Book Review:

 The OA (Constellations: Studies in Science Fiction Film and TV), by David Sweeney 

Review by Natalie Grove

Review of David Sweeney's The OA (Constellations: Studies in Science Fiction Film and TV), Auteur Publishing in partnership with Liverpool University Press, 2022. 112 pp. Hardcover (ISBN: 978-1800859425). Paperback (ISBN: 978-1800859432).

The OA (Constellations: Studies in Science Fiction Film and TV) by David Sweeney offers many ways of making sense of and of locating the Netflix Original Series The OA (2016-2019) within a broader tapestry of the science fiction genre. This is a worthy read for anyone looking to better understand the genre, which has been broadening as technology and the culture around it develop. In addition to addressing (and ultimately refuting) criticism of the series, Sweeney also weaves into his analysis a long list of similarly themed narratives across multiple mediums.

In the Introduction, Sweeney discusses how, following the series’ abrupt cancellation after its second season, sources like Variety and The Guardian heaped criticism upon it for being self-indulgent and leaving too many fragmented plot lines and characters undeveloped. Sweeney proposes that had the series been able to complete its planned five-season arc, many of these gaps would have been sealed.

Sweeney summarizes both very intricate seasons of the series in the Synopsis. This section is very detailed, which may be its blessing and also its curse. For the reader already familiar with The OA, his synopsis does much to recall plot and provide a reference point for arguments presented later. For those unfamiliar with the series, however, this synopsis could overwhelm and possibly derail their comprehension, as he provides no bite-sized summary.

In Chapter One, Sweeney introduces the creators of The OA, the creative team Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij, and displays thematic connections between their previous film, Sound of My Voice (2011), and The OA. Both projects are co-written by the two, directed by Batmanglij, and star Marling. In the former, Marling is Maggie, a cult leader from the future, and in the latter, Prairie, a young woman recently returned to her adopted parents’ home after having been missing for seven years. Sweeney highlights that both projects center a mysterious leader (played by Marling) who offers a motley crew of people in search of meaning and new hope a re-enchantment of their lives through collective purpose and an alternative story about how the world has to be–and the potential for their place in it. Sweeney also touches on the directors’ other feature film, The East (2013), which also deals with the theme of infiltration of a secretive group by Marling’s character. He helpfully situates The OA as part of an evolution of this creative team’s work.

Chapter Two covers the possibilities for the abrupt cancellation of the series after the second season. Sweeney compares Marling and Batmanglij to the auteurs of the New Hollywood of the 1970s to whom studios gave unprecedented privilege and money. Some critics believe this rare authority bestowed upon Marling and Batmanglij ultimately brought failure to the series, “a certain excess that led to diminishing quality” (Sean Hutchinson of Inverse Magazine). Sweeney refutes this claim and holds that that the cancellation of The OA was due to the fact that it was conceived to be consumed as one long story, but viewers ultimately didn’t have the attention span for this to work and required more payoffs sooner than they got them. He believes that the show is closer to a literary text or a graphic novel where the reader commits to a longer journey before they can expect answers to all of the questions raised.

In Chapter Three, one of his most fascinating chapters, Sweeney shows how the series employs and references a hybrid of many categories and themes of the sci-fi genre, including mysticism, Gnosticism, mystery, horror, possession, multiversal fiction, and an emergent New Age genre. The New Age genre is a term coined by writer Adrian Martin in 2019 on Screenhub. The characteristic element of the genre, according to Martin, is “a group or network of ‘interconnected’ characters” who through shared psychic visions participate in solving a “vast mystery, conspiracy or riddle” where “there are cryptic clues scattered everywhere.” Most importantly, this genre must stray from a conventional chosen hero (a single protagonist) and instead focus on this group of characters as its center. 

Sweeney introduces real-world events that may have inspired details of The OA in Chapter Four. Firstly, the abduction in 2002 and subsequent nine-month long captivity of Elizabeth Smart, a teenage girl from Utah, is similar to The OA’s in that she was a young woman who went missing, endured the unimaginable, and then returned to her previous life, raising questions about how someone can adjust after something so traumatic. Secondly, the story of Elizabeth Fritzl, who was imprisoned by her father for 24 years in his basement in Austria, may have given Marling and Batmanglij ideas about a basement laboratory dungeon for HAP, Prairie’s captor. A large part of this chapter is devoted to decoding The Jejune Institute, an augmented reality game and subsequent film that blur the lines between fiction and reality and share imagery, themes, locations, and plot devices with The OA

In Chapter Five, Sweeney showcases a few sources Marling has acknowledged as influential to her character Prairie, such as a couple of characters from the 1997 film Princess Mononoke and Parable of the Sower, by Octavia Butler. Sweeney then relates The OA to a network of other TV shows with similar themes of multiversal ideas to show Marling and Batmanglij’s significant contribution, “intentionally or not, to what has gone before” (89), including Twilight Zone, Star Trek, Sliders, Fringe, and The Man in the High Castle.

In his conclusion, Sweeney repeats what Marling, Batmanglij, and Netflix have all indicated – that the future of The OA is not, to many fans’ chagrin, in a forthcoming feature wrap up, nor is it in a graphic novel. The future of The OA is, however, in the contemplation and possible expansion on the ideas the series promotes: namely, that a power exists in the collective unit, and that there is value in having faith in the unknown. The OA (Constellations: Studies in Science Fiction Film and TV) would be a beneficial addition to any curriculum exploring the sci-fi genre. In the same vein, due to Sweeney’s extensive references to other books, films, series, and augmented reality games, this book would make a useful research tool for anyone investigating sci-fi or New Media, especially those attempting to map where these genres are headed.

-29 May 2023