From Back to the Future to Project Almanac, a short history of suburban sci-fi

When the future happens in your own backyard

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At first glance, Project Almanac isn’t the most conventional of stories. The movie, which opened this past weekend, is about a bunch of high school misfits that just happen to build a time machine out of an Xbox after running into some secret blueprints in their basement. But despite the outlandish premise, it’s actually just the latest in a somewhat-proud cinematic tradition: suburban sci-fi.

First popularized in the 1980s, a Spielbergian decade filled with stories of kids escaping the doldrums of their cookie-cutter lives (or their post-divorce families), suburban science fiction has mutated over the years, but the core tenets have stayed remarkably consistent. Socially ostracized (but secretly brilliant) heroes? Check. Fantastic adventures spurred on by fringe technology and DIY elbow grease? Check. A radical distrust of authority figures of any sort? Check, check, and check.

Fantastic adventures spurred on by fringe technology and DIY elbow grease? Check

"Once I got on the project, all those things slid back to my mind," Almanac director Dean Israelite says of 1980s films like Explorers and The Manhattan Project, before citing one of the heavyweights of the genre: Back to the Future. "That film is how one kid can change the world, and the time travel allows you to dramatize those themes, which is something I wanted to do with Project Almanac, which is use the time travel to dramatize our coming-of-age story." It's a good thing Israelite has a handle on the way those classic films worked: he's also attached to the upcoming reboot of WarGames.

Whether Almanac succeeds at that is a matter of debate (our take: it mostly does, but it’s definitely a high school movie aimed at high school audiences). To get a sense of where the movie fits into the suburban sci-fi lineage, however, we’ve put together a quick list of some of the sub-genre’s most notable entries. Not all of them are great movies, but they’ve shaped a certain brand of science fiction for the last 30 years. And with smartphones serving as a handy replacement for the personal computers that drove the first wave of movies, the time of the suburban sci-fi adventure may be upon us once again.

Ross Miller contributed to this story.


  1. E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (1982)

    The film that arguably started it all. Steven Spielberg’s classic focuses on a family, struggling in the aftermath of divorce, that’s upended when a creature from another world lands in their backyard. The movie’s distrust of authority figures runs so strong that most adults aren’t even seen until the last third of the movie — and when they do appear, they’re often clad in frightening, faceless protective suits. E.T. didn’t just set box-office records; it defined a template that would be followed for the rest of the decade.

  2. WarGames (1983)

    This might be the only movie in the history of film to popularize the modem. Matthew Broderick plays David Lightman, a high school hacker that spends most of his time a) playing Galaga; b) changing his grades online; or c) breaking into software companies to get unreleased video games. Eventually he finds his way into a machine called the WOPR (because movie computers in the ‘80s had amazing names) that basically runs the entire US military.

    "If there’s any movie that is primed for a remake in the world that we live in today, it’s WarGames," says Israelite, who just so happens to be directing said remake. But check out the original first — and see if you can spot the cameos from Reservoir Dogs’ Mr. Blonde (Michael Madsen) and The West Wing’s Leo McGarry (John Spencer).

  3. Back to the Future (1985)

    Back to the Future isn’t just the best time travel movie in suburban sci-fi; it’s arguably the best time travel movie ever made. Robert Zemeckis directs an airtight script that he co-wrote with Bob Gale. This is why DeLoreans are still cool. It’s why I still like Huey Lewis and the News. And it is the reason why I’ll be buying a pair of these shoes later this year.

  4. Explorers (1985)

    If you’ve ever been at a party and had someone ask, "What was that movie with a 15-year-old Ethan Hawke where River Phoenix made a spaceship with an Apple IIc?" this is the answer. Clearly inspired by E.T., it’s directed by Joe Dante, the same filmmaker behind Gremlins and The ‘Burbs. Explorers isn’t the underrated classic that The ‘Burbs is, and the effects don’t hold up in the slightest, but if you were a kid just learning about computers at the time, it was amazing.

  5. The Manhattan Project (1986)

    While a mediocre movie, The Manhattan Project is arguably one of the purest expressions of 1980s suburban sci-fi. Christopher Collet is the brilliant, teenaged son of a single mom, who discovers that his mother’s would-be suitor (John Lithgow) is working at a clandestine military facility manufacturing weapons-grade plutonium. To shine light upon the nefarious deeds (and remove the threat of a new father figure), he steals plutonium from the lab and makes a working nuclear bomb. Because that’s always a good way to make a point.

  6. Sneakers (1992)

    The 1990s swept much of the ‘80s away, and with it went most of the sub-genre. One of the lone holdouts during the decade is this film from WarGames co-writer Lawrence Lasker, which can generally be described as "suburban sci-fi except everybody’s old." Robert Redford leads a group of reformed hackers that are recruited by the NSA to steal a mysterious black box that can decrypt any computer system in the world. Redford’s entire crew is made up of misfits and outcasts, and the anti-authoritarian sentiments here are stronger than ever — except for the part when the NSA hands out presents at the end like it’s Christmas morning.

  7. The Butterfly Effect (2004)

    The Matrix softened the sci-fi ground in 1999, no doubt leading in part to this time travel movie with Ashton Kutcher. The title itself is pretty nerdy territory, and the entire film is made up of a cascading series of cause-and-effect reactions put in motion whenever Kutcher leaps back in time to fix aspects of his life. It’s a mechanism that will seem awfully familiar if you’ve seen Project Almanac — but for the full experience, be sure to track down the insanely macabre director’s cut ending. (We’re serious. It’s really messed up.)

  8. Primer (2004)

    It’s a movie that gets better with age and demands repeat viewings. Shot famously on a shoestring budget of $7,000, filmmaker Shane Carruth’s debut effort took a simple premise — a box that lets you travel back six hours in time — and explores all the consequences therein. The production value is expectedly the bare minimum, but it works within the guise of "no-frills homemade time machine." What makes the movie stand out is just how tightly woven the script seems to be, which has been intricately mapped out by fans at various points in our own timeline.

  9. Super 8 (2011)

    J.J. Abrams directed this love letter to all things Spielberg (and filmmaking itself). It many ways it’s a darker, bizarro-world E.T., with parents being threatened, massive explosions, and a smothering military presence running throughout the film. And while Super 8 is a period piece set some 35 years ago, it’s those very elements that arguably make it the modern-day reinvention of the suburban sci-fi movie — complete with kids riding their bikes through the moonlit night.

  10. Project Almanac (2015)

    Unlike Primer, which places an emphasis on maintaining continuity, Project Almanac uses the concept of time travel more abstractly, as a chance to explore unintended consequences à la The Butterfly Effect. The continuity — both with how the timelines are actually being affected and how this "found footage" is spliced together — makes little sense. The bigger point, however, remains: the wont of changing the past can have unexpected (and in this case ridiculously dire, seemingly unrelated, and totally nonsensical) ramifications. That’s especially true for hormonal teens.

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