we will get a more complete DVD edition including these features in the future. It's unfortunate that they had to rush this release without them.
Still provided courtesy of Warner Home Entertainment.