Robert Neville is a brilliant scientist, but even he could not contain the terrible virus that was unstoppable, incurable, and man-made. Somehow immune, Neville is now the last human survivor in what is left of New York City and maybe the world. For three years, Neville has faithfully sent out daily radio messages, desperate to find any other survivors who might be out there. But he is not alone. Mutant victims of the plague -- The Infected -- lurk in the shadows... watching Neville's every move... waiting for him to make a fatal mistake. Perhaps mankind's last, best hope, Neville is driven by only one remaining mission: to find a way to reverse the effects of the virus using his own immune blood. But he knows he is outnumbered... and quickly running out of time.
Now more than ever, book adaptations have become prime source material for films in today's day and age. The older and more popular the book, the more adaptations and “reimaginings” we get. ‘I am Legend’ by Richard Matheson was an early adopter to this model of filmmaking being adapted to film, first in 1964 and twice after, though it was published in 1954. ‘The Last Man on Earth’ starring Vincent Price was the more straightforward horror version out of the three, and the one I have actually never had the pleasure of seeing (someday soon). 'The Omega Man' (1971) was a favorite of mine in my teenage years and introduced me to the general concept of 'I Am Legend.’ I found its concept fascinating, with its dystopian future and only one man left sane in a world infected by a virus that has driven everyone else insane. I mean, who doesn’t like the idea of Charlton Heston being our everyman trapped in a world of insanity. Hell, he did it just three years earlier to even greater success in 'Planet of The Apes.’ I still do like this adaptation quite a bit, knocking a few points off just because of it detours off its source material. Diverting from the source material will be a common theme in this review, and my overall feeling of the next adaptation that had to wait thirty-six years to be adapted yet again.
'I Am Legend' came out in 2007 and traded in its grizzled leading man for a more hip, clean-cut one with Will Smith as Robert Neville. It is amusing to look at what both actors bring to the same role. Heston being more stoic and subdued, Smith bringing more personality and flavor with his usual "Big Willy-isms" that have become a staple for him, but require him to have the charisma fans of his work have come to love about him. Neville is a scientist that believes he is the only survivor in a worldwide extinction of the human race because of a virus brought on by a supposed "cure" for cancer that Neville helped create. It has been one thousand days since the outbreak, with his only friend his daughter's (Willow Smith) dog Sam. Neville has set up New York's Manhattan as his playground, setting up mannequins around the city to give him the impression that he isn't so alone, and spends his days with Sam hunting the uninfected wildlife that scour the city for food. I am not a fan of when Smith reaches for that Oscar by taking on the most melodramatic of roles, but find him to be at the top of his game here, bringing truckloads of charisma and optimism to his performance that I find to be quite endearing. The sense of loneliness is crippling and I feel bad for such a likable guy to be in such a desolate and lonely place, and immediately empathize with his character, while I also kind of envy his relationship with Sam the German Shepherd.
Besides how the outbreak is spread (in Heston's version, it is a nuclear bomb), there is another key element that separates the previous films from this version, and that is the who is infected by the virus. Instead of a tribe of insane people who are driven mad and are out to kill our protagonist, or just straight up zombies, we have an amalgam of the two here known as the "Darkseekers.” These half man, half zombie mutations only seem to come out at night, infecting anything they bite besides Neville, who seems to be immune. But Neville is a scientist and an optimist, so he has set up a lab to test Darkseekers he catches, hoping to one day cure them so that he won't be so alone. The way that you feel about this change in the narrative can ultimately come down to which scenario you prefer. Are you the type to be more engaged when your protagonist is at odds with a foil that is more human and maybe can even outsmart him? Or can you turn off your brain and go for a take on the material that has foils that are mindless animalistic creatures that act on instinct? I happen to fall directly in the middle, but I will say that 'I am Legend,' like its title, follows a little closer to the book.
That is, until the ending. I have never liked the ending to either film, but the ending of 'I am Legend’ particularly bothers me. It is the kind of ending where you just know the writers didn’t have any idea how to end the movie, so they filmed a couple of different endings, and this is the one that stuck, probably because it is the more traditional action movie ending. The entire first two thirds do so well with mood, setting, and atmosphere. And then the last third divulges itself to clichés, sentimentality, and a half-baked idea of hope. This movie is at its best when it keeps itself simple and minimalistic like its source material, and when it goes for the big ending, it smacks of a lead actor who is image conscious to a fault and always needs that same safe ending by committee. For me that is an incredible shame because I otherwise prefer this modernized version of an old classic novel.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Fox brings 'I Am Legend’ to Ultra HD with the typical slip cover to hard case packaging. Inside is the traditional BD-66 Ultra HD Blu-ray, BD-50 Blu-ray, and Ultraviolet HD digital copy. There are no trailers before any main menu on any Ultra HD releases that I have seen, and this one is no different. I wish we could get more grandiose packaging for our premium 4K prices, but it seems like the only place to get that is the occasional Ultra HD Best Buy exclusive.
‘I Am Legend’ makes its 4K Ultra HD debut with an HEVC/H.265 encode that while pleasing to the eyes, does raise some questions. The original Blu-ray that was released in 2008 had a stellar transfer, so how do you live up to that same quality? How do you build upon something that was considered reference quality at the time? If you are asking those questions, you aren't going into this experience with the most open mind, and this might not be the 4K transfer you are looking for. Like most Ultra HD transfers, this is all about subtlety.
Before doing my research, I hadn't realized this film was actually mastered in 2K, but it shows here because this is an exceptionally clean and crisp transfer that is a staple of digital filming. Looking at the streets of Manhattan, with dilapidated buildings, grass growing out of the paved roads, and beautiful vast sunsets make it clear that director Francis Lawrence had a specific vision for his post apocalyptic landscape. We get even greater detail of this landscape in 4K here, with stronger detail: as Neville is hunting deer in tall grass, you see each individual blade of grass that does enhance the natural beauty that the beginning of this movie tends to focus on.
Now, this film has developed a bad reputation for having some subpar CG shots that come across a little soft. Knowing that 4K does tend to fix some issues with softer CG I was hoping to say this was the main advantage of this transfer. Unfortunately, that is not the case here. The CG doesn’t look worse by any means, but instead it looks identical to its blu-ray counterpart, and that is the greatest disappointment with this disc. The end of this movie does tend to be darker than the rest of the film, and that leads to some impressive HDR work with greater detail and deeper black levels in Neville's house for the final showdown. Overall this is the greater transfer of the two. We get a marginal bump of detail and deeper black levels with its HDR functionality. But as this is a newer format with a higher price point, I tend to want more out of my 4K transfers, which leads me to think this isn't a necessary addition to your Ultra HD collection and just one for 4K enthusiasts.
Warner Brothers cheaps out on Ultra HD Blu-ray by not upgrading to a Dolby Atmos/DTS-X track, and instead opts for a DTS-HD MA 5.1 mix. This is a curious choice to me because of the fact that the original Blu-ray had a Dolby TrueHD 5.1 track, so they did change the mix to a certain degree anyway. Why they didn’t go all the way with an Atmos track feels like laziness to me. But beyond that, they are lucky enough to have a mix that worked in 2008, and still works today.
Anyone who wants to demonstrate the dynamic range of their set up wouldn’t be going wrong with this disc. The silence of the Manhattan streets lead in for an impactful blow when Neville fires a round off of his assault rifle and it blasts through your subwoofer, out of your fronts, and ripples past your surrounds echoing past your soundfield. Certain animals survived the apocalypse, and you hear them in the distance, providing for a level of immersion that is rare for a film of this stature. This is what dynamic range is all about and it is on full display here.
Dialogue levels were the only problem for me, with the original Dolby TrueHD mix being way too soft so I had to turn up the volume a few notches. Apparently, I wasn’t the only one with that opinion because this DTS HD MA mix fixes that problem with generous vocal levels that make me not want to lean forward to hear the "Big Willy-isms.” I do have to knock this a little bit for not going the extra mile and providing us with a newly mixed Atmos track, but this is still a track worth having in your collection.
Commentary by Director Francis Lawrence and Producer – Screenwriter Akiva Goldsman – An interesting commentary that does a good job at getting you into the heads of the two creative minds. Instead of the usual post-apocalyptic atmosphere, they chose to create a landscape that implies that nature has taken over, and I think that comes across quite well in the final product. We have all heard this was a heavily edited film that was changed a great deal in post production, and they go in depth with that aspect as well.
Cautionary Tale: The Science Of 'I Am Legend' (20:41 HD) - Interested to hear about how real a virus scare actually is in today's culture? This is a mini documentary all about viruses and what makes them a perfect fit for a modern-day adaptation of Richard Matheson novel. The filmmakers took great measures to learn everything they could about the smallpox virus and how it could be rejuvenated.
Creating 'I Am Legend’ (51:58 HD) - New York is the city that never sleeps. So how often have you seen New York so desolate and deserted, and also full of nature than in this movie? They actually were able to shut down Times Square and St. Patrick's Cathedral for the filming of this film, and it is a beautiful image to see. A little fun fact that people might not realize is some of the mannequins in the DVD rental shop aren’t actually mannequins, they are real actors. So, when you see Frank the Mannequin, ya, that is a real person. They also go into depth about Smith’s physical training. They actually put him in deprivation tanks, and intense heat situations to give him that drained look like he has been in this situation for three years.
Animated Comics (21:50 HD) - A series of four motion comics that gives more detail about how the rest of the world was affected by the virus. The first is titled 'Death as A Gift' and it is set in Hong Kong. 'Isolation' is the second, set in a prison in Colorado. Third is 'Sacrificing the Few for the Many,' set somewhere in Central America. Lastly, 'Shelter’ is the fourth and is set in New Delhi, India. They all are interesting stories that expand upon this movies universe, but I have never been a fan of motion comics (as you can read in my Red Sonja review) and I feel like the production value stymies the narrative a bit.
'I Am Legend' takes full advantage of having great source material to draw from and two prior film adaptations to learn what worked and what didn’t. Director Francis Lawrence and Will Smith bring a striking visual style and a sympathetic and likable lead character. You feel lonely along with Neville through the movie because of Smith’s quality to pull you on his side. The end of this movie feels like it was tacked on at the last minute, and as a result hampers my overall feeling of the movie, feeling very stock and feeling out of tone from the rest of the film. With that being said, it is fascinating to look back at all three adaptations of Richard Matheson's novel. I feel like it would be a good lesson in a film class to see how these adaptations differ from each other but all still work in their own way. Like the majority of the whole 4K Ultra HD format, this is a release for enthusiasts, and people who can appreciate the small things. If this is going to be your first foray into 4K media, there are better discs out there that serve as the best that the format has to offer ('X-Men: Apocalypse,’ 'Pacific Rim,’ 'Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Out of the Shadows'). What we get here is a solid transfer for a solid movie that sells out at the end.