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The Perpetual Distress of Dystopian Buildings in I Am Legend: Analytical Essay

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For my final project, I wanted to explore the ideas of monstrosity that lie outside those normal ideologies and classical interpretations of what it means to be considered a monster. The process for choosing my particular monster was a relatively easy one because through extensively researching the principles of monstrosity, as well as, my presence within this course, my overall perceptions of this notion has been eye-opening. Even to the point where it was hard not to find the monstrous in every single object or space. However, before enduring in this rather fascinating subject, my own awareness of monsters existed in traditional concepts like big, gross, and ugly creatures and beast who strictly emphasized a frightening appearance. This definition is essentially not wrong as the Oxford English Dictionary provides an etymology that classifies monster as a disfiguration of a person and/or “misshapen being,” deriving from the Anglo-Norman and Middle French monstre during the first half of the thirteenth century. And more specifically, “any imaginary creature that is large, ugly, and frightening” (OED). However, it was the exposure to this course material that allowed myself to think in a new light, not just to see monsters as imaginary creatures, but as social tools that we find difficult to accept in our society because of their embodiment of undesirable characteristics and attributes. This also permitted me to realize, despite appearance, what makes a monster monstrous is their abilities to represent a formidable unknown and a deviant form; something that disrupts social boundaries and spaces, and provides an eerie sensation that we are not able to properly understand. Therefore, by this notion, something natural or non-distinctive within our society can be considered monstrous. For this very reason, is why I wanted to analyze buildings as my source of monstrosity, but more specifically the dystopian buildings of the catastrophic urban environment in the film I am Legend.

Throughout our course we have discussed several theoretical concepts related to monstrosity and the portrayal of monsters over time, in literary works and films. A key concept I believe helped me to better understand of the monstrosity of buildings, as well as formulate my own working definition of monstrosity, draws on Edmund Burke’s A Philosophical Enquiry Into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful. It is his concept of the sublime as it relates to the notions of infinity; more specifically the artificial infinite that ties these two perceptions together. In his text, Burke talks about infinity as “a tendency to fill the mind with that sort of delightful horror, which is the most genuine effect and truest test of the sublime. There are scarce any things which can become the objects of our senses, that are really and in their own nature infinite” (Burke 92). What Burke is implying, is that the uniform succession of the infinite is another source of the sublime because it evokes the most powerful and intense sensation analogous to terror. We see this infinite sublime in the modernizing urban landscapes congested with high-raising skyscrapers and towers. You would assume this evokes a desirable effect because of the awe-inspiring aesthetical presence in these highly visible structures. However, I would argue that the effect is actually much of the opposite. We are able to understand the urban based on a composite of experiences, these experiences are negative because of an emotional effect of spatiality where the concern of fear is associated in the urban space. The fear is created by our own perceptions of threat, threat in terms of our abilities for self-identification within the bounds of monstrous buildings. I was really able to appreciate this justification in the film I am Legend because the depicts the exorcised anxieties of emptiness that arise in an urban environment.

I am Legend stars Will Smith as a military scientist named Robert Neville. In the movie, a viral plague wipes out all of humanity, leaving the remainder of those infected as mindless zombie-like flesh and blood seekers. Robert, apparently being the only human immune to the virus, is considered the fabled last human being left on Earth. For three years in the post-apocalyptic urban setting of New York City, Neville is tasked with one mission, to reverse the effects of the virus on the infected using his own immune blood. Although traditional notions of monstrosity would argue that the infected are the monsters of this film, I would disagree. The true perceptions of monstrosity actually lie Robert’s destructive urban environment; the large dystopian buildings of what was once New York City. Director James Lawrence presents us with this unanticipated interpretation in the opening scene of this film. The film begins with several shots of the mise-en-scéne of New York, followed by Robert in a car chasing a group of deer through the empty streets of the city. After coming to a roadblock of debris, Robert is forced to get out of the car and track the deer by foot. This is where Lawrence lays down the true hidden innuendo of monstrosity in the movie. He uses a shot-reverse-shot pattern to cut from a high angle crane shot of Robert and his dog as they carefully navigate through the excessively high grass field that once depicted a city street. Following this shot, the film cuts to a slightly-low angle full shot of Robert and the vast collection of buildings in this city space. This is a very captivating sequences of shots because it truly accentuates Robert’s horrific experience of being that last human being alive, within the confines of this dystopian space on a post-apocalyptic Earth. The high angle crane shot presents the intricacy of terror that Robert has, from the point of view of the buildings. The low angle full shot of Robert, is not to encapsulate the presence of Neville, but actually to fabricate the ever-lasting infinity associated in this urban scene. Edmund Burke suggest that the “eye not being able to perceive the bounds of many things, they seem to be infinite, and they produce the same effects as if they were really so” (Burke 92). This relates to the context of this film sequence because the shots emphasize the picturization of the cityscape as an object of horror. These congenitally malformed structures are meant to intimidate Robert because the infiniteness “cannot be objectified by understanding and imagination” (Tandt 127), and thus when toppled with the gothic depictions of dystopia; a perpetual distress is compounded with disgust and terror.

This surrealistic approach to rationalizing with these ideas brought me back to my childhood when I had slightly fearful feelings that I could not accurately comprehend. Feelings that occurred on my visits to New York City, where an unknown terror resonated in the confines of this illustrious urban space. As a young and naive child, I could not tie these uneasy feelings to anything. I would ask myself questions surrounding this ambience of emotion, but again, I could not come to terms of it. I thought that maybe it was a result of a sensory overload from the extensive amounts of people, traffic, and/or sound that was densely packed into this fast-paced, never stop moving, metropolis. I mean NYC is considered the city that never sleeps. Yet, it was not until this semester where I could finally fathom why I had fearful anxieties. I realized I was never terrified from the threat of people or the exhausting magnitude of sound; my dismay emerged from the overwhelmingnes of the monstrous buildings. The buildings distorted my perceptions of reality because their everlasting persona was too much for me to completely understand, they inspired ambivalent feelings of the sublime that were an exhilaration of threat to my own selfhood. My experiences are perfectly epitomized in James Lawrence’s blockbuster film because I was able to see myself in the shoes of Robert Neville. Robert’s overwhelming fear does not originate from the existence of the infected or the pressure of restoring humanity, it hails from the heinous presence of the unending buildings that encircle him in his metropolitan setting. And it is for that very reason, the ideas of this monstrosity are defined as the large and grotesque buildings, that consist in Burke’s infinite and conjure a power intensity of fear.

In recognition to the theoretical context of Edmund Burke and the guiding principles of this course, I am able to finally appreciate the monstrosity of buildings. Had I not been exposed to these concepts, I could never have come to terms with my once puzzling despair. I would just solely see buildings as non-distinctive structures, providing a means for dwelling and shelter. Not realizing their powerful presence to evoke such heightened sensations of fear, I am truly awe-inspired in how something so ordinary can create this effect.

Annotated Bibliography

Source 1:

Donnar, Glen. “‘Final Men’, Racialised Fears & the Control of Monstrous Cityscapes in Post-Apocalyptic Hollywood Films.” Cityscapes of the Future, 2018, doi:10.1163/9789004361317_012.

The scholarly text of “Final Men’, Racialised Fears & the Control of Monstrous Cityscapes in Post-Apocalyptic Hollywood Films,” is a chapter in a book surrounded by the notions of urban space in science fiction called Cityscapes of the Future. This chapter essentially explores the “horrific experiences” of being that last human being alive, within the confines of dystopian spaces on a post-apocalyptic earth. The chapter draws on three cinematic films, two motion pictures relating to the 1920s-1950s late classical era, and one being a renowned 21st century blockbuster hit. The blockbuster hit being the very film that I am centering my final project on, Francis Lawrence’s 2007 film I Am Legend. Author Glen Donnar reveals the intricacy of terror associated with urban spaces. He believes cities provide an eerie sensation of fear through a term he coins the “imagination of survival” (170). This term basically touches on urban survival as a depiction of apocalyptic catastrophe in dystopian cityscapes. The connotation of this concept entails being the fabled last man on Earth and how there is an abominable freedom tied to the infrastructures in these cities. They exorcise anxieties of emptiness as the man lies alone in a destructive urban environment.

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This source was essential in my analysis for the monstrosity of buildings because the scholarly text talks about there is terror associated to urban environments, and more specifically, environments of dystopian characteristics. In my writing I focused on the monstrosity of buildings through the lenses of I am Legend. This paper touched on the catastrophic cityscape of the film as well, so then I was able to get a better idea in how to conjure my own ideas of monstrosity using notion.

Source 2:

Ameel, Lieven. “Cities Utopian, Dystopian, and Apocalyptic.” The Palgrave Handbook of Literature and the City, 2016, pp. 785–800., doi:10.1057/978-1-137-54911-2_49.

“Cities Utopian, Dystopian, and Apocalyptic” by Ameel Lieven explores how monstrous buildings of dystopias are contrary to idealistic aspirations for utopian cities. Lieven begins his work by describing utopia as a spatial form that is consistent with the notions of a harmonious and wholesome society by saying “‘utopia’ is used here to denote the depiction of a non-exisiting, imagined state or place, in which one finds crystallized a vision of a the ‘good society’” (785). However, this rational for describing an urban setting is illogical as most city spaces represent characteristics of what is considered contrasting. Dystopia refers to spaces that are alarmingly unpleasant, they are grim environments that resemble the opposite of imagined better worlds. The modernization of cities is congested with high-raising skyscrapers and towers that evoke a desirable effect. Yet, in apocalyptic tragedy, that utopian ambition for the perfection in infrastructure is then eradicated with the reality of dismal. Buildings go from being elegant and modern to a distasteful appearance of horrific and grotesque.

This source was essential in my analysis for the monstrosity of buildings because it allowed me to explore the characteristics that make up a dystopian cityscape. The source clarified my understanding that buildings play a vital role in this depiction because of their horrific appearances that emphasize the dystopian state following a catastrophic event. I was able to apply this source when I thoroughly inspected the destructive urban environment in I am Legend.

Source 3:

England, Marcia R., and Stephanie Simon. “Scary Cities: Urban Geographies of Fear, Difference and Belonging.” Social & Cultural Geography, vol. 11, no. 3, 2010, pp. 201–207., doi:10.1080/14649361003650722

“Scary Cities: Urban Geographies of Fear, Difference and Belonging” is written by Marcia R. England and Stephanie Simon in the journal Social & Cultural Geography. The subject matter of this article pertains to cities and our geographies of interactions within the confines of these urban places. Geography in regards to this text refers to “mental maps” and how “we understand the urban based on a composite of images and experiences” (201). These experiences are at times positive, but also at times negative. The negativity is found in a shared concern of fear and the association of urban space as an emotional effect of spatiality. Continuing off this point, the connections between fear and city space are not relatively new. There has always existed a diverse range of fears produced through cities from economic, political, social, and cultural levels. However, it is the section on “Urban geographies of fear” that really fascinates me in its relation to the monstrosity of buildings. England and Simon talk about how in “urban spaces, boundaries can be challenged and unease can occur” (202). This is because fear is created by our perceptions of threat, so the boundaries that are being threatened exist in our own abilities for self-identification within the bounds of monstrous buildings, in a term the authors call “scary cities.”

This source was essential in my analysis for the monstrosity of buildings because it helped me deduce my own understanding for fear when I was confined in city spaces as a kid. It helped me realize the distortion of reality and loss of perception when bounded by such large and monstrous structures. I was able to use this in my writing because it furthered my inquiry on the eerie sensations related to buildings using Burke’s sublime and infinite.

Source 4:

Tandt, Christophe Den. “Masses, Forces, and the Urban Sublime.” The Cambridge Companion to the City in Literature, June 2014, pp. 126–137., doi:10.1017/cco9781139235617.011.

Christophe Den Tandt’s “Masses, Forces, and the Urban Sublime of the The Cambridge Companion to the City in Literature,” analyzes the urban scene of the nineteenth, twentieth, and twenty-first centuries. He starts off with a term he calls “the realization of multitudinous of humanity,” in which Den Tandt describes as “the city defeats their power of perception” (126). This topic closely relates my study of monstrous buildings because the passage talks about how the urban sublime is tied to the picturization of cities as “objects of fascination and terror” (127). He continues to draw on theories from Edmund Burke in how the sublime is an idea that is fitted to excite the sensations of pain and danger that operate in a manner analogous to terror. Within the spaces of cities, the primary focus situates in the sublime ranges of architecture that imitates human subjects because there is this infinity “that cannot be objectified by understanding and imagination” (127). Buildings alone in city sprawls are awe-inspiring because of their highly visible presence, especially in gothic depictions of dystopia, in which perpetual distress is compounded with disgust and terror. Thus, “cityscapes spark off epiphanies about multitudinous humanity” (127).

This source was essential in my analysis for the monstrosity of buildings because it forged my own interpretations of Edmund Burke’s sublime and the infinity. The source provided me with useful insight in how the sublime is closely linked to urban space because of intense sensations that cities provide us with. I was able to tie this excerpt into my own writing when Christophe Den Tandt talked about how buildings “cannot be objectified by understanding and imagination” (127). I realized that the sublime, with the association of infinity, brings us to an everlasting emotional state that is very difficult to grasp. This state is found in the vastness and uniform succession of buildings, thus sparking tremendous terror.

Works Cited

  1. Donnar, Glen. “‘Final Men’, Racialised Fears & the Control of Monstrous Cityscapes in Post-Apocalyptic Hollywood Films.” Cityscapes of the Future, 2018, doi:10.1163/9789004361317_012.
  2. Ameel, Lieven. “Cities Utopian, Dystopian, and Apocalyptic.” The Palgrave Handbook of Literature and the City, 2016, pp. 785–800., doi:10.1057/978-1-137-54911-2_49.
  3. England, Marcia R., and Stephanie Simon. “Scary Cities: Urban Geographies of Fear, Difference and Belonging.” Social & Cultural Geography, vol. 11, no. 3, 2010, pp. 201–207., doi:10.1080/14649361003650722
  4. Tandt, Christophe Den. “Masses, Forces, and the Urban Sublime.” The Cambridge Companion to the City in Literature, June 2014, pp. 126–137., doi:10.1017/cco9781139235617.011.
  5. 'monster, n., adv., and adj.' OED Online, Oxford University Press, September 2019, www.oed.com/view/Entry/121738. Accessed 5 December 2019.
  6. Warner Bros. Pictures presents Village Roadshow Pictures in association with Weed Road ; Overbrook Entertainment ; 3 Arts Entertainment ; Heyday Films ; Original Film ; produced by Akiva Goldsman, David Heyman, James Lassiter, Neal H. Mortiz, Erwin Stoff ; screenplay by Mark Protosevich and Akiva Goldsman ; directed by Francis Lawrence. I Am Legend. Burbank, CA :Warner Home Video, 2008
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The Perpetual Distress of Dystopian Buildings in I Am Legend: Analytical Essay [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2022 Aug 12 [cited 2024 Mar 5]. Available from: https://edubirdie.com/examples/the-perpetual-distress-of-dystopian-buildings-in-i-am-legend-analytical-essay/
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