Science Fiction in the Suburbs

Without a doubt, the rise of science fiction after World War II coincides with the movement of American families into Suburbia. Of course this move was not a real move of all people but a move imagined by most Americans as the ultimate destination. The suburban landscape proved a viable place for young adults to imagine a much more adventurous landscape. Films like Star Wars aptly take advantage of the story of a boy from a small safe environment thrown into a galactic adventure. However, it seemed that this concomitant relationship was a moment relegated to the 60s through the early 80s, when urban environments and dystopia became the more envisioned model (think Terminator, RoboCop, Alien, Demolition Man). Still, the moment seems to be coming back that suburbia and science fiction can find common ground. Two films I’ve seen this summer have played on the gender roles associated with suburbia, Oblivion and World War Z.

At its best Oblivion involves three well-considered plots wrapped in one. First you have a story centered on the power of family, love, and memory; second, a film about clones and drones—whatever that means; finally, a science fiction film about an invasion. However, none of these are tackled in a meaningful way that makes Tom Cruise or the audience question the power of these narratives.

The film, despite its science fiction pretensions, is a story about love and family. Tom Cruise is a “tech” responsible for maintaining militarized drone pods that protect large water fusion reactors. His commander maintains a connection between him and their boss an unknown woman in the “Tech” a massive orbiting platform. Oddly enough, the whole feel of the man going off to work, the woman staying at home communicating with this unknown woman plays on the overburdened narrative of the suburban home. Cruise plays the commuter who faces unknown dangers out in the world while his “wife” stays at home seeking advice from the “mother.” It’s a tiring trope to watch, especially considering that there is room for subversion in this relationship. Unfortunately it stays watered down, especially as further suburban tropes come into play. There’s the “other woman” and the house by the lake that he goes to—to escape his “wife.”

The import of drones would be an interesting topic to actually dig into. The idea of the final judgment of the drone attacks on scavs would and should bring up important questions about the morals of an unthinking machine that kills on command. The film even goes for the double entendre of cloning and that Cruise, like the mechanical pods, is in fact a drone himself. This is not questioned once in the film and Cruises realization of “what he is” is a short fight scene with himself (five minutes?).

Finally the film plays its biggest homage by basing the plot around 2001: A Space Odyssey. The chronological beginning of the film, but narratively last bit of action, is the revelation that Cruise was once a hotshot astronaut, who like the crew in 2001 is sent out to discover an unknown entity. This mechanical entity replicates Cruise and another member of his crew and uses them first to invade and eradicate all life on Earth and then uses further clones to maintain the aforementioned drones. This plot is simple and it is odd to say this but Ewan McGregor’s The Island and Schwarzenegger’s The Sixth Day was much better about the implications about cloning than this film.

World War Z on the other hand, runs a similar story of a man separated from his family, while he goes about doing “his work.” This time, Brad Pitt leaves his family to pursue a cure for the zombie apocalypse. The key moments in this film come down to how his teether to his family is relegated to his cell phone connection, similar to the family figure who makes long distance trips and the only connection back is through the medium of modern technology. In fact, the very livelihood of the family is tied to the fact that he is able to communicate. When he disappears from the rest of the world, his superiors assume he is dead and cut his family out of the picture. This is certainly more of a stretch but the audience is made to feel fairly early in the film that his success, his life, his family depends on him doing this job and without it all is lost. In fact, very little attention is paid to the fact that everyone is being kind of a jerk to him about the very situation and it is indeed accepted that this is how the world works. This is all fine and good but perhaps playing on the fact that the remainder of human society is willing to play hard and fast with lives would remind people of who the real zombies may be.

This moment of suburbia and science fiction may just be a flash in the pan, other films that use this idea do not seem so pervasive. Yet, I believe that in storytelling, the suburbs remain a place where things are hidden from plain site and thus become a place for magical and mystical thinking. Consider some of the short stories and novels of Philip K. Dick, a great number of them choose the suburbs as the prime location for things to pop out of sewer holes or to live in the attic. And of course there is a movie I’ve never seen all the way through in one sitting, Gremlins. A film that without a doubt turns the suburbs on its head by having little id-things, run amok in the purported quite of the suburban landscape.

Now, the big question: what does this all mean? I believe that more than anything, it reveals how Americans view the suburbs. A place that is too quite, too nice, and too maintained. Thinking fantastically about the suburbs releases us from simply viewing the suburbs as the perfect living environment. In a way, it is a way for us to create life out of a place that is quite dead in its boringness.

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