I Am Legend - Ultimate Collector's Edition Blu-ray Review
PictureWell, this new release brings both versions of the film to separate BD-50 discs with slightly boosted bit-rates. Quite how well this transfers to the look of the image is possibly only of minimal enhancement in real terms - but, after a quick comparison of both the Alternate Cut here and the one on the previous release, I did actually think that many of the street scenes - long roads filled with cars and tarpaulin-dressed buildings framing the screen - looked ever so slightly sharper. The thing is, I wasn't able to view the imagery side-by-side, so I really can't be certain if this was “actual” or just wishful thinking.
Thus, with this possible sharper rendering - someone with a large projection screen needs to step in here, I was watching on a 52-inch Sharp - the review I wrote back then really still stands.
And this is it ... with a couple more observations thrown in.
Warner 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, still slightly disappointing. Firstly, whilst the image may now look a little sharper, it is still not quite as sharp as I expected it to be. 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 quite as strongly 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.
Okay, 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 super-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 them. Also the shadows that the alpha-male steps out of to unleash his dogs drift a little more towards the grey side than the cinematic print managed.
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 is 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 and every knot of stubble on both his chin and his noggin 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. DNR is not an issue with this transfer either. But there are some other issues that detract from it, such as the often muddy impression left by the fast-action CG elements. Now, at the flicks, the effects looked fake and obvious - that, we all know - but I don't recall the image looking quite so “blocky” and ochre-tinted as it does here during several key infected-sequences. The shot of the massed Seekers scaling the wall of Neville's brownstone now looks blurred and indistinct, for example. Since I made copious notes about such things from my numerous trips to the cinema to see this film (for the very purpose of examining them later on disc) I know that this looks worse than it once did. So, although there is much detail to commend this image, I still don't think that I Am Legend looks quite 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 both the previous disc and this new higher bit-rate edition 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.
Often hailed as a reference transfer, I would still rate I Am Legend as an 8 out of 10 - going by how well it compares to both its cinema incarnation and even its initial SD disc. But that is still a very strong 8 out 10 and certainly a picture that offers much to delight in.
At 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 than that experienced in many cinemas.
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 on-screen. Both Francis Lawrence and James Newton Howard like to use sudden jolting “stingers” and the TrueHD mix delivers these with dependable strength and vigour, literally catapulting sound at you at many crucial moments. Some great effectss 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 suddenly roaring 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 as sure a crowd-pleaser as you could wish for. The original theatrical 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 that particular transfer.
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-off with a realistic 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 at the same time. But smaller things are well represented too. Such as the inescapable chinnng! as each foot-snatching trap is sprung, or the alarm on Neville's 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 of “I Shot The Sheriff” 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. Other notable sonic instances would be the smack of the deer as it clips the Mustang, the thick, underlying sound of the insects humming and buzzing incessantly during wilderness moments - evocative of an African plain and the sudden impact of an infected head against the passenger window of Neville's car in one of the flashbacks. The distance and enclosure of the mutant dogs before we see them is well positioned in the mix, too - and I like the way that Sam instinctively barks out her own warning to them ... Will Smith and we both jump when she does.
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 a sweeping mid-range. However, both tracks are fully immersive and enjoyable.
If I could award half points, I Am Legend would earn itself 9.5 out of 10 for its audio.
Three discs come our way this time, this new Ultimate Collector's Edition fleshing things out quite considerably from before. Finally, those elusive deleted scenes and that missing commentary track make their arrival, and with a third disc given over to a digital copy of the film (for use on PC, ipod etc), the roster of bonus material actually covers almost all bases.
Even if Will Smith is absent from the commentary track, we still get to hear from director and screenwriter - Francis Lawrence and Akiva Goldsman now airing their views and opinions about updating Matheson's novella and bringing in social and Post 9/11 resonances over the theatrical cut of the movie. Both are reasonably enthusiastic and opinionated and I think this is an entertaining listen but, you know what, it is still somewhat superficial. Yes, we hear lots about how good Smith is, how technical the NY vista recreations were, the logistics of closing off and filming in streets that would ordinarily be teeming with people and cars, about the metaphorical aspects of the story - but there is a lack of any of the meaty topics that went into this production and a sparsity of reflection upon the original book or the previous film adaptations. Plus, much of what we hear is covered in subsequent documentaries, so this hotly anticipated commentary is never the dissection that we had hoped for.
The Theatrical Cut also houses the 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. Earlier, and far more troubled movie, the sub-par Kidman/Craig collaboration The Invasion featured a documentary that was very similar in tone to this on its BD release, 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 on this disc - 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 52 minutes under the banner heading of Creating I Am Legend. 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 to be found in the Alternate cut. More cut scenes involving him and Smith are glimpsed too - and all of these can be explored in the Deleted Scenes section on Disc 2. 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 a real-life 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.
We also get much of the documentary material regurgitated into Focus Points vignettes that can be accessed whilst watching the film - the theatrical cut, that is.
Disc 2 houses the Alternate Cut of the film and more special features.
We get the rather bland and generic EPK-style “Making I Am Legend” feature (25 mins). This is just puff-pastry, folks, and you will learn nothing here that hasn't already been covered in much more detail elsewhere. Back-slapping fun and pure drip-dry, high-gloss stuff from the studio touting their wares.
Next up is “I Am Legend: The Making Of the Shots” (26 mins). Now this is actually quite intriguing, but as well as showing us quite revelatory behind-the-scenes footage of exactly how five key elements were brought to the screen, this also gives up a fair chunk of its own running to showing us the full sequences as we see them in the finished movie. We have a Play All Option and the selection is thus - Visual Effects Highlights, Alpha Male - looking at the creation of the mutants - Times Square Hunt - the matting-in of CG elements, vast blue-screen, photo-plates and real grass for Smith and dog to stalk through on a soundstage - Seaport Evacuation - the blending of crowds, choppers, planes and exploding bridges complete with debris, flames, waves and reflections - and the Alternate Ending. The visual effects people provide insight into what they attempted to achieve and the methods that they employed in a commentary over each segment. Interesting stuff, actually. Some of the the things I had taken to be real locations just CG-augmented, I find were complete mock-ups - which does, in fact, go to show just how good some of the backdrops and computer painting really is.
Then we get the Deleted Scenes - something that I had been immensely looking forward to seeing. Thankfully there are quite a few to get your teeth into, twelve in all, with a complete running time of around 20 mins. There is an optional commentary from Lawrence and Goldsman that explains what the essence and relevance of each was and why, ultimately, it was removed. Presented in 4080i MPEG-2, the majority of these scenes are character moments that build hugely on the background of Anna and Ethan and, yep, finally, we get to see that epic church sequence that Alice Braga went on about. It is good and there is even another scene set within it that reveals how Neville feels at the end of it all. But, as well as this, there is also a lot of meandering in New York and even a comical but tonally wrong shopping spree. You can clearly see why much of this cut out. It smacks of a writer and a director who literally came to a crossroads with where they wanted their film to go - neither version of the finished film could successfully support this stuff, despite such things as the trap the infected set for Neville being discussed and a few more “hows” and “wheres” about certain characters' survivals being expounded on. Still, it is definitely nice to see these elements that ended-up on the cutting room floor, although there is nothing that is particularly exciting.And, as well as the digital copy over on the third disc, we also get a few “physical” extras to spice up the deal. Inside the rather snazzy - and very well-produced box - you'll find a lavish 46-page conceptual artwork exposé. This beautiful portfolio has before and after shots of the blighted city of New York - before the plague and then three years after the outbreak, when we meet Robert Neville - some fantastic images of the infected and our heroes - man and dog - traipsing the urban wasteland.
Then we get the lenticular block that houses a terrific moving image of Neville charging the alpha male with the hand-grenade from the theatrical cut. Now, folks, I love this gimmick. I loved the one that came with the Blade Runner briefcase as well. In that particular case, I believe that there were six different images floating about. As far as I Am Legend is concerned, I haven't if there are variations. It's daft and pretty much pointless, I know, but it is also so damn cool.
Finally, in this little assortment , we get a series of Art Cards that depict views of several famous cities around the world after they have succumbed to the virus. Again, useless ... but neat, nonetheless.
Well, finally, we get the package that we should have had all along. But, to be honest, just how much of this will be considered worthwhile by anyone other than devout fans is debatable. The chat track is fine, but could have been a whole better - we should have had Will Smith in there for one thing. The documentary material is very good, but many of you will have already seen the best of this stuff before on the earlier release. The deleted scenes expand on the characters but seem horribly devoted to the final act and, when studied and put into context, would have thrown the movie into tonal disarray - plus we don't get much extra action. But the little book and added nick-knacks are fine by me. Strictly speaking, this new boxset is aimed squarely at collectors - just as it states in the title. Me, I'm very happy to have it. Lesser fans may, understandably, not be swayed.
Curiously, the spine of this substantial box actually states that it is DVD video, and not Blu-ray. Go figure. But it more than makes up for this with a glorious illustration of Neville and Sam picking their way through the overgrown Manhattan on the inside of the lid.
Whichever 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, more of an uncertain and 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 a little cleverer than that and brings this contemporary adaptation to a fitting finale that even Richard Matheson would appreciate (with some, ahem, reservations, I'm sure).
With rumours now circulating about another take at the story - amazingly enough, the talk is now of a fully-fledged sequel rather than a prequel - the saga doesn't seem like it is going to let go. As far as I am concerned, a version that shows Neville's early days as he fights off the hordes and literally becomes the last man left would be great, and definitely more action-based. But we will have to wait and see. And with so much flu doing the rounds at the moment, it is not so hard to imagine some straggly survivors holding out against masses of snotty, hacking and retching mutants - is it?
Warner's new Ultimate Collector's BD release packs some fantastic audio onto an image that I feel still 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 which one you fancy. The Deleted Scenes and additional production features are exceptionally welcome, although I'm still not sure about simply rehashing elements from one doc to make up the Focus Points just to add another bonus feature to the list. The artwork in the glossy book and the selection of global-damage cards are very nice, but I have to say that, gimmick as it most certainly is, I just love the lenticular block.
This won't be the last interpretation of Richard Matheson's seminal story, I'm sure.
I gave the last edition a very solid 8 out of 10 and deemed it highly recommended. Well, this is an improved version, no doubt, and garners itself a 9 out of 10 now - well, it's got a lot more on it this time around, so that score just has to go up, doesn't it? However, many people who already own the previous release may not feel the need to to take a further plunge into Smith's blighted world - and some of the best material is already on that disc. If you are fan, though (like me), this is an unavoidable temptation. The added features definitely enlarge upon the film and its production and this is one seriously nice looking set, too. I can't quite fathom why the film has received such lavish treatment so soon after its initial release, though. Really speaking, this could have been the original release all along. But, speaking personally (again), I love the story and would probably fall for just about any version of it that came along.
Suggested retail price when reviewed: £37.19
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