I AM LEGEND - DVD REVIEW by Tom McCurrie
Sometimes filmmakers don't know how to end a movie, so they shoot two endings and show them in test screenings to see which one works for audiences. Director Francis Lawrence did this for the recent I AM LEGEND, finally choosing one ending over the other. Since the movie made over $255 million in the US alone, Lawrence probably feels he made the right choice commercially.
But did he make the right choice aesthetically? Courtesy of the recent DVD release of I AM LEGEND, we'll be able to judge for ourselves, since the Two-Disc Special Edition not only contains the original ending, but the alternate ending that didn't make it past test screenings.
Based on the 1954 Richard Matheson novel of the same name, I AM LEGEND tells the tale of Dr. Robert Neville (played by Will Smith), the last survivor of a man-made plague that has destroyed all human life on earth. I say human life because whoever the plague hasn't killed outright has mutated into murderous, vampire-like creatures.
I AM LEGEND definitely has some things going for it, especially the visual effects that convincingly portray a New York City empty of people (except for Neville) and full of overgrown plant life and wild animals, and a Will Smith performance that is so charismatic you don't notice he's the only actor in the first half of the movie.
Unfortunately, problems surface in the second half. Once the vampires reveal themselves to do battle with Neville, the picture becomes much more routine. After all, there have been so many movies about humans battling vampires since DRACULA and NOSFERATU that seeing this same plot again makes the film a bit stale. Worse still, the vampires are obviously CGI creations rather than flesh-and-blood actors - the only time the visual effects let the film down.
The ending used in the theatrical release also feels generic. Neville hands off a cure to the plague he's discovered to two other human survivors - a woman and child - then blows himself up in his brownstone fortress, taking the vampire leader Alpha Male along with him, to give that woman and child enough time to escape the city. We then learn that the woman and child hooked up with some other survivors and used the cure to reverse the plague's effects. Thus Neville became a legend as the man who saved humanity.
This is certainly a commercially effective ending, simply because it is a happy one. Mankind is saved, and even though Neville dies, his death isn't in vain since the world is cured due to his actions. Of course, the ending is also rather predictable and formulaic - the hero sacrifices himself, as heroes tend to do, and ends up redeeming humanity in the process.
So what about the alternate ending? In turns out that in this one, the Alpha Male and his fellow vampires don't invade Neville's brownstone to kill him, but to rescue Alpha Male's lover, Alpha Female, who Neville has been experimenting on to find a cure to the plague. When Alpha Male does in fact rescue his vampire lover, he and his minions simply turn around and leave, sparing Neville's life. This gives the vampires an intriguing "humanity" they didn't have in the original. The alternate ending concludes with Neville, the woman and the child leaving New York in search of more survivors.
A much more unusual, thought-provoking ending to be sure, but one that has its own problems - it provides no closure for the audience, since we don't know what happens to Neville and his companions, and it doesn't explain why the title of the movie is I AM LEGEND, since Neville can't be a legend to humanity if he doesn't do something awe-inspiring enough to justify that legend - like dying to save the world from the plague.
Then again, neither of these endings truly do justice to the one found in Matheson's original novel. In the book, in addition to Neville and the vampires, there is also a group of people that are infected by the plague, but haven't yet morphed into vampires - they've somehow found a way to keep the final transformation into monster from happening. Nevertheless, Neville makes it his life's work to kill these infected humans as well as the full-blown vampires, thinking they will eventually turn into vampires anyway and murder him. In self-defense, this group of infected humans captures and plans to execute Neville. To these infected but still-normal people, Neville is an inhuman beast, someone who strikes without warning to kill the innocent (it's not their fault they're infected, after all), just like the legendary monsters of old - vampires, werewolves, witches, etc. Before he dies, Neville realizes that the infected consider him one of these mythical monsters, so his final words are "I am legend."
Which ending is best of the three? I prefer the one from the novel, but again, check out I AM LEGEND on DVD to decide for yourself.
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A graduate of USC's School of Cinema-Television, Tom McCurrie has worked as a development executive, story analyst, screenwriter and teacher of screenwriting. He lives in Los Angeles and is finally finishing up a really awesome novel.