Dr. Alex Wainer, professor of communication and media studies
Popular culture has long had a mocking attitude towards fathers—for every 80s-era Cliff Huxtable, as wise paterfamilias, on the now ironic Cosby Show, there’s the bumbling Dagwood Bumstead of classic Blondie comic strips, Hal, the man-child dad played by Bryan Cranston on Malcolm in the Middle, and most of all, lovable but stupid Homer Simpson. But two recent father figures model the more positive fathers we used to see in ages past.
At the movies, A Quiet Place (rated PG-13), a scary dystopian thriller, is burning up the box office. The simple scenario, established in the opening few minutes, shows us a family moving through the aisles of an abandoned pharmacy. Everyone is barefoot, and making every effort to make no sounds. A toddler attempts to grab a toy space shuttle and make it light up and emit sounds, but his bearded, beleaguered-looking father, played by John Krasinski (The Office, who also directed) prevents him, using the universal symbol of silence, a finger to his lips. This is a sign we will see throughout the film. Apparently, the world has experienced a catastrophe with the arrival of incredibly fast creatures, blind, but with super hearing that allows them to pick up the faintest noise and move swiftly to attack with fatal accuracy. The family has taken refuge in the country, with the father resourcefully establishing a high-tech compound to monitor for the creatures’ activities to protect his family. His young son, having seen what the creatures can do, lives in barely contained terror. And to make matters worse, his pre-teen-age daughter is deaf and can’t even tell when she’s made a loud noise. The story pulls the audience through one agonizing situation after another and by the middle of the film I couldn’t wait for it to end, so strained were my nerves over the family’s desperate plight. Yet, the father’s determination to stand between the creatures and his family offers us one of the best images of the father as protector ever put in a feature film. If you can stand the strain, you’ll be rewarded.
Netflix has given us all sorts of different dramas, offering original content not found on broadcast or cable channels, such as Stranger Things and Marvel Studio’s violent superhero series. It has also followed the trend of reviving older television series with Fuller House, and now that hoary old science fiction campfest, Lost in Space. I grew up in the 1960s and was fascinated by the idea of Swiss Family Robinson in space, “shipwrecked” on a distant planet. Made by TV sci-fi schlockmeister, Irwin Allen (Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, The Time Tunnel, Land of the Giants) and working with modest television budgets of the day, the original Lost in Space became increasingly centered not around the Robinson family’s adventures, but the trio of young Will Robinson, the family’s watchful, rotund, rolling robot, and the scheming and flamboyantly-mannered Dr. Smith. As I recall, as a kid, even I gave up on the ever-sillier series after a couple of seasons.
But the new Netflix reboot demonstrates there was a good foundation underneath all those papier-mâché boulders and lumbering rubber monsters. The production values are as good as anything in the Star Wars universe, immersing the audience in an imaginatively depicted world. Having learned the lessons of our current golden age of television drama, the Robinson’s family dynamic is more complex and fraught. Having launched into space with a host of other ships seeking to find a new home away from an increasingly unlivable Earth, the family’s ship crashes onto an icy planet and is soon in deep over their space helmets with a series of cliffhangers enough to fill an Indiana Jones movie—and that’s the first episode! Mom Maureen’s leg in injured in the crash, daughter Judy is frozen in ice inches from her family, a super-cold storm is approaching, and father John and son Will, in seeking a way to rescue Judy, get separated from each other on a frigid mountain. It’s just what audiences don’t have anywhere else, a family adventure series that tests the resourcefulness and limits of a family’s resilience with challenges without and, new for this iteration of the concept, within each family member. John, a Marine combat officer, in the past drawn by his strong sense of duty to distant Earth battlefields, has missed much of his children’s growing up and is seeking to re-integrate into the nuclear family, with wife Maureen doubtful of his commitment.
To complicate matters more, eleven-year old Will has found a large and imposing robot of apparently alien origin with whom he bonds, filling the role of only friend, family dog, and yes, a sort of surrogate dad to the fearful boy.
But it’s here we see John take on the role of fierce protector with the skills and experience no one else has. And he must find a way to prove to Will that he’s here to stay. All this provides a depth of characterization that enriches the adventure as we see the castaways struggle to manage being a family under the most stressful physical and emotional demands of a strange and volatile planet. So, yes, great paternal role models are not a lost cause in our unraveling cultural milieu, surprisingly, they can be found in a quiet place and out in space.
Dr. Alex Wainer is Professor of Communication & Media Studies in the School of Communication and Media. He is author of Soul of the Dark Knight: Batman as Mythic Figure in Comics and Film.