Review of Suburban Fantastic Cinema: Growing Up in the Late Twentieth Century
Angus McFadzean. Suburban Fantastic Cinema: Growing Up in the Late Twentieth Century. Wallflower Press, 2019. Short Cuts: Introduction to Film Studies. Paperback. vii + 140 pg. $22.00. ISBN 9780231189958.
The seed for this slim book was a 2017 essay in the Journal of Science Fiction Film and Television that anatomized a cluster of movies from the 1980s and 1990s the author saw as forming a new genre he called the “suburban fantastic.” At 25 pages, the essay was one-fifth the length of the new volume, which is basically an expanded version, chopped into five chapters and with more developed readings. A sixth chapter extends the discussion to encompass films released in the twenty-first century.
McFadzean’s basic claims are cogent and illuminating. According to him, the suburban fantastic initially crystallized in the films of Steven Spielberg and other directors—e.g. Joe Dante, Robert Zemeckis—who worked for his production company, Amblin Entertainment, during the early-to-mid 1980s. In movies such as E.T.: The Extraterrestrial (1982), Gremlins (1984), and The Goonies (1985), a distinct pattern emerged: an adolescent boy with some kind of personal dilemma (conflict with parents, alienation from peers) is confronted with a supernatural intrusion (an alien being, demonic entities); these related crises develop in parallel over the course of the narrative, such that the resolution of one leads to the resolution of the other. At the end of the story, the supernatural element has been expunged and the protagonist has been effectively socialized into the suburban patriarchal order. Later in the decade and into the 1990s, other producers and directors developed and experimented with this basic model, in films such as Flight of the Navigator (1986), Short Circuit (1986), Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991), Jumanji (1995), and numerous others. In the process, they hybridized the form with themes and narrative elements borrowed from science fiction, horror, romantic comedy, and other genres. At the same time, a significant subset of these films included parodies or pastiches of earlier fantastic traditions, especially 1950s SF movies, making the genre increasingly self-reflexive. Yet the core remained a fusion of personal melodrama and fantastic incident, usually set in contemporary suburbia or some narrative surrogate for it.
Laying out this model, structurally and historically, takes up the first two chapters, with chapters three through five pursuing specific thematic strands within this cinematic corpus. Chapter three focuses on the crisis of masculinity experienced by the youthful protagonist, who over the course of the narrative moves from outsider to representative of the patriarchal order, in effect being successfully socialized into an appropriate gender identity (as a Freudian critic would say, Oedipalized) through confrontation with the fantastic. Chapter four further addresses the self-reflexivity of the genre by analyzing a series of films in which the mass media is centrally, almost metafictionally present—e.g., Explorers (1985), The Monster Squad (1987), Matinee (1993). Chapter five considers the genre’s socioeconomic implications, claiming that the fantastic intrusion into suburbia functions as some sort of allegory of contemporary capitalism and its key social institutions: government, science, and the military. The final chapter, as noted above, looks at later Hollywood versions of this basic story structure, such as War of the Worlds (2005), Frankenweenie (2012), and the Stranger Things TV series (2016-).
While McFandzean’s core claims are largely convincing, and many of his readings of specific films are compelling, few readers will really need this longer version of the argument—the 2017 article is probably enough. A larger problem, at least for me, is the structuralist framework underpinning the argument (borrowed from film theorist Rick Altman), which tends to make the process of narrative construction sound much too mechanical. Essentially, the genre is reduced to a kind of toolkit of “semantic” and “syntactic” elements from which individual filmmakers borrow to assemble a new film text. While McFadzean is a bit more attentive to external history than are most structuralist critics—he shrewdly shows, for example, how developments like the new PG-13 rating impacted the genre—he still makes most film narratives sound like mix-and-match aggregations of pre-fabricated materials rather than complex and often contradictory aesthetic creations. This tendency is exacerbated by his rather mechanical, often jargon-clotted prose: “Even as the fantastic established itself as a semantic and syntactic bend, with the defining syntactic trait of a connection between the pre-teen protagonists and the element of the fantastic, it became subject to a series of experiments and extensions that altered its semantic and syntactic set” (39). If this were what the process of movie-making is actually like, no one would ever watch movies.
This problem aside, I can recommend Suburban Fantastic Cinema to scholars and students of SF and horror film, and fantastic media more broadly—though, as noted, the article-length version will be more than adequate for most purposes.
Rob Latham is the author of Consuming Youth: Vampires, Cyborgs, and the Culture of Consumption (2002) and the editor of The Oxford Handbook of Science Fiction (2014) and Science Fiction Criticism: An Anthology of Essential Writings (2017). He is a senior editor for The Los Angeles Review of Books.