DVD Review: I Am Legend (Ultimate Collector's Edition)

Warner Brothers unleashes one virus I think fans of director Francis Lawrence's I Am Legend won't want to immunize themselves against with this revamped, re-engineered instantly contagious box set the size of Dr. Robert Neville's laptop computer.

Available in both DVD and Blu-ray, Warner Brothers was kind enough to send out an advanced copy of the DVD box set to review exclusively for Film Intuition readers. Beautifully packaged with that amazing original poster reminiscent image of Neville (Will Smith) walking down the lonely, haunting streets of post-virus Ground Zero New York City as soon as you flip open the package, you're greeted with a gorgeous 44-page illustrated concept sketch book featuring various NYC location drawings of before and after cinematic visualization.

With 6 collectible art cards and a lenticular of Smith in character-- aside from the packaged contents-- the box's most addictive offerings can be found on the three DVDs. Boasting new feature length commentary by Lawrence and his screenwriter/producer Akiva Goldsman, the first disc contains the theatrical version of the film shown in last winter but the disc that held the most interest for this reviewer was the second one.

Showcasing an alternate version of the movie, fans will finally be able to see it in its entirety with the controversial ending which hadn't made the final cut in 2007. And in fact, in providing us with these two feature length options, Warner Brothers answered a question and wish I'd posed in my original review, which I'll reprint below before investigating the rest of the Ultimate Collector's Edition.

I Am Legend
Director: Francis Lawrence
Original Publication Date: 2/9/08

In Cast Away it was Tom Hanks and Wilson the volleyball; in I Am Legend, we have Will Smith and a dog named Samantha. Both films deal with a similar problem of an isolated man trying desperately to get out of their surroundings, find help and discover another human being but in I Am Legend, it’s far deadlier.

Unlike Hanks, he isn’t cast away on an island; instead Smith’s military scientist Dr. Robert Neville is most likely the sole human survivor from a catastrophic biochemical plague-like disease that ravaged mankind three years earlier in 2009. The biochemically engineered treatment which Natasha Richardson explains in a brief opening clip took a radical approach to curing cancer by re-engineering measles and after thousands of people found their cancer vanishing, it was deemed a miracle… that is, until the brutal side effects were revealed which found those infected far more aggressive, shedding their hair in a chilling metamorphosis from man to a zombie-like beast without a trace of humanity. Moreover, they began destroying one another at such a rapid rate that the government quarantined New York to try and secure citizens.

Neville, who lost his wife and daughter proved to be immune to the disease and after civilization was wiped out, we catch up with him in 2012 as he goes about his days with his trusty canine sidekick Samantha, scouring through the city of Manhattan, hitting golf balls off docked military planes, renting DVDs in alphabetical order from the local movie store, transmitting over AM radio signals to try and contact any other survivors and mostly, trying to resist the increasingly aggressive human zombies who are deemed the “dark seekers” since they’re unable to withstand the UV rays. In the mean time, he works on a medical cure in his basement converted lab, experimenting on heavily restrained, captured dark seekers to unsuccessfully reverse their condition.

Undeniably grim but highly compelling thanks to the charismatic and heartbreaking portrayal by Smith who’s able to embody a wide range of emotions in a single scene with little to no dialogue, I Am Legend is the latest adaptation of the 1954 science fiction novel of the same name by writer Richard Matheson. While there are some definite logical problems that challenge the audience’s ability to suspend their already stretched disbelief even further, there are also some horrifying moments that had me baffled when I learned that not only was it only PG-13 but also available to horror fans as an IMAX experience.

Still, the film is far better than one would think although it admittedly suffers thanks to a rushed, uninspired, and contrived conclusion that ultimately leaves viewers who have felt caught up in the events dissatisfied. It was reported online late in the fall of 2007 that Smith was called back for reshoots to provide an alternate ending and one can only hope that both versions will be available on the DVD.

The Ultimate Collector's Edition

Needless to say, my wish was finally granted and after viewing the alternate ending (which film fans can also see here in our screening room along with a number of scenes), I'm still mixed on the conclusion and feel that perhaps a blending of the two options may have been the best bet. This is especially the case since both seem to lack the punch that the film had been packing up until that point.

With a digital copy of the feature film available through Windows Media only and unavailable for Apple Macintosh and iPod devices on the second disc, PC owners will be able to preserve the original theatrical version DVD from wear and tear and take it with them on road trips, should-- you kn0w-- they ever need to outrun a medical catastrophe.

With four unrated animated comics (which may be a bit too intense for younger viewers as is the film I always felt should've been "R" instead of "PG-13"), commentary available for the deleted scenes and more, all of the cinematic behind-the-scenes goodies are available on the third disc of Bonus Features.

Featuring one twenty minute documentary guaranteed to freak you out almost as much as the sight of Neville battling the zombie-like creatures is one of the best featurettes, Cautionary Tale: The Science of I Am Legend. While, like most of us, the smiling and good-natured Akiva Goldsman joked that although impressively the CDC (The Center for Disease Control and Prevention) opened its doors and Level Three up to the filmmakers including producer James Lassiter, director Francis Lawrence, and Will Smith, he steered clear of the labs. Yet, gamely the rest soldiered on to discover that shockingly, the events of the film aren't all that far-fetched. Premiering candid interviews with prominent scientists, researchers and medical doctors including one who shares that viruses are in fact the "most diverse form of life on the planet," the featurette offers an incredible glimpse at the world of scientific and virus research which those involved with Legend fully embraced in order to ensure their film was as authentic as possible.

Special effects and movie-magic junkies will eat up several "how did they do that?!" styled behind-the-scenes extras like Creating I Am Legend, I Am Legend: The Making of Shots, and The Making of I Am Legend. While the twenty-five minute Making of I Am Legend bonus feels a bit routine, I was truly blown away by both Creating I Am Legend and the Making of Shots featurettes which really helped paint both a visual and technical picture of just how exactly they managed to pull everything off to make what I feel is one of the most gripping prologues and stunning opening thirty minutes of contemporary movie-making in the last decade.

With "Will in the Driver's Seat"--although the actor humbly acknowledged he did about twenty percent of the actual driving-- we watch in awe as his vehicles are rigged to a "Go Mobile" a.k.a. a mini-car driven by a professional stunt driver who uses a separate steering wheel to literally take the A-list actor speeding down the streets and doing incredible spins. Again, it's this commitment to to step up the visuals from the lackluster and all-too-obvious blue or green screen or fast-moving backgrounds utilized in most movies that helped make the opener so incredible, which is augmented by another cool extra in the Making of Shots featurettes menu that shows us some of the most complicated scenes in the film first and then, like a magician revealing their tricks, explains exactly how they carried it out much to our delight and awe.

While some may not want to find out exactly who's behind the curtain of Oz pulling the strings and wish to just get lost in the effect, imagining that they cleared Times Square for the film, others will be amazed by the synergy of geometry, photography, and even botany involved to make it all sync together.

Above all, one of those rare science fiction or modern day dystopian horror movie cautionary tales that sincerely respects the intelligence of its audience-- while I Am Legend may not have caught on as much as Cloverfield did with certain horror buffs, those who like to be an active brainy participant in their cinematic experience (whether it's in this film or the overlooked yet flawed gem The Mist), will definitely want to check out the movie.

With an opening act that should be studied in Screenwriting 101 as its nearly silent film like feel and insistence on revealing clues through visual imagery such as blink-and-you-missed-it plot and character establishing devices like a Time Magazine cover on a refrigerator and more-- it's obvious on repeated viewings how the entire film would've collapsed if it weren't for its smart approach and even more vitally, the charismatic performance of Will Smith.

Like Tom Hanks in Cast Away or John Cusack in 1408, there are very few actors whom we can watch give a near one-man show and Smith-- always underrated in my opinion as he drifts easily from light humor to pathos to terror to the brink of insanity-- never makes a false step. The proof of his integrity is evident within just a few minutes of Legend as well as off-the-screen in 2008's follow-up Hancock, which again paired him with a few of his colleagues from Legend such as Goldsman and Lassiter.

Currently with an estimable price on Amazon of less than forty dollars, the set fits nicely within a fifty dollar holiday spending cap. And while those who already own the film may hesitate to move to a second purchase of the title (save for those venturing onto Blu-ray)-- for others such as myself who really wanted to evaluate the entire picture and explore the alternate version and marvel at the technical, scientific, and creative wizardry involved, the Ultimate Collector's Edition of Legend infects the public on Tuesday, December 9 (a.k.a. Dark Knight Day).