‘I Am Legend’ opens on a very positive note—the cure for cancer is discovered. The world rejoices in the work of a doctor who, in a nutshell, has “reprogramed nature to make it work for the body, rather than against it.” But, as viewers, we can already guess where this is going and in the next scene itself, set three years after, we see an abutting shot of New York City with not a single soul in sight. The world, as we know it, has come to an end. In these gridded streets, Will Smith’s character, Dr. Robert drives his Mustang at full speed with his dog in the passenger seat and that’s when he zooms past a “butterfly symbol” on the wall with the caption “God Still Loves Us,” right below it. This is where the movie subtly foreshadows the very essence of its core theme and ending.
On the surface, ‘I Am Legend’ is another zombie apocalypse movie in which a man sets out to save the world. However, it is a lot more than that. It is about a man’s journey through loneliness, his dwindling sense of hope, and eventually, his realization that even in the darkest times, light can be found. So let’s further discuss this below.
Dr. Robert Vs The World
The reprogrammed virus spares no one and almost the entire population of the world either ends up dead or simply mutates into aggressive zombie-like creatures known as Darkseekers. However, despite knowing that he could possibly be the last human on the planet, Dr. Robert holds on to his hope and fights against what has become of the world. With what seems like a military designed security system, Dr. Robert shuts himself in his home during the darker hours and only leaves when the sun is at its highest point in the sky. Determined to find a cure for the illness that has taken over the world, he desperately goes trawling around the city, looking for medicines.
In his basement, he uses a lab to test his vaccines on rats first and then on the Darkseekers. Through all of this, he stays strong and creates a perfect setup for himself in the city outside, where he often interacts with mannequins at a video store, often reminding you of Tom Hanks talking to his ball, Wilson, in ‘Cast Away.’ However, Dr. Robert has something that Tom Hanks’ character never had—a dog. Although the movie does not make it obvious, his last bit of hope and sanity seems to be resting onto his dog, Samantha.
How Did Fred End Up There?
Robert lives a very routined life where he spends his morning watching old news videotapes, working out, having breakfast with his dog, and then working in his lab. He then often goes out to hunt, plays golf on massive aircraft carriers and of course, sends out a distress signal on all AM frequencies. We can assume that he has been transmitting this signal for the past three years as that marks the length of his quarantine. The first half of the film is just a representation of his everyday routine and some flashbacks that show what happened to his family (we’ll get to that later).
On his birthday, as he makes his way back home with Sam, his world comes crashing down and so does his sanity. In the middle of a street, he sees one of the mannequins from the store, who he had earlier named Fred. Robert loses his shit and starts firing at the mannequin, asking it if it’s real. As soon as he gets close to it, he finds himself dangling upside in what looks like one of his own traps. So how did Fred end up there? And more importantly, who set that trap?
A plausible theory for this world is that the Zombies, or should I say the Darkseekers, set it up at night after Robert trapped one of them for conducting his experiments. This goes way back to the scene where Robert crushes a tube that holds his blood in a blanket to lure one of the Darkseekers and then traps her. This scene perfectly establishes that the Darkseekers have a very strong sense of smell. Right after he captures the Darkseeker, another one comes running right after her but does not step out because they’re all allergic to light.
So it is a possibility that just to seek revenge, the Darkseeker set up the trap and even kept Fred there to lure Robert towards the trap. With his strong sense of smell, the Darkseeker kept an eye on Robert’s every move during the day and then created the perfect revenge plan at night. But this theory also suggests that Robert might have left all of his equipment behind when he had first captured the other Darkseeker. And this itself makes this theory a lot less convincing.
Robert’s Dwindling Hope
So here’s what actually happened. Robert became the victim of his own trap. If you’re not convinced by this yet take a look at the images above. In the scene where he first spots Fred standing in the middle of the street, Fred can be seen slowly turning his head. This scene probably lasts for a second and if you blink, you’ll probably miss it. The entire setup of this is the perfect depiction of how Robert’s loneliness is finally getting in his head.
In the scene, as soon as he finds Fred standing there, he completely loses it and starts firing at the mannequin. He then starts hearing voices all around him and fires at all the buildings around him. This scene is a reflection of his mental state. After spending three years all by himself, he craves human contact and is now slowly starting to lose his mind. ‘Gravity‘ and ‘The Shining‘ are two other well-known movies that have a similar representation of what social isolation can do to a person.
Even before this scene, the film portrays how it’s his birthday and deep inside, he really wants to be around people. He first asks Sam if she’s going to sing for him, he then asks Sam to tell him if she’s planning a surprise birthday for him, and just when he’s heading back home after announcing his distress call, he finds Fred in the middle of the road. The entire day shows how Robert is struggling to deal with his isolation and grief. He probably placed Fred there the day before in the hope that he would be able to capture another Darkseeker. But when he spotted it there, he was not in the right mind to absorb the fact that it’s a mere mannequin.
When All Hope is Gone
In Robert’s flashbacks, it is revealed that his daughter, Marley and his wife were both killed soon after they were evacuated from the city. But before leaving, his daughter gave him the dog who later helped him deal with his loneliness in a world where humans were completely wiped off. Apart from that, his daughter also forms her hands into a butterfly shape and his wife recites a small prayer for him. This again comes in circle with the opening scene where the “butterfly symbol” on the wall with the caption “God Still Loves Us” is seen. This also comes in tandem with the ending of the film.
The flashback shows how Robert was not only attached to Sam because he was his only friend in the lonely world he lived in, but Sam was also a reminder of what his son had left behind for him. The last strands of his hope and belief in god were tied down to this dog but that, too, gets taken away from him. With this, he gives up on all hope and instead of seeking out to save the Darkseekers, he goes on a suicide mission and intends to kill as many of them as he can. This is when he sees light at the end of the tunnel.
Restoration of Hope
Just when Robert almost gives up on his life, another survivor and her son rescue him and take him back home. Anna, the woman who saved him, keeps suggesting that there’s a survivor camp not too far away from them and there’s still hope. But by this time, it seems like Robert has completely given up on the possibility of not only curing the illness but of surviving as well. He keeps denying the existence of the secret survivor’s society and even claims that there’s no god out there. Even in his state of denial, deep inside he somehow realizes that Anna is a ray of hope in his life. This is perfectly depicted in a scene where he walks into his kitchen and for a second, he sees his own wife and daughter there.
Throughout the film, Robert only listens to Bob Marley and only later explains why he does so. He quotes Bob Marley by saying that “he said the people who are trying to make this world worse are not taking a day off. How can I?” This explains how Bob Marley was his inspiration throughout his journey and his music played a key role in giving him hope. Moreover, even his daughter’s name was Marley and Bob Marley’s music probably reminded him of the better days when his family was with him.
The Ending: The Significance of the Butterfly
In the closing scenes of the film, the Darkseekers end up following them all the way to Robert’s home. Realizing that they have been outnumbered, Robert heads to the lab in his basement with Anna and Ethan. As soon as he shuts himself in there, he discovers that the Darkseeker he had captured earlier, is now starting to recover, suggesting that his previous set of medicines have worked. When the other Darkseekers break into his lab and start bashing onto his glass door, with the cracks that appear, a butterfly shape emerges on it and that’s when he also notices a butterfly tattoo on Anna’s neck.
This comes in full circle with the opening scene and also with the scene where Robert’s daughter keeps showing him a butterfly. According to many cultures, the butterfly is associated with the human soul. According to Christian beliefs, the butterfly is a symbol of resurrection. So it is at this moment that he realizes that his purpose is to resurrect humanity and everything till now, has happened for a reason. He extracts blood from the trapped Darkseeker, hands it over to Anna, and then hides her and Ethan in a loft. He then takes a grenade and sacrifices his life to save the world. Thus, becoming the titular “LEGEND”. With this, just like the butterfly, he, too, becomes a symbol of hope for the world.
Alternate Ending, Explained
The film also has an alternate ending which completely changes its entire theme. I personally prefer the original ending as it brings all of its previously introduced plot points in full circle. This alternate ending was apparently the original ending, but after receiving a negative response from a test audience, this was changed.
In this ending, the cracks of the glass door don’t form a butterfly but instead, a Darkseeker makes one using his own blood. That’s when Robert notices a butterfly tattoo on the captured Darkseeker’s neck. Realizing that this means something, Robert opens up the door and to his surprise, at this moment, the Darkseekers show traces of humanity. They show a sense of attachment towards one another and after observing this, Robert apologizes for everything that he did to them.
All this while, the Darkseekers were only against him because Robert experimented on them and even killed many of their kind. However, with this ending, it turns out that Robert is the evil scientist who is trying to forcefully transform a superior species. The Darkseekers then simply forgive him, spare his life and in the final moments, he and Anna drive off into the sunset, hoping that they’ll find the survivor’s community, but not worrying about the fact they may not. This ending is a little problematic as it does not really come in tandem with the previously introduced themes of the film. Dr. Neville survives here, but does he even become a legend? I don’t think so.
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