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The Alternate Ending Of I Am Legend Explained

"I Am Legend" follows Dr. Robert Neville (Will Smith), a survivor of the genetically modified Krippin Virus (KV), which decimates the world population. KV transforms many into vampiric, zombie-like creatures known as Darkseekers, who avoid sunlight and have an insatiable appetite for blood. Neville, a military virologist, stays in Manhattan to study the virus after the outbreak.

Convinced he is the last survivor because of his natural immunity to the virus, Neville ekes out a lonely existence with his dog Sam in a crumbling metropolis being taken back by nature. To maintain his sanity, Neville follows a strict schedule that includes exercising, picking out a DVD at the video store while conversing with mannequins, searching for supplies, waiting by the waterfront at mid-day for other survivors, and locking down his house before darkness each night.

Intent upon finding a cure, Neville spends three years after society has descended into chaos experimenting on the infected animals and humans left in the city. After his dog Sam is infected, Neville goes on a kamikaze mission to take out as many Darkseekers as he can. Survivors Anna (Alice Braga) and Ethan (Charlie Tahan), who hear Neville's radio transmission and come to find him on their way to a rumored survivors' colony in Vermont, try to save Neville from the Darkseekers' attack at the waterfront. 

While the movie ends by tying up a lot of loose ends, there was a more open-ended version planned. Here is the alternate ending of "I Am Legend" explained.

The theatrical ending was a Hollywood concoction

The alternate ending many of us first saw when the DVD was released was actually the original ending of "I Am Legend," but it was scrapped and replaced with the theatrical version after audiences responded poorly to the ambiguous original ending during test screenings. Director Francis Lawrence told Screen Rant, "We tested it twice and it got wildly rejected, wildly rejected, which is why we came out with the other one."

Audiences wanted an ending that painted Neville as a genuine hero, not a morally ambiguous scientist, so they did last-minute reshoots for a more conventional and flashy Hollywood ending. In the theatrical cut, after realizing his last experiment worked and the test subject's condition was improving, Neville draws the Darkseeker's blood, and gives the sample to Anna, telling her the cure is in the blood. Neville shows Anna and Ethan a place where they can hide and tells them to leave Manhattan at sunrise.

Neville grabs a hand grenade stashed in a drawer and sacrifices himself in a blaze of glory to protect Anna, Ethan, and the cure he worked tirelessly on for the last three years. When Anna and Ethan arrive at the survivors' colony in Vermont, she passes the cure to a guard dressed in military fatigues, while her narration explains, "Dr. Robert Neville dedicated his life to the discovery of a cure [...] He gave his life to defend it. We are his legacy. This is his legend."

The theatrical and alternate endings diverge when Neville notices the butterfly

The theatrical cut and the director's cut with an alternate ending are essentially exactly the same until the last five minutes of the film. In both the theatrical version and the alternate ending, Neville thinks Anna's belief in God led her to him when he needed help most. The climax of both versions of the film begins in his laboratory when Neville notices a butterfly and remembers his daughter Marley saying, "Daddy, look at the butterfly," shortly before she died. In both versions of the film, the disheartened scientist suddenly sees a sign, and his interpretations of these different signs lead to two very different endings.

In the theatrical cut, Neville sees a butterfly pattern in the cracks on the glass door, separating Neville, Anna, and Ethan from the mob of Darkseekers. When Neville turns to look at Anna and Ethan crouched against the back wall, Neville notices a butterfly tattooed on Anna's neck as she cradles Ethan, trying to protect him from the frightening onslaught of Darkseekers. Neville decides this butterfly is his sign, and he starts "listening." He gives Anna the blood sample, believing his job is to protect her, so she can get it to the survivors' colony in Vermont, where they can produce and distribute the cure to KV.

The alternate ending reveals the Darkseekers are sentient creatures

In the theatrical cut of "I Am Legend," Neville concludes the Darkseekers devolved after becoming infected with KV and no longer retain any humanity or social structure. He views them essentially as rabid beasts who must be cured of the virus. If they can't be cured, then they must be exterminated. Neville has created a wall between himself and the Darkseekers by dehumanizing them, so he can think of them as lab rats instead of infected humans. Neville only sees the Darkseekers as mindless hunting machines driven by base instincts and blood lust.

In the alternate ending, after the Alpha Male (Dash Mihok) draws a butterfly on the window separating Neville from the Darkseekers, Neville realizes the Alpha Male is trying to communicate, and Neville's view of the Darkseekers is destroyed, flipping his world upside down. This new knowledge emotionally devastates Neville. Neville sees a butterfly tattoo on the Alpha Female's (Joanna Numata) arm and realizes the Darkseekers have only become violent, attacking his home and laboratory because Neville kidnapped the Alpha Male's mate. They have a social structure and familial bonds. 

Neville processes this information rapidly and realizes he needs a new approach.

Neville realizes he is conducting unethical experiments on sentient beings

Once Neville understands the Darkseekers are sentient beings, he puts down his firearm and takes his test subject, the Alpha Female, out of the protected room at the back of his subterranean laboratory and into the open lab where the Darkseekers wait. Although the Alpha Male is menacing, roaring in Neville's ear to show his anger, the Darkseekers allow Neville to walk into the lab while pushing the gurney the Alpha Female is lying on, and they do not attack Neville because the Alpha Male roars at his followers to reassert his dominance.

Once Neville understands he is experimenting on and killing sentient beings, he brings the Alpha Female out of sedation with a shot and gives her back to the Alpha Male without drawing her blood to make a cure for KV. The tender way the Alpha Male picks up the Alpha Female and how she nuzzles him illustrates that the Darkseekers not only have a social structure built around the leader of their pack — they have feelings. They experience love, pain, and anger like the humans they once were. 

Distraught, Neville apologizes to the Darkseekers, simply saying, "I'm sorry." His expression reveals the depths of his regret.

Neville understands what kind of legend he has become

The alternate ending of "I Am Legend," while different from the source material, is true to the spirit of Richard Matheson's thought-provoking 1954 sci-fi novella. In the alternate ending, the Darkseekers allow Neville to live, leaving him in his destroyed laboratory to ponder his crimes. As Neville leans against the glass door separating him from Anna and Ethan, the camera cuts to the wall covered with pictures of Neville's test subjects in the background — which the audience now views as a memorial to his victims.

The camera focuses on Neville as we see understanding settle upon his face: he has committed atrocities. As a former soldier and scientist, Neville understands just how grave his violations against the Darkseekers were. In the theatrical cut, Neville never makes this vital realization, and he dies believing he is a hero who found and protected the cure for KV from the monsters in their midst.

In the alternate ending of "I Am Legend" Neville understands he is the Darkseekers' boogyman, the mad scientist who hunts and kills them, unaware their humanity is intact despite the physical transformation the Krippin Virus elicited. This was the point of Matheson's novella and the reason for its enigmatic title, "I Am Legend." The theatrical ending is a gross misrepresentation of the novella's message about discrimination and how people dehumanize "others" so they can mistreat them without feeling guilt for their actions, attitudes, and crimes against humanity.

The Darkseekers see Neville as the villain

The alternate ending of "I Am Legend" introduces an unexplored dimension to the story, offering a twist that fundamentally shifts the audience's perception of the protagonist, Neville. It reveals that the Darkseekers have loved ones among them, highlighting the moral ambiguity of Neville's actions. While Neville initially sees himself as a scientist working to find a cure for the virus that had devastated humanity, the Darkseekers certainly view him as the embodiment of their worst nightmares.

Throughout the movie, Neville pursues two main objectives: searching for other surviving humans and seeking a cure for the virus. He lived in a bathtub — a precaution against surprise attacks by the Darkseekers. Interestingly, the Darkseekers never actively hunt Neville until he kidnaps one of their own.

Neville's character takes a darker turn when his loyal dog, Sam, gets infected. In a fit of rage, he goes on a violent rampage, using his car to kill Darkseekers indiscriminately. The phrase "I Am Legend" originates from the book and is what Neville utters when he realizes how the Darkseekers will remember him. 

The Darkseekers' sentience is hinted at throughout the film

Beyond simply being a proper representation of Richard Matheson's original story, the alternate ending of "I Am Legend" is the only ending that really makes sense because there is evidence of the Darkseekers' sentience breadcrumbed throughout the film. For instance, the Alpha Male briefly steps into the light after Neville kidnaps his mate using a snare, suggesting the Alpha Male wanted to rescue her from Neville but knew it could not leave the safety of darkness.

Later in the film, Neville is trapped in a similar snare baited with one mannequin Neville placed outside the video store to simulate life. This prevents Neville from leaving the area before sunset, so the Alpha Male can sic infected dogs on Neville and Sam in a vicious but calculated act of revenge. In the theatrical cut, we could view this interlude as evidence of other survivors playing with Neville. However, the alternate ending makes it clear trapping Neville and ambushing him is proof of the Alpha Male's intellect.

The theatrical ending ignores these hints in the service of creating a more conventional climax, with an inspirational and uplifting ending about an unambiguous hero who sacrificed himself for humanity. The nuance of the alternate ending might not be as satisfying for audiences who want heroes and happy endings, but it was certainly more thought-provoking and true to the mood of the first hour of the film and the novella.

Neville survives and leaves Manhattan with Anna and Ethan

In the alternate ending, Neville doesn't go out in a blaze of glory to protect the cure he gave to Anna and Ethan, as he does in the theatrical version. Instead, Neville leaves Manhattan with no cure in hand, his research abandoned, with the knowledge of his unethical treatment of Darkseekers during his desperate search for a cure to KV. Neville, Anna, and Ethan drive away from Manhattan, together searching for the purported survivor's colony in Vermont. Neville isn't a hero. He is a survivor blinded by his desperation to fix what KV had done to his world.

When his wife and daughter die during the catastrophic evacuation of Manhattan, Neville puts all of his hope and belief in a future for humanity into finding a cure. Neville is so focused on a cure he can't see the Darkseekers clearly and his obsession with his mission means that the discovery he isn't the last survivor — which occurs when Ethan and Anna arrive — isn't a relief, as it should be. Instead, it is a frustration that contradicts the story he has built in his head that he is the last man alive and the only hope for humanity.

Anna makes a new radio transmission

The alternate ending changes everything. Most importantly, it doesn't conclude with the survivors finding the survivors' colony in Vermont, as the theatrical version does. Everything isn't tied up in a nice little bow. The alternate ending shows Neville, Anna, and Ethan driving out of the city as a new radio transmission plays, telling other survivors that Dr. Robert Neville, Anna, and a boy named Ethan are traveling north to Bethel, Vermont. Most importantly, Anna tells any survivors who hear the radio transmission, "You are not alone."

This alternate ending is open-ended and doesn't promise a happy ending when they reach Vermont. The future is not written. There is no cure, but Neville, Anna, and Ethan are alive. They are together, and there is hope that there are others out there who have also survived. Perhaps this was, in part, responsible for the negative reaction to this ending with test audiences. The alternate ending of "I Am Legend" isn't definitive, flashy, and clean. It's a lot more like life, where one chapter ends and another begins without knowing how the book ends.

Samantha wasn't euthanized in an earlier draft of the script

According to a 2014 interview with Money Into Light, in an earlier version of the script, Neville's loyal companion, Sam, met a different fate. "I Am Legend" is best known for Will Smith's ability to carry almost the entire movie with no co-stars, but in reality, the dog is with him in nearly every scene. One of the saddest moments in the film occurs when Sam valiantly fights off the Darkseeker dogs to save Neville but gets bitten and infected in the process. Neville is then forced to make the heart-wrenching decision to euthanize Sam.

However, in an earlier draft of the script, Sam had a different storyline. The movie had been in development for over a decade, with writer Mark Protosevich hired by Warner Bros. in 1995 to adapt the book. In Protosevich's version, Sam is an unnamed male dog who also gets infected by the Darkseekers. But instead of Neville euthanizing his dog, he decides to release him. Later in the climax, there's an interaction between Neville and his infected dog as Neville leads human survivors to a pier. The dog initially joins the Darkseeker dogs in hunting them but eventually decides to return the favor once he recognizes Neville.

This earlier script version would have aligned more closely with the original concept of the story, where the Darkseekers are not mindless zombies but just a more evolved form of life with emotions, connections, and the capacity to make intelligent decisions.

Both endings of the 2007 film differed from the novella

A lot of movies ignore the books they are based on, and "I Am Legend" is certainly guilty of not being an entirely faithful adaptation of the 1954 novella. In Matheson's book, Robert Neville is not the sole survivor. There are a group of survivors living together. The Darkseekers aren't visually frightening zombie slash vampire creatures. They can actually blend in and hide in plain sight amongst humans, making for a more nuanced exploration of bigotry and discrimination.

In the book, the new arrival in the community is Ruth, not Anna. After getting involved with Ruth, Robert learns she is one of the infected and she was sent as a spy to infiltrate and undermine the survivors' colony from the inside. Robert learns he killed her husband during his experiments, and when he dies from a wound, he uses his last breath to mutter, "I am legend," knowing he will be remembered for his crimes against the infected.

Francis Lawrence told Screen Rant, "Looking back at it now, I think that we could have just done basically the story of the novella straight up and made the same amount of money in terms of ticket sales because people went I think for the last man on earth. They would have accepted the nihilistic ending, they would have accepted vampires instead of people with infections. We could have literally made the book, which I would have been much happier with."

Francis Lawrence preferred the alternate ending

In an exclusive interview in 2018 with Screen Rant, director Francis Lawrence admitted he preferred his original ending to the theatrical cut. Lawrence said, "I agree it's the better ending. I mean, it's the more philosophical version of the end," and does a better job exploring the themes of discrimination and bigotry from the novella. However, Lawrence also explained how the alternate ending breaks all Hollywood movie rules, saying, "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?"

The alternate ending blurs the lines between right and wrong, forcing the audience to confront how gray morality is and how unethical our protagonist is. Lawrence told Screen Rant, "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."

Lawrence had other regrets about his film, "I Am Legend," and told Den of Geek that he had originally wanted to do the Darkseekers with practical makeup effects but turned to CGI after the test shoot was problematic. "Having done a movie with so many visual effects shots, and then coming to the end, where you have the plug pulled because you have a deadline, and you have to deliver the last reel, and you know there's a hundred shots in the movie you're not satisfied with, was a real disappointment to me."

The alternate ending left an opening for a sequel

Thanks to the commercial success of "I am Legend," Warner Brothers contemplated a sequel to cash in on the popularity of the film. Although the studio pushed for the theatrical cut after poor test screenings, the alternate ending would have left the road wide open for a sequel. Neville, having died in the theatrical cut, made a prequel seem like the obvious choice. In 2008, Will Smith confirmed this, telling Collider, "We have a fantastic prequel idea ... we're still trying to work through a couple of bumps in the story. It's essentially the fall of the last city — the last stand of Manhattan." But, in 2011, director Francis Lawrence told MTV the prequel was dead in the water, "No, I don't think that's ever going to happen."

In 2018, director Francis Lawrence doubled down, telling Screen Rant, "I don't know [about a reboot] because I feel like I've gotten that out of my system." Despite interest in a sequel, it took 15 years for one to come together, leaving many wondering what the movie would be about since the protagonist died. In 2022, Lawrence confirmed there had been talks about reviving the sequel, telling Comic Book, "I've heard some things about 'I Am Legend.'" While he could confirm that he is working on "Constantine 2" for Warner Brothers, he was only willing to say, "I'm sworn to secrecy" about the "I Am Legend" sequel.

The sequel to I Am Legend will canonize the alternate ending

Despite Francis Lawrence's noncommittal stance on an "I Am Legend" sequel, Akiva Goldsman, who co-wrote the screenplay for the 2007 film, told Deadline, "We're starting with two projects that are fun and very much Warners; the sequel to 'I Am Legend,' with Will [Smith] and Michael B. Jordan, and the sequel to 'Constantine' with Keanu Reeves that Francis Lawrence is going to direct."

Goldsman said "The Last of Us" inspired him to take another look at the "I Am Legend" universe and will pick up a few decades after the original film. Goldsman told Deadline, "We trace back to the original Matheson book and the alternate ending as opposed to the released ending in the original film. What Matheson was talking about was that man's time on the planet as the dominant species had come to an end." It sounds like Warner Brothers is on board for a more thoughtful examination of the themes of the novella, expanding into future decades after the collapse of human society.

Although Goldsman and Warner Brothers haven't revealed who Michael B. Jordan will play or how his character will fit into the new storyline, they have made it abundantly clear Will Smith's return in "I Am Legend 2" is all thanks to the alternate ending.

The sequel will take place decades after the alternate ending

Will Smith epitomizes the classic movie star, known for his meticulous selection of film projects, especially when it comes to sequels. His involvement alone could secure financing and audience interest in a movie. Upon the release of "I Am Legend," the film achieved the typical financial success and positive critical reception associated with Smith's projects in the 2000s. Consequently, discussions about a sequel commenced despite Smith's character meeting his demise in the original.

Initially, Variety reported that the concept revolved around "Game of Thrones" co-creator D. B. Weiss scripting a prequel, following Neville's last stand against the Darkseekers in Washington D.C. However, this idea faced delays and remained in limbo until 2012. During a press tour for another of his films, "Water for Elephants," director Francis Lawrence informed MTV that the sequel was no longer in consideration. The original idea was intriguing, potentially setting up a franchise where humans consistently lose, akin to the "Planet of the Apes" series.

In a groundbreaking development, Deadline reported in 2023 that Akiva Goldsman, the writer of the movie, revealed plans for a sequel that would treat the alternate ending as canon. The sequel is going to be set a couple of decades after the events of the first film. It will be interesting to see how Neville has been holding up.

Will Smith will return in the sequel alongside Michael B. Jordan

Will Smith's approach to sequels has evolved over the years. In 2012, he expressed reluctance about appearing in a sequel to "I Am Legend" during an interview with the BBC. However, the landscape of the movie industry has significantly changed since then, with many major actors now starring in one or more franchises. This shift made Smith's involvement in the greenlit sequel less surprising. What might have truly surprised fans, though, is his collaboration with a contemporary and younger movie star, Michael B. Jordan.

According to a 2023 report by Deadline, Akiva Goldsman had a renewed interest in the project after seeing and loving "The Last of Us" — a sentiment shared by many. Goldsman found particular interest in the series' depiction of a world where humanity is no longer the planet's dominant species, as well as in the multi-decade time jump. While Goldsman didn't divulge specific details about the storyline for the "I Am Legend" sequel, he hinted at an exploration of the idea presented by Richard Matheson, where humanity's reign as Earth's primary rulers had ended. He also suggested that the sequel would adhere more closely to the original text.

As for Michael B. Jordan's role in the film, Goldsman remained tight-lipped, leaving the possibilities wide open. While an obvious path involves the two actors teaming up, Jordan's versatility, demonstrated in his portrayal of an antagonist in "Black Panther," suggests the potential for him to play one of the Darkseekers.

What happens with the cure?

One of the key departures that "I Am Legend" makes from the book is in its portrayal of the Darkseekers. In Richard Matheson's novel, these creatures are unmistakably vampires. Neville's central struggle revolves around understanding their weaknesses and adapting to a world overrun by them. This interpretation created an even bleaker and more desperate atmosphere in the book.

In contrast, the film opted to diminish the vampire element and instead depict the darkseekers as victims of a virus. Neville's mission shifted to finding a cure, imbuing his story with a glimmer of hope. Both the theatrical and alternate endings feature Neville discovering a cure. However, when the alternate ending is considered canonical, it alters the trajectory. In this version, Neville doesn't heroically pass on his cure to Anna to ensure the survival of future generations. Instead, he abandons his research upon realizing the sentience of the Darkseekers.

This raises an intriguing question: What happens with the "cure" Neville discovered in the 30 years following these events? The sequel might choose to disregard the cure, as it may no longer be relevant to the narrative. Nonetheless, it remains to be seen how this factor could complicate human-Darkseeker relations in the future.

The sequel might finally explore the theme of change

Debates among fans about the superiority of books versus their movie adaptations are common, often with each medium having its proponents. In the case of "I Am Legend," however, the consensus leaned toward the book, as the movie arguably presents the story in a less nuanced and shallower manner, favoring common Hollywood tropes, including a heroic self-sacrifice for the greater good.

Interestingly, the movie initially retained the theme of change, a prominent aspect of the book's narrative. However, test audiences reacted unfavorably to the original ending, which revealed Neville's fundamental mistake. This reaction was understandable given the bleakness of that conclusion. The studio's decision to modify the ending to align more with mainstream audience expectations resulted in the removal of the theme of change, which was a core element of the book.

Even symbolic motifs, like the recurring butterfly imagery, are meant to carry deep meaning. Neville's daughter making a butterfly sign before her death and Anna's butterfly tattoo were originally intended to symbolize the Darkseekers' evolution from human beings, mirroring a butterfly's transformation from a caterpillar. The alternate ending reinforces this theme, suggesting that future installments of the story will delve deeper into not only change but also the acceptance of change.