The DVD I rented offered me a choice of the theatrical cut, and the alternative version with the original ending that was scrapped after it was unfavourably received at the test screenings. While I really enjoyed the movie this story of two radically different endings is probably its most interesting aspect. The DVD menu made me feel like a character in a fairytale: shall I take the road on the left, or the road on the right? With the magic of the remote, I watched both endings, and once again marvelled at Hollywood’s willingness to ruin a perfectly fine film.
Spoilers for the endings ahead.
I Am Legend is built on that good old sci-fi staple, the deadly man-made plague. Here, the virus that was originally created as the cure for cancer turned into a lethal nightmare that kills most of the infected people, mutates a small percentage into savage vampiric creatures, with only 1% of the population immune. Our hero, Robert Neville (Will Smith) is one of the immune survivors. Three years after the outbreak, he lives a strictly regimented life alone on the island of Manhattan, with only his dog Sam to keep him company. Well, there are also mannequins that Neville had strategically placed around the DVD rental he visits to create an illusion of life, but they’re not much for conversation. His other daily routine is working away in his basement laboratory, trying desperately to find a cure. Outside, the deserted streets are overgrown with weeds, and former zoo animals roam the streets, including a bunch of lions. At night, Neville barricades the windows and doors of his former family home, as the streets are ruled by the killer mutant gangs who are vulnerable to sunlight.
For most of the film it’s a one-man show with Will Smith front and centre, and you couldn’t ask for a more charismatic and watchable lead. It’s fun and engrossing to watch Neville as he goes about his day in the silent post-apocalyptic city, despite the dodgy animal and creature CGI which look even worse next to the real live dog. Speaking of the dog, once the plot revs up and Neville’s tenuous stability unravels, there’s a moment that’s bound to make any animal lover tear up.
So, the ending. I can think of a few movies with butchered original endings, but I feel that I Am Legend is something of an anomaly.
Most reworked endings I can think of are about wrapping the hero’s story in a happy way – they live on instead of dying as originally intended, usually with their love interest by their side, and so on. The studio-preferred ending of I Am Legend however kills Neville off; he dies a heroic death in an explosion taking a bunch of infected mutants with him, right after making sure that the cure gets out there and fixes the world. Nothing more than your typical horror/action mayhem. In the superior original ending, Neville lives on, but the movie serves up a thought-provoking twist: the infected are actually not the mindless savage monsters incapable of real thought or love. Which by the way also ties in with the hints sprinkled throughout the film indicating the creatures’ intelligence. I think there’s something depressing about the notion that an ending where our likeable main hero dies was apparently considered more palatable and audience-friendly than lending the monsters some nuance and inviting you to have empathy for them.