Science Fiction Film & Television

The suburban fantastic

A semantic and syntactic grouping in contemporary Hollywood cinema

Science Fiction Film & Television (2017), 10, (1), 1–25.

Abstract

In the 1980s, American movies started to tell stories in which preteen and teenage boys, living in the suburbs, are called upon to combat and defeat disruptive external forces that take the form of popular cultural figures of the fantastic: aliens, vampires, demons, gremlins, Frankenstein’s monster and so on. This article argues for a new critical term ‘suburban fantastic’ to define this hitherto overlooked and under-appreciated Hollywood genre. Drawing on Rick Altman’s discussion of film genre, suburban fantastic films are seen to blend semantic elements (characters, narratives, settings, tropes) from suburban culture with semantic and syntactic elements (the constitutive relations between the different aspects of the text) from mid-twentieth century sf, horror and fantasy films. This article begins with the earliest instances in this semantic and syntactic cycle, Amblin’s sf and horror pastiches (E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982), Gremlins (1984), Back to the Future (1985)), and traces what Altman calls the process of ‘genrification’ through the imitations and variations of The ’burbs (1989), Matinee (1993), Jumanji (1995) and others. It reveals a necessary, symbolic connection between the identity melodrama of the (usually male) protagonist and the element of the fantastic that disrupts placid suburban life. It also discusses the current state of the suburban fantastic’s genrification, and touches upon these films’ production and reception contexts and their ritual and ideological functions.

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McFadzean, Angus