Warning: SPOILERS for I Am Legend are in play. If you’ve never seen the film before, it’s now available on Prime Video for viewing.
There are a couple movies out there that, despite their rather apocalyptic theme, you’re probably going to be tempted to stream. Films like Contagion, Outbreak and even Will Smith’s viral epic I Am Legend, are all finding new popularity with folks who are trying to handle the COVID-19 pandemic through a sort of fictional catharsis. If that last film in particular is of interest to you during quarantine, there’s something you should know: the alternate ending wrapped things up way better than the theatrical ending that we got.
Yes, folks, it’s time for another tale of a movie that kind of lost its way in the reshoots, as I Am Legend’s “controversial” ending was changed into something that was more acceptable to audiences. Why was it so controversial? Did those butterflies really mean anything? Is Sam still the goodest girl in this ending? All of those questions and more are about to be answered as we look at two paths that diverge on the studio lot, and we’re about to venture down both of them.
Final warning, both endings to I Am Legend are going to be spoiled. So if you’re keen on visiting this 12-year-old blockbuster with fresh eyes, head over to Prime Video, as it's just put the film into its streaming library for you to enjoy. Otherwise, scrub up and join us as we head into the examination room to see just where things went kinda/sorta wrong for I Am Legend.
What's In I Am Legend's Theatrical Ending?
It should be noted that both versions of I Am Legend are pretty much the same, up to one crucial sequence. The story of Dr. Robert Neville (Will Smith) plays out identically, with him roaming the city, trying to cure the Krippen Virus that turned humanity into the Darkseekers (or Hemocytes, as they’re more pleasingly named in the DVD subtitles) and ultimately meeting fellow human survivors Anna (Alice Braga) and Ethan (Charlie Tahan).
However, it’s in the final moments of I Am Legend’s big third act finale, with the Alpha Male (Dash Mihok) and his fellow Hemocytes overrunning Neville’s base of operations, that the film takes its big divergence. For reference, here’s the clip of the theatrical ending, which will definitely come in handy later:
The theatrical ending of I Am Legend has Neville telling Anna and Ethan that the Hemocytes won’t stop chasing them. And wouldn’t you know, the attack happens just as his cure for KV is starting to work on a random female Hemocyte he had captured for testing. Not his first test subject, the good doctor had killed many of these creatures in the name of his human trials, but she would be his last.
Handing Anna a vial of his test subject’s blood, he stashes her and Ethan in a safe space. Deciding to sacrifice himself for their safety, Neville pulls the pin on a grenade and charges into the Hemocyte scrum headfirst, killing the Alpha Male and his army.
Anna and Ethan are saved, and during her final monologue describing how Dr. Robert Neville cured the Krippen Virus in his last moments, we see the two venturing to Vermont, in search of a survivor colony. At the very end of I Am Legend, Anna discovers the colony is still active, and hands over the vial of cured blood to the authorities.
What The Theatrical Ending Says About I Am Legend’s Story
If you were a fan of author Richard Matheson’s original novella of the same name, I Am Legend’s theatrical ending is an even bigger slap to the face than the film’s handling of the source material on the whole. That’s not to say the movie’s not good, as it’s some of Will Smith’s strongest work at a time when his career was not getting the raves it once knew, but it’s way different than the inspiration.
The theatrical ending of I Am Legend pulls a move that some studio execs, movie stars and even test audiences felt the film needed to pull: it squarely frames Dr. Robert Neville as the hero and the Hemocytes as the villains, and it wraps the film in a nice and neat bow with the cure in play.
Even the film’s path of fateful “butterflies” is manipulated between the versions of I Am Legend’s ending, as the theatrical ending you saw above sees that symbology leading Neville to believe that Anna is the hope he’d been searching for this whole time. Already a symbol of fate, thanks to the memory of his dead daughter telling him to “look at the butterflies,” Neville’s sighting of a butterfly tattoo on Anna’s neck tells him he has to trust her as the deliverer of the cure.
However, that wasn’t the original ending of I Am Legend, as when the film hit home video in 2008, it came with the “controversial” alternate ending that brought us here today. And it all starts with a very different sighting of that butterfly tattoo.
With that in mind, please watch the same pivotal scene from the third act of I Am Legend, but with a very different detail:
As the butterfly tattoo is no longer on Anna, but rather on the Alpha Female (Joanna Numata) that’s been Dr. Robert Neville’s guinea pig for a good portion of the film, everything leads to an alternate ending that makes so much more sense.
What's Different In I Am Legend's Alternate Ending?
We never really knew the significance of the Alpha Female before I Am Legend’s alternate ending, as the Alpha Male’s charging of the glass enclosure Neville, Anna and Ethan are safely hiding in looked like a sheer show of aggression against the human he’d previously encountered.
However, little details throughout the film, such as the Alpha Male exposing himself to sunlight, and Neville’s assumption of the Hemocytes being totally devoid of human behavior, start to paint another picture. One that culminates in the original, and somewhat preferred ending, to I Am Legend, shown below:
This new chain of events sees Neville realize that the Alpha Male was trying to save the Alpha Female this whole time. In an even greater context, we see that the Hemocytes have also seen Dr. Robert Neville as their own boogeyman, much like Richard Matheson’s source material had done with its own overall plot.
It’s here we learn that the Hemocytes aren’t mindless brutes, and they’re more socialized than we thought. Neville, forced to look at his own actions closer, apologizes for his murder of Hemocytes in his experiments for a cure, and in an act of atonement, he releases the Alpha Female back to her mate, no cure in hand.
I Am Legend’s “controversial” ending sees Neville, Anna and Ethan still alive and leaving New York City together. As they head to Vermont in the hopes of finding that survivor’s colony, Anna records a new message, much like Robert’s previous broadcast that attracted her and Ethan to the dock, telling anyone who’s still alive to find them up north.
Why The Alternate Ending Fits Much Better With I Am Legend's Story
All of the breadcrumbs that I Am Legend had laid out through the entire film lead to a more satisfying conclusion in the alternate ending. Noting the barbaric nature of the Hemocytes, Anna’s questioning of Robert’s experiments and even “the butterflies” all tie together into a conclusion that steers away from the cheese that the third act pumps its narrative full of, and heads back to the promise the film had shown in its earlier acts.
Much like Richard Matheson intended, Dr. Robert Neville is the boogeyman for the Hemocytes. Instead of sacrificing himself out of spite as a savior of humanity, in the alternate ending, he opts to leave the Hemocytes alone having now seen them for what they truly are. Which is funny, because throughout the film, we see a Time magazine cover that names him a savior, with his own addition of a question mark after that very word. It’s as if the film is not only building his character with that moment, it’s also openly asking us to question our feelings for this character, and ultimately his ending.
It also speaks volumes when you consider the fact that the alternate ending, and its setup, are both official clips from the film that you’ll find on YouTube. You can certainly find the theatrical ending in tact as well, but it’s a rip from the film’s home video release, and not part of the official MovieClips profile for I Am Legend.
It’s even retroactively hinted that this ending was preferred from day one, as we still see a shot from the alternate ending at the very end of the theatrical trailer to I Am Legend. Which, naturally, is provided below as a resource:
So if this ending to I Am Legend is so damned good, why was it changed to begin with?
How Did I Am Legend's Ending Get Changed In The First Place?
As far back as the film’s original home video release in 2008, there was already whispers floating from sites like Vulture that I Am Legend’s ending was changed due to test audiences not really enjoying what it had to say about the hero they’d followed through an entire film’s worth of adventure.
However, it wasn’t until a full decade later that the truth was revealed by I Am Legend director Francis Lawrence, as an interview with the helmer from 2018 delved into just why the finale to the film was altered in the first place. The site also got Lawrence to confirm that the alternate finale is his scenario of choice, as he explained the entire scenario below:
I agree it's the better ending. I mean, it's the more philosophical version of the end, but in terms of story math we're doing everything you're not supposed to do, right? The hero doesn't find the cure, right? They drive off into the unknown and the creatures you've been saying are the bad ones the whole time you learn actually have humanity and aren't the bad ones - the hero's the bad one. And so you've basically turned everything on its head. We tested it twice and it got wildly rejected, wildly rejected, which is why we came out with the other one.
Test audiences can shift the course of a film like I Am Legend in subtle, but fundamental ways. The difference in the two versions of the film’s ending proves that, as all it took was a couple of scenes, and a rewrite reframing the finale, to totally change just how the film would be seen in the long run.
While we may never get the prequel, sequel or reboot that was proposed to keep I Am Legend on the books known as “active development,” there is still an interesting example to be seen in the film that we did get from the famed sci-fi/horror text that still inspires fans to this very day.
If, for some reason, you haven’t seen I Am Legend before reading this rundown, first of all, we warned you. Second, and more importantly, keep in mind these facts, and feel free to revisit the clips above after you’ve seen the film. It’ll make for some interesting conversation in the comments below, and you’ll be able to take part in the poll we’ve shared to gather your valued opinion.
Stay safe, stay indoors and stay in the light, as you watch I Am Legend on Prime Video.