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In 1971's The Omega Man, the second and perhaps best of the now three adaptations of Richard Metheson's 1956 novel called I Am Legend, Charlton Heston's character enters an abandoned movie theater, threads the projector, and watches Woodstock alone. The mass of humanity, bared flesh, and human interaction of that hippie, counter-culture ballad contrasts brilliantly with the desolation of the last-man-on-Earth concept. In I Am Legend, Will Smith's scientist, Robert Neville, carries forward with some of these same themes; only here we get the bonus of an amped-up action-thriller element of the story as well. Not much is left intact of Matheson's original writing, in fact, some will take offense at the bastardization. But what can't be denied is the way director Francis Lawrence (Constantine) masterfully blends traditional sci-fi allegory with current filmmaking techniques to create an updated amalgamation that will please both sci-fi purists as well as lovers of good Hollywood action.

The most pleasurable aspect of these post-apocalyptic parables, of which I Am Legend certainly belongs, is seeing these once heavily populated environs Los Angeles in The Omega Man and New York City in I Am Legend now stripped bare and littered with the remnants of civilization. There's just something strikingly eerie about seeing Times Square overgrown with weeds and nary a person in sight. Makes us wonder if the city would be as fun and magical without the millions of people who clog the streets and subways everyday. Or is the "New York experience" something to be shared with others?

Seems Manhattan was depopulated by a medical experiment gone horribly awry and Neville takes it upon himself to find a cure for the contagious disease that leaves its victims hairless, hungry and extremely athletic - very zombie-like, but allergic to light. So Neville scats about an abandoned Manhattan in a variety of well-equipped vehicles, whether it be a candy-apple red Shelby Cobra (a tip of the hat to Heston's character), or a grill-guarded SUV, foraging for food and necessities during the day. But as the sun sets, he locks himself into his modest Brownstone, drops the metal shudders, and fires up the exterior spotlights, lest he become overrun by the ravenous "dark-seekers."

Neville is the ultimate scientist, having purposefully stranded himself on the island to find a cure for the virus that was originally reverse-engineered to fight cancer. He routinely runs thorough medical tests on the occasional captured zombie in his laboratory basement. We learn of the fate of his family - and the rest of the population for that matter - through periodic flashbacks that show a massive evacuation (on the scale of War of the Worlds) of Manhattan, in hopes of isolating the spread of the rogue virus. Now Neville is reduced to talking to his trusty canine sidekick, Sam the German Shepherd, as well as to the clothed mannequins he's set up in his favorite stores.

It's a risky proposition resting the weight of an entire film on the talents of one, single actor. But fortunately, Smith has the chops to pull it off. As expected, he handles the action parts like the action-star we know he is, but he's also quite convincing during the tender moments as well. Some of the film's best segments feature Smith interacting only with his dog. We're comforted by Neville's tough external façade, yet that confidence is shaken when we later see him curled up with Sam in a bathtub, machine gun at their side, wolf-like screeches emanating from the darkness outside.

As the film nears its climax, Lawrence falters a bit as he bows to Hollywood pressure and allows us to see too much of the creatures. In an early scene, Neville and Sam inadvertently stumble into the darkened shell of a building where Neville's flashlight strobes across a nest of the zombies, their backs turned to us. These fleeting glances send chills down our spines, but as the film progresses, and the monsters get more and more screen time, the fear factor diminishes considerably. A lesson in less-is-more would go a long way here.

It would have been nice to see more of the survivalist-parable themes present in Matheson's book and subsequently in The Omega Man. But Lawrence did realize that those earlier versions got lift from the ironic loneliness of being the last human alive in an environment once flourishing with prosperity and human excess. And because of this understanding, and with his talents as an action director, I am Legend is sure to please both sci-fi fans and action-lovers alike.


DVD

DVD Details:

I Am Legend on DVD is a visual marvel to behold, but it's crucial that it be viewed on a large screen. The desolation shots of an abandoned New York are the most effective visuals of the film and those scenes are most impactful when viewed large rather than small. The CGI melds well with the live action and watching on a hand-held or iPod, just won't do the DVD transfer justice. The disc initially appears to contain only a handful of features, but pop the disc into your PC to access more than 20 more making-of featurettes. The 4 animated shorts that accompany the widescreen edition, are playable on your DVD player and TV and are very entertaining - moving even - and seem to be included as feelers for how a sequel might be handled.

The Dolby digital 5.1 audio mix moves around the room and effectively enhances the visuals on the screen. Many scenes are accompanied by no ambient audio or incidental soundtrack whatsoever, but when the surrounds do get cranked into action in crucial scenes, the audio alone is enough to scare the pants of man or beast alike.

This disc is one of the best and most complete to come along in quite some time.

Screen formats: Widescreen Anamorphic 1.78:1

Subtitles: Closed-Captioned English; French; Spanish

Language and Sound: English: Dolby Digital 5.1

Other Features: Color; interactive menus; scene access; animated features.

* Featurettes - Includes 4 very graphic but beautifully illustrated featurettes with option to play separately or play all. These animated shorts depict scenarios of how the virus may have affected other parts of the world.
o Death as a Gift (03:00) Hong Kong - An ethereal, storybook anime-type illustration about an only survivor of the virus in Hong Kong, China and what she views as the best solution.
o Isolation (06:35) Colorado - Takes place at ADX Florence prison, also known as the Alcatraz of the Rockies where the most hated man in the world is locked up in isolation. But what happens when that prisoner comes up against the virus?
o Sacrificing the Few for the Many (03:27) Takes place somewhere in Central America and depicts a very violent solution to the infection. This is the author's fav of the bunch and despite its short runtime, was very sad and moving.
o Shelter (08:37) Set in New Delhi, India, this one features a particular couple's belief that true love can persevere. How would you treat a family member that you suspect may be infected?

* DVD-Rom Material - Not sure why, but these features are only available by playing the DVD on your computer:
o Cationary Tale: The Science of I Am Legend (20:40) - Way more than we'd ever want to know about viruses, but via interviews, demonstrations and file footage, the feature shows how the film's creators and crew visited the CDC so they could realistically create a plausible virus outbreak. Besides giving us a brief look into the study and preparation for the film, it also gives us a rather eerie insight into the dangers created by the proliferation of viruses.
o Creating I Am Legend - 21 featurettes that that range from 2mins. to 6 mins. in length covering nearly every aspect of the making of the film from building the sets, to closing down New York's Fifth Avenue. Very entertaining.
+ Closing Down Fifth Avenue
+ The Creators Break In
+ The Story
+ The Joy Ride Jump
+ Will in the Driver's Seat
+ Canine Co-Star
+ NYC Gone Back to Nature
+ Robert Neville's Psychology
+ Quiet Imagination
+ Evacuation, Part 1: Family Convoy
+ Neville's Weapons
+ That Scary Place Inside All of Us
+ Shooting on the Intrepid
+ Building the Pier
+ Evacuation, Part 2: Military Cooperation
+ Will's Physical Training
+ Creating the Dark Seekers
+ Evacuation, Part 3: Choppers
+ The Conflicts of Isolation
+ Trusting the Unknown
+ Will Smith in Action

Number of discs: - 1 - Plastic Keepcase Packaging

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