I Am Legend: Becoming the Villain in a Vampiric Dystopia

Toni Stanger
4 min readApr 23, 2021

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This was originally published on July 28th, 2020.

Across the world, life as we know it has changed: we’re living in a real-life dystopia due to a novel strain of the coronavirus. With so many people in lockdown around the globe, people have been influenced to seek out films that explore similar circumstances. Unsurprisingly, the most popular is Contagion, a film about an airborne virus that causes a widespread epidemic. Other people, inspired by the eerily vacant streets seen during lockdown, went one step further and began watching zombie films. But what about vampires?

Vampire films are another sub-genre that we can draw similarities from. Like a contagion, vampires are often presented as a mysterious, widespread threat who hide in plain sight and seem beyond our control. Francis Lawrence’s 2007 film I Am Legend is a notable example of this. The film follows Robert Neville (Will Smith), the last human living in New York after a virus, which was originally created to cure cancer, wiped out most of mankind. With Neville immune and 90% of the population dead, the rest have transformed into nocturnal mutants, known as Darkseekers, which can be likened to vampires.

Throughout the film, flashbacks reveal that a military quarantine was initiated in New York City. Neville, a U.S. Army virologist, lost his wife and daughter in a devastating helicopter accident during Manhattan’s evacuation. Three years later, he now spends his days experimenting with infected rats to find a cure, searching for food and supplies for him and his German shepherd, Sam, and waiting at the South Street Seaport for any other immune humans to respond to his continuous radio broadcast.

I Am Legend follows some of the same beats of life during the COVID-19 pandemic — only it hints at them through flashbacks before jumping straight into full post-apocalyptic horror. While running errands, Neville tells Sam to stay in his van because she can still get infected, but he can’t. Despite his efforts, Sam is eventually bitten by an infected dog and Neville has no choice but to choke her to death before she fully turns. This drives him to go out and attack a group of Darkseekers out of rage. Neville’s intelligence is aided by his previous job as a virologist, but he’s been alone for three years with Sam, who’s now gone, as his only companion.

One of the most interesting things about I Am Legend wasn’t actually included in the film’s theatrical release, but comes from the book of the same name that it’s based on. The film’s original ending rejects the idea that Neville has unknowingly become the villain. With the world’s main population now Darkseekers, Neville is the odd one out. He’s outnumbered in a world that no longer belongs to him. I Am Legend has an alternate ending that is more true to the book’s overall theme, but it was wildly rejected in test screenings, causing them to go with the Hollywood version. These audiences preferred the familiar trope of the hero saving the day no matter the consequences, instead of an intriguing philosophical ending that carries a lot of weight.

In the film’s original ending, Neville captures the alpha female to use as a test subject for his cure. However, the alpha male and his clan break into Neville’s base of operations. As Neville recalls his daughter telling him to “look at the butterflies,” he notices fellow survivor Anna’s butterfly tattoo. He gives her a vial of the alpha female’s blood and sacrifices himself, understanding that she must be the one to deliver the cure.

In the alternate ending, the same events happen until Neville notices the butterfly tattoo — only this time it’s on the neck of the alpha female instead of Anna. This causes him to question if the Darkseekers are truly devoid of humanity like he initially believed. Instead, he realizes they are intelligent creatures who have emotions and care for each other. This is when Neville understands that he’s become the villain. He stops the alpha female from being cured and lets her go, apologizing for his failed trials that resulted in mass death. From the point of view of the Darkseekers, his trials look like torture. The film ends with Neville, Anna and Ethan driving off to explore other ventures, find more people like them and let the Darkseekers live in peace.

Neville seeing the Darkseekers as villains is just human nature. We all want to survive, and an unfamiliar threat will always heighten that innate desire within us. This makes the behaviour of those who hoarded food and toilet paper more understandable — they were protecting themselves in one of the only ways that could comfort them in these unprecedented times. But when it comes to flouting lockdown and refusing to wear masks, does freedom override your morality when it affects others? When Neville realizes that he’s become the villain, it changes everything. It’s not until we consider things from someone else’s point of view, that we are able to become truly selfless. Empathy is one hell of a skill to have.

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Toni Stanger

Freelancer writer on mainly film and television, but sometimes dabbles in celeb culture. Covers mostly horror and female-led media for Screen Queens.