As the presence of countless album and DVD (and now Blu-Ray) re-issues prove, people will buy things they like over and over again, choosing the comfort of purchasing a shined-up version of something they know they like instead of venturing into the unknown bin of pop cultural refuse. I’ve purchased the original three Star Wars movies three times, essentially once every seven years of my life.
But seven years isn’t long enough of a wait for studios to let moderately successful projects sit before hopping on the cash-in train to bigger returns: take this beautifully packaged, extras-laden, hologram brick-including edition of I Am Legend. The film came out in the halcyon days of December 2007, pre-Palin, pre-post-Paul Newman and Bernie Mac, and before Will Smith’s huge 2008 vehicle Hancock. Those were the good old days. And way back in May of 2008, Warner Brothers put out the DVD and Blu-Ray versions of I Am Legend to decently brisk business.
But now, less than a year after the theatrical release of I Am Legend comes the Ultimate Collector’s Edition, which packages the mediocre (at best) film in a canon defining worthy package. This edition comes with the original theatrical version, a digital copy of the film, a “new” version of the film with an alternate ending put in, about hours of extras, a movie still picture book, a set of six postcards depicting cities effected by the collapse of human society and a plastic brick that has a hologram animation of the film’s original climax. Basically, it’s as special as “special edition” gets, but it’s a set for a movie not worthy of the adoration, which is clearly illuminated in the version of the film with the alternate ending.
I Am Legend tells the story of Robert Neville (played by Smith), an Army virologist who is seemingly the only man left in New York, and Earth, after a cancer-curing drug turns most of the Earth’s population into corpses or zombies. For the first portion of the film, we see Smith struggling to live sans-human contact (he at least has a dog to pal around with) by using mannequins as stand-ins for the rest of New York’s population.
Neville spends most of his days cruising around in a nice ride capturing, the living zombies in order to do experiments on them. After roughly 450minutes, Neville runs afoul with a group of zombies, his dog gets bitten by zombie dogs, he gets hurt, and decides to go on a war path against the zombies, ultimately being saved by a woman and her son, who, contrary to Neville’s belief that he’s all Earth has got left, also survived the outbreak. It’s at this point the film takes a turn for the worse, as the first half was built to creep viewers out and provided as tense a viewing experience as you’ll ever experience. The latter part of the movie collapses under its own pretenses.
After Neville is rescued, he realizes the zombies know where he lives because of his blood being exposed (they apparently can smell blood, human blood, from miles away), and a final standoff occurs. In the theatrical version of the film, the zombies attack Neville’s house, trapping him and the other two survivors in his basement laboratory, where he has realized he’s discovered a cure for the virus. In the original version, Neville has to sacrifice himself to the zombies, who want to kill him, saving the other two survivors, and the fate of mankind, making him the titular legend. The overall message being that as long as you have faith, and have a Christ-like being to save you, the human race will persevere.
In the book version (which pre-dates the film by 50 years), and in the alternate ending version, Neville realizes in his final stand-off with the zombies that he is a legend among the zombies for being an evil monster who comes and kills them during the daytime. The message there being that understanding of those different from us is pertinent for the survival of all Earth’s humans, zombie or not. Obviously, this plays as left uplifting—Neville has to resign himself to not trying to cure the zombies any more, and he can’t avenge the lives of all of the people he lost—but it also muddies the rest of the film, making it unlikely to connect with viewers looking for popcorn escapism at the multiplex. However, the film is more satisfying with this ending—it refuses to find an easy wrap-up, and changes who the villain of the film really is.
The extras on Ultimate Collector’s Edition are pretty deep: they cover Smith’s career, his methodology for acting as Neville, detail how certain sequences were filmed (spoiler: with CGI), and feature animated comics of people struggling to live in other locales during Neville’s struggles. But are they really necessary? That’s a big no. And it’s not like the Blu-Ray option is a revelation either: the Blu-Ray version has been out for more than six months already. Any revelations to be had by nicer picture and better sound have already passed their shelf life.
While it’s cool to know how Smith approached the role, I’d rather they have made a movie that adhered closer to Richard Matheson’s original novel, cut out the Magnolia-like “everything matters” part at the climax, and stuck with the alternate, more ambiguous ending. If nothing else, the extras illuminate how much thought was put into a movie that, despite a killer first half, ended as disappointingly and flatly as I Am Legend. And this special edition can’t change that.