I Am Legend Blu-ray Review
PictureWarner brings I Am Legend into the hi-def world with a 1080p image stretched across a gloriously wide 2.40:1 aspect. Encoded via VC-1, the picture is, to my eyes, slightly disappointing. Firstly, the image just doesn't look as sharp as I expected it to. The film incorporates so many pure eye-candy shots of the deserted Manhattan that you just expect the frame to reveal endless detail upon detail as we look down upon Neville's Mustang roaring up the street, or along the overgrown sidewalks - yet the picture remains slightly soft with regards to such finite revelations as windows, junked cars, street signs, billboards etc. Oh, you can still see such things, of course ... but this just doesn't possess much of that crystal pop that a brand new movie should exhibit aplenty. The three-dimensionality that I loved so much from the cinema print does not present itself here, with many of the stand-out (literally stand-out) moments remaining surprisingly flat. I'm talking here about Neville and Sam on the wing of the fighter; Neville standing on the roof of the car as Sam chases the deer; the great aerial view of the bridges going up; the charging Seekers on the pier and swarming towards Neville's brownstone at the end; and the image of the leering leader of the infected as seen through the splintering toughened-glass in the lab. But what does stand out, before you think I'm going to continually slate this transfer (because I'm not doing that at all, folks), are individual shots that do achieve it, albeit fleetingly. Imagery like Neville's face coming into close-up as he screeches to a halt at the roadblock during the deer hunt, or hanging upside-down with beads of blood and sweat dripping off his head can seem to project from the screen with the depth that we know a good 1080p transfer can bestow. But the picture still doesn't look quite as highly defined as I'd hoped.
Ok, so this softer look compromises some detail, I feel, but there are still lots of interesting visual flourishes dotted about the frame that I hadn't picked up on until now - such as the poster for The Green Lantern on the wall outside the DVD store and, more acutely, the smoking body for one of the other Seekers that had taken the plunge out of the window into the sunlight alongside Neville. Strangely enough, during subsequent viewings at the flicks, I even looked for evidence of the other two infected that fall alongside Smith and the baddie who is nibbling on his shoulder, yet could find none besides the main head-banger framed foreground, front and centre. Now, over to the extreme left, you can finally see remains of another. But comparing some shots with the SD edition, which I also have - images such as Neville and Sam stalking through the long grass near the start and the tattered and torn fur on a bloodied Sam later on, for examples - reveal almost as much detail and definition as the Blu-ray ... which is why I can't get so excited over this transfer.
Although contrast is excellent, I don't think that the blacks here are as deep as they ought to be. Whilst the night-time evacuation scenes feature robust blacks and smoothly saturated dark midnight blues, the sequence with Neville entering The Dark Building drops the ball with shadows that just aren't thick enough. At the flicks this scene was incredible and was something that I was really looking forward to seeing in hi-def, but the impenetrable gloom now seems several shades lighter and the impact of Neville's torch loses some of its potent white glare as it cuts through. Also the shadows that the alpha-male steps out of to unleash his dogs drift a little more towards the grey side.
But, one of the big pluses is that colours are terrific. The bright red of the Mustang ignites the frame, the greens of the grass swallowing Times Square, the no-man's land of a shaft of sunlight during the dog-attack, the black-and-tan shading of Sam, the hazy light that engulfs the home Neville is searching and the tins of food in the cupboard - the disc does well with its extensive palette across the board. The flames of Neville's ring-of-fire defence system during the last act have a fiercely orange glow and the blue sky behind him as he plays golf off the wing of a jet on the USS Intrepid has a realistic sheen of late summer sunlight. The film has this summery outlook throughout, but it is not a necessarily brighter image than required. The hue is sort of dry and stifling, diffused with yellow which, of course, seems to tie into the less-than-healthy appearance of the infected. A shot in the Alternate cut shows the infection seeping under the almost-translucent skin of a body and this re-colouration looks fine. Flesh-tones are very good for the humans too and facially you can certainly see every pore on Smith's face during tight close-ups.
Naturally the print is impeccable with only a microscopic hint of grain. Digital gremlins have been kept in check too, with no problematic edge enhancement, smearing, noise or artefacts creeping into the picture. So, although there is much to commend this image, I still don't think that I Am Legend looks anywhere near as astonishingly crisp and sharp as a big new 1080p blockbuster should. There may be moments of razzle-dazzle now and again but, somehow, I expected more from this.
I should add that people who watched this disc with me thought the image was incredible in the main, although agreed that it was softer than they'd come to expect from Blu-ray.
SoundAt the flicks, I Am Legend proved to have an expansive and detailed sound design that could be amazingly quiet and reflective at times, yet utterly devoted to all-out aggression at others, the space in-between filled with suitable end of the world ambience. It was, indeed, a terrific mix. And, thankfully, Warner has kept this quality and, in many ways - dependent upon your home system, of course - have actually improved upon it as the TrueHD 5.1 track sounds cleaner, sharper and features a more precise sense of placement and steerage.
Newton Howard's score has real weight and depth, sweeping in from the speakers with warmth and clarity, his keening strings maintaining a gloriously ethereal quality and his use of percussion rumbling beneath you with an immensity that provides a truly epic tone for the film. Listen to the cue as the title I Am Legend appears onscreen. Both Francis Lawrence and James Newton Howard like to use sudden jolting “stingers” and the TrueHD mix delivers these with epic strength and vigour, literally catapulting sound at you. Other effects in this vein, such as the sudden roar of the pouncing lion, the lunge of the deer to kick-start the stampede, the Dark Seeker snarling as Neville's torch-beam illuminates it are brilliantly presented. But then you have the severely deep crunching impacts as infected noggins pound and pummel the 4x4 or the toughened glass wall of the lab. And the wonderful moment when the mined defensive perimeter goes explosively molten is sure crowd-pleaser. The original version's grenade going off was never a particularly bombastic incident - downplayed stylistically in favour of the score - so that is not an error of the mix for the original theatrical cut.
The sporadic gunfire is wonderfully punchy and breath-snatching, barking savagely through the air. The moment when poor Fred gets strafed and Neville then takes maddened pot-shots at the surrounding high-rises is nicely tracked around the soundscape, each shot loud and capped with a concrete-bouncing echo. Shots within Neville's house and the explosion of the gas bottle are superb because they don't just roar for the sake of it - the design is altered to take in the enclosed space and the wrenching apart of fixtures and fittings as well, making the bombast louder yet more contained. But smaller things are well represented too. Such as the inescapable chinnng! as each foot-snatching trap is sprung, or the alarm on his watch. Listen out for the off-camera Dark Seeker attack on the deer which rushes in from behind you and, of course, the golf ball that scoots over your shoulder to break a windscreen at the back there. The hellish moans and shrieks from the infected as Neville and Sam huddle down in the bath are chillingly evoked, as are the sounds of their reinforcements after the ring of fire mines go off. The swooping rotors of a helicopter spinning out of control are deliciously swept across the soundscape, too.
Dialogue is excellently reproduced as well, even Smith's cringe-worthy singing for Anna. But a tremendous example of how well produced the mix is comes right after the flashback nightmare of the big evacuation of New York that reveals what happened to Neville's wife and daughter. After some awesome all-speaker aural chaos, the sound suddenly evaporates instantly into pure silence as Neville wakes up - the transition from cacophony to quiet is powerfully achieved without any sonic residue lingering about to spoil the effect.
The DD 5.1 track is actually very good as well, with aggressive bass and superb steerage around the set-up, but it lacks the naturalism of the TrueHD and the warmth of the mid-range. However, both tracks are fully immersive and enjoyable.
ExtrasWell, it is a shame that we don't get to hear a commentary from Lawrence and Smith about what went into the production. Both are enthusiastic and opinionated and I think it would have been an entertaining and amusing listen. And, for such a big title, this does seem slightly remiss, particularly when they could have given the reasons for the two distinct cuts of the movie.
Ahh, well ... let's focus on what is available then.
First up is a lengthy scientific documentary studying the causes, symptoms, characteristics and frighteningly plausible threat that real-life viruses pose to Mankind. Called Cautionary Tale: The Science of I Am Legend (in HD), this is an assortment of specialists in the field participate and discuss the effects and gravity of such microscopic organisms and their potential for havoc. We see images of infections on human flesh, and we see virus cells close up and personal and learn how they thrive and invade. It is certainly grim stuff and it is cleverly tied-in with the film as we see Will Smith, Goldsman and Lawrence as they talk about their intensive research into such things. The recent BD for the sub-par Kidman/Craig collaboration The Invasion featured a documentary that was very similar in tone to this, but this one is much better and far more accessible and is also much relevant to the film itself. Sobering, then, but worth looking at.
Then we come to the main meat of the extras - a large number of mini-featurettes taking us behind the scenes of the movie in bite-sized chunks that can be accessed individually or, best of all, with a Play All option. Taking as one, these featurettes run for around fifty minutes. To be honest, I would have preferred this to be just one making of documentary. The numerous interviews and on-set footage have obviously all been culled from the same extensive film, so it just seems like pandering to the ADD crowd to have it sliced into convenient segments that can't help but break the flow even when the Play All has been instigated.
However, as far as these things go, this is definitely one of the better examples. All the cast and the crew appear before the cameras to have their say about the production in either set-aside interviews or actually on the set, and it is extremely nice to see and hear from Richard Matheson, himself, as he supplies some brief opinions on this new adaptation of his work. The fly-on-the-wall approach has us eavesdropping on scenes being filmed, stunts being arranged, bustling NY streets emptied and set-dressed and Will Smith entertaining the crowds of onlookers. Particularly interesting (well, just nice for a German Shepherd fan like me to see) was the section on how Abby the dog was trained to play Sam, but there are also fascinating snippets and pieces on how the National Guard and the Coast Guard loaned vehicles, aircraft and men for the film and the thought that went into the use of the specialised weapons for Neville. We get to meet Smith's personal trainer (who also played one of the Rangers helping to get Neville's wife and daughter out of the city) and he talks us through the surprisingly punishing fitness regime that the star had to undertake in order to look ripped and lean yet still convey the fact that his character wasn't always able to eat the right things or get a good night's sleep.
A fair bit of time is spent with Alice Braga who discusses how she created a back-story for Anna and got so into character that she wept on-camera on her first day of shooting. Incidentally, the scene that sparks her off is alluded to several times and we even see it being filmed, yet it doesn't actually appear in either version of the movie! The kid who plays Ethan has a fair bit to say, which is odd considering that we only hear his voice once in the film and that is only in the Alternate cut. More cut scenes involving him and Smith are glimpsed too. Check out the stuffed stunt-dog in the passenger seat of the Mustang during one sequence that we see getting prepped and filmed and the curious use of an actor in mannequin-makeup ... hmmm?
Whilst a very entertaining gallery of featurettes, this potted making-of still leaves the whole two-endings situation unexplained. It is not hard to work out - test audiences simply (and erroneously) preferred the one that played in the cinematic outing the most - but it would have been good to have heard the chop and change discussed. The “butterfly” motif was obviously in place all along but it would have interesting to learn about its subsequent modification. Nor do we hear how Smith feels about his daughter appearing in the film, although check out the little puppy (the younger Sam) in-between takes as Smith pretends that it has bleeped-out on his jacket. All together now ... ahhhhh. I want one!
The set of animated comics are a very nifty and very atmospheric touch that I, for one, totally applaud. Entitled “Death As A Gift”, “Isolation”, “Sacrificing The Few For The Many” and “Shelter” and presented in HD, their style is strange and heightened - these are not cartoons. What the animators have done is take lusciously painted panels and supplied isolated movement to solitary aspects within them, such as a hand writing across a page or bullet-wounds appearing on chests or heads. It is striking and lends itself to a much more artful sensibility. Yet, flying in the face of this unusual approach are the stories themselves, which are relentlessly grim. Only lasting around five or six minutes at their longest, the four tales here reveal the outbreak of the virus as it occurs around the world. We see blighted, nightmarish depictions of Hong Kong, an isolated American prison, a South American village under quarantine and, in the best and most savage tale, Shelter, a New Delhi almost entirely overwhelmed by the infected. The style and bravura approach is certainly not that which propels the movie, though, and this quartet is much more akin to the 28 Days and 28 Weeks Later look and mood. Even the scores for these macabre vignettes are dark and melancholy. A good effort.
No commentary, no deleted scenes, but I Am Legend is still decently catered-for. However, I wouldn't mind betting that another release will be spun out sometime down the line with even more on it.
VerdictWhichever cut you opt for, this version of the oft-filmed, oft-discussed story only seems to add more fuel for debate. But, in many ways, this is a great and healthy thing for the genre that spawned it. Without a doubt, new people have now sought out Matheson's book as well as the previous filmic interpretations and Francis Lawrence's spin still leaves ample ground for more glimpses into the now-mythical Robert Neville's post-Apocalyptic world. His two cuts offer differing finales and it is the beautiful sense of symmetry developed with the Alternate version that truly makes it stand above the more familiar (and, if you ask me, thoroughly lousy) one he originally signed the film off with.
Thoughtful, resonant and highly atmospheric, I Am Legend now seems more intelligent and crafty than it did first time around. Smith's carefully modulated character-study more complete and satisfying in the Alternate cut and somehow bestowing the saga a more dramatic and, thankfully, ambiguous denouement than the totally false and saccharine-stuffed climax of the original take. They call it shocking in the blurb, but the new ending is more intelligent than that and brings this contemporary adaptation to a fitting finale that even Richard Matheson would appreciate (with some, ahem, reservations).
Warner's BD release packs some fantastic audio onto an image that I feel doesn't quite do justice to the print I saw several times at the flicks. But, in all fairness, you will find little to complain about here. Two versions of the same film, one ruined by its ending, the other benefiting from it. You choose.
But this won't be the last interpretation of Richard Matheson's seminal story, I'm sure.
It gets a very solid 8 out of 10. Well recommended.
Suggested retail price when reviewed: £22.31
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