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Historicizing Dystopia: Suburban Fantastic Media and White Millennial Childhood

On the nostalgic and technophobic motives of the recent boom in suburban fantastic media.

Suburban fantastic cinema emerged in large part from Steven Spielberg’s Amblin production company in the 1980s and was heavily shaped by directors like Joe Dante, Robert Zemeckis, and Spielberg himself. Amblin developed the formula in which an adolescent child dealing with a personal dilemma (divorced parents, bullying) finds an opportunity to resolve their personal issues through a conflict involving a heightened fantastic entity: Elliott accepts his parents’ divorce by letting E.T. “go home,” just as the Goonies overcome the developers who plan to buy their homes by discovering pirate treasure. These films appealed to suburban children by representing them on screen in idealized form, acknowledging the threat of the outside world, and promising a happy ending to their struggles of identity and belonging. Although governmental organizations, the military, and big business were conspiring to cut down the forest, knock down a favorite house, or split up the family, the heroism and daring of the protagonist prevented these outcomes and secured or improved upon the status quo.

The phenomenal and often unexpected success of these movies testified to their large audience demographic. E.T. (1982) was the highest grossing film of all time until Jurassic Park stomped its record in 1993. Suburban fantastic movies such as Gremlins (1984) and Back to the Future (1985) formed some of the biggest box-office hits of the ’80s and ’90s. Producers and studios imitated Amblin’s formula and blended it with preexisting genres, often moving away from the "fantastic" genre into fantasy (The NeverEnding Story), road movie (Flight of the Navigator), adult-focused mystery (The ’Burbs) and crime (Home Alone, one of the top-grossing movies of 1990). The popularity of these movies has never faded, even though the subgenre largely fell out of favor in the 2000s.

Why then has the suburban fantastic returned in the 2010s? It signifies more than simply producers and executives attempting to capture a lucrative market of now grown-up viewers. Over 30 years, Gen Xers and millennials have gone from bucolic suburban utopias full of exciting home technology like television, video cameras, VCRs, and PCs, to science-fictional technology of smart phones, social media, touchscreens, videocalls, and the internet. But rather than liberating us, this technology has led into a dystopian world of AI, drone strikes, and cyber warfare, a world ruled by global tech corporations that distract us with fake news, poisonous social media, and video game hyperviolence. In response, new suburban fantastic stories marry contemporary technophobia with nostalgia for an ’80s suburban childhood and its outdated technology, juxtaposing dystopia and utopia to uncover the history of our present state, looking back into the past for the signs that foretold our disquieting present day.