Guest Writer – Michael J. Miller
In 2007 Will Smith starred as Robert Neville in I Am Legend, the second cinematic adaptation of Richard Matheson’s 1954 short story of the same name (the first being 1971’s The Omega Man). I Am Legend is the story of one man left alone in a world of vampires. The 2007 film received a fair bit of criticism for significantly departing from the plot of the novel, especially in regard to the ending. However, personally, I think the changes were necessary (and quite brilliant). We have three very different endings with three very specific challenges to the nature of our humanity.
Both the film and the short story essentially serve as parables – their messages tailored to their specific viewing audience. The short story deals with what it means to lose your humanity to the ordeals of the Cold War while the film addresses what we must do to retain our humanity in a post-9/11 era. In regard to tone and style, I’d say both the short story and film are dystopian horror. But I think the real horror of the story (intentionally) comes from our potential inability to rise to the challenge it offers. Obviously, since we’re discussing the endings of these works, this will be full of spoilers.
In 2007, I wasn’t much for the horror genre. However, I did see I Am Legend in theatres. I was out to lunch with my friend Ashley when, after lunch, we decided to hit the movies. Liking horror movies even less than I, it was surprising when she suggested I Am Legend. Scariness aside, I was in. I later learned Ashley only knew Will Smith was in it and was expecting a romcom like Hitch. Ha.
My most vivid memory of that first viewing is the scene when Robert fearfully follows his dog Sam into a dark warehouse. As this scene played out Ashley drew her knees up to her chest, buried her face in her arms, and repeated, “Oh no, oh no, oh no, oh no, oh no, oh no, oh no.” It certainly didn’t become a favorite movie for her. For me, it was a different story. I was captivated. I had to read the short story – which I found to be brilliant too, if wildly different. Yet it wasn’t until the DVD release that I truly fell in love with the film. Now, care of the DVD’s alternate ending, I Am Legend stands as one of my favorite films.
The feel of the two works is very different. Matheson’s short story is, by far, the creepier of the two. The sense of isolation is claustrophobic and Robert Neville is a man on a dark and violent mission. He hunts all day and is hounded all night – alternating between killing vampires and being tormented by them. Robert hunts and kills the vampires physically while they use his isolation to psychologically persecute him.
In the film, Doctor Robert Neville appears to be the only non-infected human left alive in New York City. He spends each day balancing the needs of survival with his single minded quest to cure the virus. With a potential cure in one of his formulas, Robert captures an infected female from a hive of Dark Seekers (the film’s term for its zombie-like vampires) to try and cure her. As the Dark Seekers pursue Robert through their hive, one continues to chase him out into the sunlight. Later Robert sadly records, “Behavioral note: an infected male exposed himself to sunlight today. Now it’s possible decreased brain function or growing scarcity of food is causing them to ignore their basic survival instincts. Social de-evolution appears complete. Typical human behavior is now entirely absent.”
We have two men on two different quests, on to kill his enemy and one to cure them. Their quests end differently too. In the novel, Robert is eventually captured by the vampires he hunts where he comes to learn how they see him. The film’s climax finds Robert trapped in his lab – along with the female Dark Seeker he captured and cured, and two other survivors, a woman named Ana and a boy named Ethan – as the Dark Seekers swarm around them.
In Richard Matheson’s short story, Robert waits in his cell to die at the hands of his captors and he sees growing crowds gathering outside. As he looks out at the crowd of vampires, “Abruptly that realization joined with what he saw on their faces – awe, fear, shrinking horror – and he knew that they were afraid of him. To them he was some terrible scourge they had never seen, a scourge even worse than the disease they had come to live with. He was an invisible specter who had left for evidence of his existence the bloodless bodies of their loved ones.” In a powerful moment of comprehension he sees he is the scary story people tell around the campfire. He is the monster that lurks in the dark. He is what can come and kill them in their sleep as they are powerless to stop him. He has become to the vampires what vampires once were to humanity. He is legend. Most disturbingly, he has become the evil he thought he was fighting. He is the violent, blood-thirsty killer.
This message was very appropriate during the Cold War in the midst of the arms race. Were we becoming/capable of the evil we thought we were fighting? With a growing nuclear arsenal and ever-anxious fingers near the button (not to mention the certainty that we were in the right), we could quickly become the harbingers of death and destruction in the name of peace.
In our post-9/11 world, it is not so much our stockpile of weapons the film questions but rather how we view “the enemy.” We often (and seemingly instinctively) regard all that is not like us as the Other. Philosophically (in the most general definition) if something is Other to us, it is all that we cannot understand. There is no common ground. We’ve developed a habit of othering those people and cultures not exactly like us – a trend we employ with our “enemies.” If our enemy is the Other we cannot understand him, nor should we try. We must only defeat him. In the theatrical ending Robert defeats the Other to save Ana and Ethan. In the alternate ending Robert finally sees the Other isn’t so Other after all.
In the original theatrical ending to the film Robert gives a sample of the cured girl’s blood (along with the salvation it holds) to Ana and Ethan. They escape to the survivor colony in Bethel, VT while Robert takes a grenade he has hidden in his desk and lunges at the Dark Seekers. He offers his life for their safety and the salvation of human kind. It is a stock ending – the hero gives his life to save others – and it always felt a little forced to me. It never seemed to fit with the overall tone of the film.
In the alternate ending however, Robert realizes the reason this pack of Dark Seekers are so fixated on hunting him is because they want to rescue the female he captured. The infected male stepped out into the sun not because he no longer cared about self-preservation but because he was worried about this female he loved. Solemnly Robert re-infects the woman and hands her back to her lover softly saying, “I’m sorry.” With the girl returned, the Dark Seekers leave without a fight. The camera then pans across the wall of Robert’s lab with the pictures of all the Dark Seekers he’s killed with failed formulas in his quest for a cure.
The weight of what Robert has done begins to hit him. If the Dark Seekers can love, they are not the monsters he thought. They are not truly other. They are different yes, but they aren’t unfeeling animals. Nor are they his enemy. To love is to be human; the apparent gulf that separated them from Robert has been removed.
Therein lies the most profound challenge – can we learn to see all we Otherize with eyes of love? Can we begin to break down barriers and form relationships or will we forever remain condemned to destroy life in a vain effort to “save” it? We fight that which we don’t understand but when we can see a “monster” as human they cease to be a monster and relationships can form. We can find peace.
When the DVD for I Am Legend was released it was heavily advertized that it featured an “Alternate Theatrical Version with Controversial Ending.” This was that ending. It begs the question, outside of the normal marketing reasons, why bill it as “controversial”? Why toss this ending out in favor of the theatrical one? Was there something about seeing the humanity in our enemy and seeing the similarities we share with what we once thought of as monstrous that tested less favorably with trial audiences? If so, that has somewhat disturbing implications for us. Would we really rather kill ourselves to destroy “the Other” than realize the truth – that they are human too?
With each change in ending, a new challenge to humanity is offered. In the short story, we are warned about the very real prospect of our becoming the monsters we imagine we are heroically fighting…and how subtle the slide into that role can be. The chosen cinematic ending to the 2007 film calls us (in as generic a way as possible) to the idea of self-sacrifice. And in the alternate ending we are shown the great evil we do when we demonize the Other and it challenges us to be bold enough to look at everyone in the world with eyes of love and see their humanity.
For whatever reason, that ending was rejected by the studio. But I think it’s the ending we need to see. And the true horror comes when we can’t (or realistically won’t) heed it’s warning.