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The Future Of Technology and Its Impact On The Family (As Depicted Through Science Fiction Film)

Dan Simerman

In 2011, I spent a good part of a year writing a research paper on the representation of the family in science fiction film. This independent study turned into an eye-opening exercise that uncovered our hidden fear of a dysfunctional society as a result of the erosion of the traditional family unit.

Heads up, It’s a long read.


My question is the following: the body is to my mind an essential site of resistance, because with the body there is love, a certain presence of the past, a capacity to reflect, singularity- if this body is attached, by techno-science, then that site or resistance can be attacked. What is the unconscious of a child engendered in vitro? What is its relationship with the mother and father?

 -Barbara Creed, 

Gynesis, Postmodernism and the Science Fiction Horror Film

Science fiction film has always been a vehicle to express social and political concerns within an era. Whether it is the outward threat of a competing country or a fear of momism, public discourse and policy are highly dramatized throughout the history of science fiction cinema. Issues pertaining to war, corporatism, individualism, politics and government are all critiqued in one way or another by the science fiction genre. Films about pods invading and abducting American citizens were a clear representation of the threat of the cold war. Similarly, Fritz Lang’s early 20th century masterpiece Metropolis (1927) depicted the fear of industrialization and class difference in a war torn Europe. Regardless of the plot, science has always played a crucial role in science fiction, often portrayed in a politically motivated fashion depending on whose point of view was being considered. In conservative films, soldiers were glorified and scientists where portrayed as evil villains, with science and technology taken as suspicious and dangerous. By contrast, centrist films who showed a compassion for technology and machines attempted to demystify technology as dangerous or other worldly.[1] By its very nature, science fiction is a great vehicle to project the fears and concerns of current societal changes, and one cannot argue that a key issue we face as a nation is the complete re-imagination of the family in a technologically advanced society. How is each family member handling the overload of information and technological progress they face on a recurring basis? While the family as we know it gradually changes, many of our protagonists explore and experiment with multiple, unfamiliar roles in society. By modifying family dynamics, technological progress begins to corrode the foundations of the nuclear family, allowing those that transcend their anxieties the freedom to experiment with alternative roles in the family. 

It is the hope of the science fiction film that by embellishing cultural issues and visually stimulating the populace with high budget special effects, the viewer will take into consideration these trends, and more importantly, reflect on how they affect our livelihood. Because of this, it is important to analyze how technology takes on surrogate roles in our family structure. What’s more, it is necessary we observe how these changes play out in popular culture and how we react to them. Recent science fiction films have contemplated that the family unit will evolve and adapt with the help of societal and technological change. Trends in the past decade have pointed to an increased dependence on machines, automated mechanisms and social networks; altering family dynamics in ways we’ve never experienced. Many of the films analyzed show characters that are able to transcend their roles in the nuclear family because of outside technological forces. Likewise, a host of films relating family life to scientific advances have come about recently, predicting how technology, robots and capitalism might alter our nuclear roles in the family. In science fiction, these themes have been symbolically represented through the use of space ships, aliens, time travel, genetic modifications and clones. 

One can’t begin to survey every single film in the science fiction genre; however, the texts represented were chosen because they all symbolized, in one form or another, technologies influence on the family in both utopian and dystopian depictions of the future. Alien (1979), one of the first movies analyzed, is a great visual and symbolic representation of the Father’s perceived role in a technological and capitalistic society. Brazil (1985) made its way into this study because it contemplates a future with no fatherly figures. Most men are preoccupied with keeping up a bureaucratically inclined society through constant surveillance and order. Metropolis, one of the foundational texts of the science fiction genre, is prevalent because it formulates a certain character of being for the father- son dynamic in a hyper-capitalistic society. As capitalism pervades every inch of our private lives with the help of an ever present, constantly “on” technological work environment, it is the family most affected by new advances in work related productivity. In Back to the Future 2, a son goes into the future to alter the course of events to shape what he considers to be the perfect, materialistic and nuclear household. What do his actions say about his values in the future? Many of the son’s actions are a reflection of the father’s behavior, influence, or lack thereof, and he attempts to gain control and order because of an absent or weak-willed patriarch. Gattaca (1997) poses the question of how a genetically modified culture might reform the family of the future. The unaltered protagonist realizes he doesn’t belong in a family that declined the opportunity to genetically modify him, and because of this he is resentful. Surrogates (2009) does a fantastic job of visually interpreting how technology can allow for one to transcend and adopt new social roles. 

With great consideration we will analyze these forces in science fiction as a means to discover how the family institution has grown displaced by the father’s lack of involvement with the family. We will then take some time to consider how technology offers individual family members the opportunity to take on new roles, and how, in particular, the son of the patriarch handles these changes. Bicentennial Man (1999) is one of the few films reviewed that showed a somewhat utopian vision of a technologically advanced, nuclear family. Hidden within the narrative, however, is a story about our increasing dependence on robots and foreign appliances in family life. The family’s emotional attachment to a machine is the cost of such a price, and arguments about the robots role in the house continually put the family at odds with one another. Last but not least, Blade Runner (1982) takes center stage for its ability to showcase how technologically advanced beings might fashion a family of their own. With little human input, how does technology shape itself in the ashes of the post-nuclear family? The ability to transcend the nuclear family through technological advances and the unhinging of the nuclear family is a recurring motif we will explore later. 

One should take the ideas and concepts of science fiction seriously, as they tend to materialize in one form or another as progress advances. Although the stories represented in film are a depiction of current cultural issues, many of the technologies generated on screen take real world applications after being dreamed up and presented through computer generation.[2] Used as a tool to visualize the budding computerized world of the 1980s and 1990s, computer graphics and CGI animations were harnessed to explore a human or post-human subject absorbed in a virtual space.[i] David Kirby explains the importance of the diegetic prototype, or technologies that exist in the minds of viewers in the fictional world, in his Diegetic Prototypes and the Role of Popular Films in Generation Real-world Technological Development. He claims that “Diegetic prototypes extend the analytical utility of virtual witnessing by addressing the issue of how cinematic depictions can lead to real-world technological development.” (Kirby 43) Being able to see and experience these alternate realities makes them plausible in the minds of the viewer, spurring those able to embody these advances to do so. 

Adapting To Technology’s Pressures


 Science fiction films love observing this phenomenon: with technological progress comes a shift in power between those that control and manipulate technology and those that don’t. Because power is often viewed in society as held within a patriarchal family system, one has to question the father’s role in the family of the future. Many of the films surveyed show a father whose been displaced by technology; his intended purpose to protect and provide for his offspring is continually threatened by advances in a safer, regulated, and controlled environment. How does the father adapt to this increasing loss of power within the family unit? The father’s exploits turn away from the family and onto exploration in both the literal and figurative sense. Under the guise of spaceman, these futuristic family men probe space searching for new work and other worlds. In futuristic societies, powerful men fasten their power atop multinational corporations, overwhelming metropolises and complicated bureaucracies. In all of these instances, family men of the future have the opportunity to create their own systems by which they are the benefactors of power. These powers impede on the nuclear family they are trying to run from, and often create a vicious cycle that displaces more family men; disrupting the line between family institution and society. 

 The symbolic relationship between father and social institution is depicted in Ridley Scott’s Alien. As the plot unfolds, we find ourselves aboard a spaceship by the name of Mother which has been commissioned by the proverbial Father, or corporation, to probe space for alien life. In this instance, the corporation is literally a father figure, and his goals consist of conquering space to feel dominant and important. With this notion of the corporation also comes the idea that the father is emotionless, empty, and uncaring. As Thomas B. Byers in his essay Commodity Futures, there is “An inevitable conflict between human feelings and bonds on the one hand, and duty to the socioeconomic structure on the other. Alien [sic] warns us against a capitalist future gone wrong, where such feelings and bonds are so severely truncated that a quite literal dehumanization has become perhaps the gravest danger” (Kuhn 39). In Alien’s version of the future, the father behaves as a CEO rather than a caretaker. His new relationship with the family is governed by and translated through Ash, a robotic scientist whose interests are in line with the corporations rather than the crew.

Dallas, the captain of the ship, has been ordered to make an unplanned detour to another planet where the crew encounters an unfamiliar form of life. Ripley, still aboard the ship, insists the contaminated explorers stay in a hyperbolic chamber for further examination. Ash, however, disregards Ripley and allows the exploring crew to return to the vessel. We discover the corporation’s relationship with the crew when Ripley and Dallas discuss the feasibility of blindly following Ash:

Ripley: How can you leave that kind of decision to him?

Dallas: Look, I just run the ship. Anything that has to do with the science division Ash has the final word.

Ripley: How does that happen?

Dallas: It happens, my dear, because that is what the company wants to happen.

Ripley: Since when is that standard procedure? 

Dallas: Standard procedure has to do with what the hell they tell you to do.

The notion that the corporation should have everyone’s interest at hand while providing no space for mutual knowledge of the voyage space is a cause for concern. “The crew’s ordeals and (with one exception) their deaths result in large part from the fact that they cannot tell Ash from themselves until it is too late. But one reason they cannot do so is that they have chosen, out of the same greed that motivated his creators, to be like him” (Byers 40-41). At one point when the crew encounters the alien’s disposed exoskeleton, Ash is cast in the bright light of the operation room’s halogen light bulbs, while Dallas and Ripley are left in the shadows. This seems to be a visual representation of accessible knowledge about Mother’s mission. When Ripley corners Dallas in a pod and questions his decision to agree with Ash, the only fixture illuminating them is a thin artificial one that creates more shadow then light in the frame. Ripley even mentions that they are “blind on B and C decks” and that the reserve power systems are blown. In the final scene when Ripley destroys the Alien, it’s the bright fire from the engines that kills the Alien creature. 

Although Father as corporation used Ash as a surrogate to support and control his own agenda among the crew, Ripley’s survival depended on her unwillingness to be passive and emotional, and, in effect, like the corporation. “Given their present situation, the crew must, for the sake of their very survival, do as Ripley does, and follow procedures that leave no room for emotion or for sympathy with the individual. The irony, of course, is that this is precisely the sort of behavior both honoured and manifested by a corporation that finally cares about its workers not at all” (Byers 41). Ripley’s skill sets and demeanor are both indicators of what qualities the futuristic father values, and her willingness to conform to these ideals awards her her freedom. 

One can liken the dynamic between futuristic father and family to the corporation in Alien and Earth. Earth no longer needs the corporation because the corporation has tapped out all of the resources without providing anything in return. The corporation can’t really add any value to Earth anymore, and so must seek his value somewhere “Out there”. Similarly, the Father of the future can’t provide for his family because technocratic society has fully adapted to take on the needs of the family unit. It can offer protection through constant surveillance, nourishment through a heavily controlled agricultural society, and life lessons through the ever expanding presence of a Meta-Society that can casually and with little effort teach itself. Like Ripley, the rest of the family understands that they must adapt to the changing corporate zeitgeist in order to survive. They no longer take their cues from a father figure but instead a faceless entity, as is the case with Brazil. 

Brazil tells the story of a future where bureaucracy is king and where a mix up in the system has the police capture the wrong man, Tuttle, for meddling with the city’s infrastructure. Sam (Jonathan Pryce), the protagonist, researches a minor clerical error and attempts to free Buttle from a punishment meant for Tuttle (Robert De Niro). We also learn that Sam’s father is deceased, creating a scenario where an absent family member has a huge psychological impact on a main character.[3] Terry Gilliam’s dystopian satire of 1984 visualizes a bureaucracy literally crashing into family life and forcefully removing members of the family, seemingly for their own protection and that of the nations. At the beginning of the film, the Ministry of Information breaks into Buttle’s apartment from all sides and kidnaps him, leaving Mrs. Buttle catatonic and the children helpless. A similar incident takes place towards the end of the film when Sam finally gets to consummate his love with Jill, the Buttle’s neighbor. As the two form an emotional bond, the government, for the second time, breaks into the room and forcefully removes Sam from the scene.

When not forcefully intervened, father figures who are offered the chance to raise a family seem to have no attachment to them whatsoever. One scene in particular displays just how absurd the father-child relationship has become. While Sam consults his old friend Jack regarding the Tuttle-Buttle debacle, Jack’s little daughter Hollie is ignored as if she were a piece of furniture:

Jack: Hey Amy don’t throw the ball in here!

Hollie: I’m not Amy I’m Hollie.

Jack: Did I call you Amy darling? I’m sorry.

Sam: The triplet?

Jack: One of them I think.

Sam: You’re not going to keep calling her Barbra are you?

 Jack: Why ever not? Barbra is a perfectly good name.

Jack: Come on Chloe. 

 It’s comical that neither of them can remember poor Hollie’s name. When Jack replies that “Barbra is a perfectly good name,” it shows precisely how mechanical, automatic, and disengaged the father of the future tends to be. Jack can barely keep his attention on Hollie during the scene because he is so preoccupied with government work. When the corporate atmosphere is supposed to be business-like, and by proxy, unemotional, the merging of business and family life evokes a similar hectic, unemotional lifestyle. Social infrastructure, supported by a surveillance society, becomes a surrogate for Jack’s role as Hollies caretaker. His attention must be applied elsewhere if his children can be protected and cared for without him. This point correlates with the corporation’s behavior in Alien; both Jack and the corporation go beyond personal and emotional attachment to ensure that their agenda is executed and mistakes are covered up, mistakes both made by mechanical error (Ash’s misjudgment, a fly jamming the type writer to change a T to a B). Jack is willing to kidnap and torture his friend Sam to keep the Buttle mix up a secret, and the corporation is more than happy to sacrifice an entire crew for the possibility of bringing an alien life back to earth. 

Terry Gilliam does a fantastic job portraying the inner madness one might experience living in such a stifled existence. As Brazil comes to an end, we realize that some of the shots have been a depiction of Sam’s inner state of mind. As evident through frantic editing and creative geography, Sam slowly goes insane. Quick, distorted camera angles abound during our time with Sam and his mother at dinner. As Sam tries desperately to escape the Ministry of Information, his point of view is expressed through a wide angle lens as he enters a church. Close-up shots of bizarre characters from extremely low camera angles communicate that Sam is unraveling mentally. His inner state is expressed through severe vertigo from adopting such an unbalanced lifestyle in an overly worked society. If Alien shows the outward consequences of adopting a corporate state of mind for survival, then Brazil illuminates the inner state of the tightly controlled, techno-totalitarian citizen. 

While Brazil showcases government authority, and Alien corporate authority, Fritz Lang’s Metropolis molds the two together and fashions the ultimate futuristic father figure. Joh, the architect of Metropolis, built it as a monument for his deceased wife who passed during the birth of his son Freder. Jerold J. Abrams makes the claim that Joh has become a totalitarian monster because of a broken heart.[ii] Joh pays little attention to his son and instead focuses on running the city at maximum capacity, which is apparent during our first interaction with Joh and Freder. Joh has created a son that is absolutely terrified of him, and it’s clear from Joh’s facial expressions and body language that he is dismayed by Freder’s overly expressive nature. Freder rarely makes eye contact with his son, nor does he ever address him directly, but instead through his assistant Josaphat. “Your magnificent city, Father — and you the brain of this city — and all of us in the city’s lights—“What Freder is unconsciously describing is his Father’s relationship to the new economy; one of the information age. Because we no longer work within the confines of the industrial age, the values held in that era have become somewhat obsolete. Roger Dadoun confirms this notion in his essay Mother-City—‘Mittler’—Hitler by noting that “Here, thought is magisterial. Fredersen’s huge office reflects the enormous size of his brain, which is indicated in the film by pointing: in one frame he is shown lying on his back, and before continuing with his speech he moves two fingers close to his head” (Dadoun para. 17). Joh’s relationship with Metropolis has produced a mindset that alienates him from his family, son, and society.

Taking Control Of The Family


 What drives the adolescent of the future in science fiction films? Many of the boys and young men in these films are deeply connected with the family. While father figures of the future seem to be the driving force in destroying the family through negligence or upheaval, young men are actively trying to glue the pieces back together. Many film theorists have noted the Oedipus complex and primal scene as key motivating factors for the actions of young boys in these films. In Back to the Future 2, Marty, a teenager born in the early 1980’s, is asked by a mad scientist known as ‘Doc’ save his family by warping time and space. In the first installment of the series, Christine Cornea notes in her Science Fiction Cinema: Between Fantasy and Reality that “Marty, is actually attempting to orchestrate his own rites of passage into the oedipal world of the father…in such a way, he can complete his oedipal passage, turn his attention away from his mother to his new girlfriend, and re-establish patriarchal authority, an authority that the can therefore inherit” (Cornea 119). By going back in time and instilling masculine features into his father, Marty hoped to create a better life for himself and his family. In the second installment of the series, we find Marty back in the future attempting to control the events transpiring around his own family. What values do we see Marty accepting or rejecting? 

 One should question the motives behind Marty’s exploration of the future. Doc warns Marty that his son is going to be arrested in front of the town hall because of his inability to stand up for himself against Biff, the bully who torments Marty’s family throughout each generation. The first premise here is whether or not the future really needs to be saved, and whether childhood and adolescence is a natural process or one that can be engineered through culture. In science fiction, nature and civilization are often pitted against one another, “That which is not-culture is, most generally, nature—not merely trees, animals, and bugs, but all that is not-human — so that the conflict between moderates and extremists, the center and the Other, Us and Them, was often presented as a conflict between culture and nature” (Biskind 106). Considering Marty’s stance on parenting, one could argue the film holds a centrist point of view because “To the center, culture was good, and nature was generally bad; it was all that threatened to disrupt or destroy culture” (Biskind 106). Doc and Marty, along with most who wield the power to change the course of history, believe it is the right course of action. Nature is only considered as an alternative to civilization once culture is abandoned[4].

With what is a deliberate act of casting and not a case of going over budget, Robert Zemeckis made the decision to cast Michael J. Fox as Marty, Marty Jr. and Marty’s daughter. Watching this bizarre scene of the whole McFly family eat dinner in the future says much about Marty’s plans for a dynamic family. Everyone is so wrapped up in their virtual reality video phones that anyone hardly pays attention to one another during the entire meal. When Marty Jr. walks into the house and greets his mom, he hardly recognizes that his mother is actually thirty years younger. Jennifer, on the other hand, is so distressed by the thought of what marriage actually entails (other than a wedding) that she hides in the living room closet. When we witness the McFly family together after Marty’s mother painlessly prepares dinner (“Mom, you sure do know how to hydrate a pizza”), we subtly learn that Marty and Jennifer are having marital troubles. Future Jennifer isn’t home for dinner, and Future Marty proclaims that “I don’t know where Jennifer is mom, she should have been home hours ago, I’ve been having a hard time keeping track of her.” While the whole scene lasts about ninety seconds, the majority of the time we find the camera paying more attention to the high tech products around the house rather than the family. A Black and Decker hydrator, slick Pepsi bottles, a miniature Pizza Hut pizza, and glowing phone goggles all overwhelm the dinner table scenery. At one point future Marty literally gets pushed out of frame by a dropping garden where Marty junior grabs for fruit. Future Marty then goes on to interrupt dinner by taking a business call which reverberates across the house in the form of multiple fax messages. 

Marty, as well as his offspring, are extremely materialistic, and incorporate qualities inherent in consumer capitalism. Many of the decisions we find future Marty making are based on suburban ideals, ideals he originally planted during his first trip into the past and hopes to retain in the future. Marty must commit to these time travel expeditions because, like we mentioned earlier, the father figure in his life was unable to provide proper male support for the family. Disregarding how those around him might feel about the tampering of their lives, Marty goes off and proves he can create a better way of living for those around him, just as Freder does in Metropolis. This creates a series of events that unravel the nuclear family, starting with the father, continuing with the son, and ending with those who feel they are without control.

 Similar to Alien and Brazil, Back to the Future 2 depicts an era where the family has been inundated with distracting technology to the point where social interactions are mediated through applications. While rushing to the future to save his son from a bully is top priority, Marty can’t interfere with the fact that he soon after loses his job, or that he is having marital issues with Jennifer, or that his family can’t pay attention to one another during a simple family meal. One might argue this is because all of these issues stem from a technologically evolved society. As the textbook Marriage and Family: Intimacy, Diversity, and Strengths points out, “Individuals who use the internet more tend to decrease their communication with other family members and reduce the size of their social circle. Internet use in itself appeared to cause a decline in psychological well-being” (Olson and Defrain 25). Marty can create a family in his own image, but the materialist possessions he considers important are ultimately the foundation of a weak family. Although not entirely like the father figures before him, Marty is still transfixed within a technologically reliant environment. 

As we mentioned, the science fiction father loses his ability to maintain a proper household because of the social institutions that take his place. Technological pressures forced him to find other, surrogate forms of control in the form of exploration and corporatism. The science fiction son, although born into this atmosphere, has a choice as to how to cultivate his family by negating or accepting certain technologies into his life. Marty’s need to fashion a family in his own image, with children that are literally clones of himself, comes from a very real question that science fiction film fathers must consider: How advances in science will affect the control we have over our offspring. 

Because these texts are constantly pushing viewers to think about alternative lifestyles, social structures and scientific advances, it’s important that we look at how science fiction film digests and embodies technological change and progress. Annette Kuhn theorizes that “Science fiction film operates within a network of meanings (and indeed actions) which extends beyond the films themselves” ( Kuhn 7). Based heavily on the visual representations of progress, the genre takes science fiction and produces reality. “Science fiction films have certain ‘effects’ in society…they evoke particular behavioral or emotional responses in those who see them” (Kuhn 7). By constantly addressing the viewer as a spectator, R. Barton Palmer in his Imagining The Future, Contemplating the Past suggests that the post-modern conditions depicted in these films actually manifest in society, “A text of postmodernism, as against a text about postmodernism, would actually produce, rather than signify, the postmodern condition—through an enunciation proposing an absence of reference points in the real, or even performing the schizophrenia held to be characteristic of the postmodern era” (Kuhn 179). The transference of technological self concepts and progress are produced through the film, and embodied by the viewer. 

The Family’s Adoption of Technology


Unlike most of the films surveyed, Bicentennial Man shows a slightly less dystopian future for the nuclear family by focusing on the first generation of robotics that enters into the family ecosystem. As ‘Sir’, the head of the family, eagerly anticipates the arrival of his new android and calls the rest of the family to join him . The imagery is quiet abrasive to say the least; a steel cage is wheeled into Sir’s entirely wooden den. The father, as explorer, seems thrilled by the idea of having a new creature to manipulate. The rest of the family, by contrast, is less than enthused. Sir’s two young daughters initially hate Andrew, and the mother makes it quite clear that she doesn’t “want it following me around the house all day,” to which Sir replies “Andrew will be treated as if he were a person.”

 Andrew’s first inquiry to his new owners is whether or not he is “one’s family.” With a smirk on his face Sir replies that “he believes so” and the rest of the family puts in there two cents. With the new arrival of a force that clearly represents change in the family dynamic, little miss lets the family know that “it’s scary” while the older daughter feels that Andrew is “stupid” (stupid in terms of its usefulness, not its cognitive ability). What we are witnessing are the first moments of technology used as a surrogate for everyday activities and remedial tasks. Because Andrew is one of the first models of his kind, many of the initial changes are positive. While his clumsy nature makes him a nuisance, his ability to provide value and gifts to the family eventually brings them around.

As the family realizes that Andrew is special, Sir gradually relieves him of his duties and chores and acts as a mentor to “teach him all of the things that weren’t programmed into him.” Bicentennial Man seems to be questioning the nuclear family as Sir feels responsible that Andrew “become whatever he is able to be” as a robotic member of the family. What is this potential that Sir sees in Andrew? Sir sees the opportunity to control and explore another life form, a scenario similar to the corporation in Alien. 

As the family grows up with Andrew they eventually come to love him. We see the first signs that Sir’s family have grown emotionally attached to a sentient robot when Andrew decides it is independence he wants more than anything. Technology as depicted in films that represent the present show our dependence on technology, but not our emotional attachment to it. In this case, it’s Sir’s emotional attachment to Andrew as the son he never had. When Andrew finally decides that its freedom he wants, Sir becomes extremely agitated:[5]

Andrew: One would still obey the three laws; the only thing that would change would be the form. One would no longer be your property.

Sir: You want to leave? That’s what this is about isn’t it.

Andrew: Not at all sir. You are one’s family.

Sir: Then why ask for this?

Sir’s attachment to Andrew has clearly grown throughout the years, which makes it all the more difficult once he realizes he doesn’t “own” Andrew. In fact, none of the characters we’ve surveyed have truly “owned” the technology they have wielded, regardless of whether or not they controlled it. This is the case in Metropolis when Joh’s city revolts againt him. We also witness this in Blade Runner when replicants from the Tyrell Corporation come back to planet earth to destroy their maker. In Back to the Future 2 when Marty corrects the future of his yet unborn son, the power of time travel brings hell upon his current reality, catapulting him into an alternate dimension where Biff is his step father. All of these films are communicating the fears of dedicating, relying, and growing emotionally involved to a force that has no attachment to our wellbeing. In light of this, family members are still willing to grow emotionally attached to these entities even when it is in their best interest not to. This idea is expressed fully in Surrogates, where Tom Greer (Bruce Willis) embodies a detective who must shut down a powerful technology to save all of humanity. What was once a fun, convenient way to travel and interact, the surrogate technology soon grew into a terrible addiction. In one scene, when we are sent through a night club, one notices the camera angles are all somewhat mechanical and planned. A shot panning the dance floor shows each participant comically, yet mechanically, jerking around. A Techno song filled with breaks, electronic noises, and repetitive words sets the tone for a world where everyone lives through their digital self and most of the citizens dress like over sexualized fashion models. 

This lifestyle is reflected through Maggie, Tom’s wife, and her inability to function in society without her surrogate. Her attachment to her machine counterpart grows so bad that she cannot walk outside her room without it, and is alarmed (and even a little disgusted) when she finds Tom walking around without his. “What do you think about taking a break?” He asks her while she brews coffee that she is unable to drink (because she is a robot), mimicking human life to go through the motions:

Maggie: How about Hawaii? Bridget said she got an amazing deal. She got this totally buff surrogate in Maui and took it parasailing and skydiving…

Tom: I was thinking about you and me going someplace together.

Maggie: And leaving our units at home? Are you kidding?

Her uncomfortable attitude towards functioning without her unit is seen through the expression her robot face makes. It’s almost as if her robot counterpart is reacting to the thought of not being used. Who controls who? Maggie’s addiction to her surrogate has completely taken over her life. In a later scene, Tom freaks out and begs Maggie to come out of her surrogate pod, “I want the women that’s in that room! My wife.” Maggie refuses the request and retreats into her room, where she breaks down at the sight of her human self through her surrogate eyes. Maggie would have used her surrogate forever had it not been for Tom’s valiant efforts to disable the whole surrogate economy. As the real Maggie and Tom reunite, all that is needed is a hug illuminated by the window behind them. This symbolic hug represents the end of an unemotional atmosphere propagated by robots and a heavy reliance on robot technology. 

Science fiction families grow emotionally attached to these technologies because of the questionable give-and-take relationship they have with them. Like Metropolis, Brazil, Back to the Future 2 and Bicentennial Man, surrogate technology allows its operators the opportunity to live alternative lifestyles not afforded in a nuclear household. One scene in particular shows the extent these technologies afford alternate lifestyles. As Tom walks into his house, he finds his wife in the living room with four other surrogates, all of whom seem to be single. By compartmentalizing the body through close-up shots (a neck here, a torso here, a leg there), all of the participants in Maggie’s living room are treated with the camera as highly sexualized. We then cut to a reaction shot of Maggie’s face. She seems to be content that she is participating in a swinger’s lifestyle, and shows little remorse that her husband isn’t home. What kind of lifestyle is this anyhow? Fluid shots of the couch with the camera canted towards the surrogates reveal a carefree, unattached environment. None of these creatures seem to care much when their friends face gets bashed in by Tom’s boot heel because they can always purchase a new model. The party-going lifestyle expressed through these shots is a great indicator of just how much opportunity a technology such as a surrogate can provide for the individual wishing to take advantage of it.

These are all scenarios where the adoption of robots takes on a life of its own for the science fiction family. At first, a simple helper robot made it easier to finish all of the family choirs. After less than one generation, however, the one responsible for the family’s adoption of Andrew grew emotionally attached to him, something he swore he would never do. Surrogates depicts a future where we believe that technology can provide us ample opportunities to live alternative lifestyles, and in both instances, our relationship with these technologies is misguided by the idea that we have full control over them and that we can balance a new way of living with our current lifestyles. This inability to control technology is visually apparent when viewing the surrogates move around; their bodies jerking in a sort of parody of how humans might move. 

As mentioned earlier, this analysis is attempting to discern and contemplate how technologies relationship with the family is represented in science fiction films. Time and time again, protagonists in these texts are unable to see the possible side effects of freely adopting foreign technologies. And even if they might understand the risks, they choose to accept them because the opportunities afforded by them, such as the ability to transcend predetermined social roles, are greater than the risks. By freely adopting such a lifestyle, Kevin L. Stoehr claims in his 2001: A Philosophical Odyssey that “Coping with such a world can lead to a detached and life-negating form of existence; one that decreases the active role of the body and that severely limits our choice over physical perspectives” (Sanders 132). In science fiction film, this fear translates into the question of what moral implications may arise from our drive to transcend our general state of humanity, “Particularly the problems that may arise if we ignore the requirements that our physical embodiment imposes upon us” (Sanders 132). As we have seen, transcending this state on an individual level also affects family life in the form of a less cohesive family structure.

The Nuclear Family Adapted by Technology


What happens when technology, fused with our own self concept of “Ignoring the requirements that our physical embodiment imposes upon us,” decides that the nuclear family can be transcended? In Blade Runner, human cyborgs completely disregard the nuclear family and one in their own image. Not only is the science fiction family not in control of how technology shapes their domestic life, it seems they aren’t able to control the course of what it means to be a family. A further expression of our drive to experiment with alternative modes of living, the underlying anxiety expressed in Blade Runner involves the dissolution of the nuclear family through a polyamorous relationship among several cyborgs. 

In a dark, hyper-globalized Los Angeles in the year 2019, Blade Runner sets the tone for an ongoing discussion of what it means to be human. The film, released in 1982, plays on “The genre’s long-standing preoccupation with narratives involving masculine mastery over nature and creation” where “the stories [involve] the ‘birthing’ of human [substituted] by corporation” (Kuhn 8). Deckard, played by Harrison Ford, is called upon by the LAPD because of a breach within the Tyrell Corporation’s off world mining operation, bringing four replicants prone to violence to earth. The four replicants, Roy, Pris, Leon and Zhora, have all come to Earth in order to confront their maker, Mr. Tyrell, and inquire as to how they can prolong their built in life spans. These four humanoids were programmed for labor and with a limited life span because of a fear that prolonged life span wills a naturally evolved human consciousness in humanoid robots. Because of this, “the replicants form surrogate families…and as the replicants become aware of their limited life spans, fear of death drives them to seek a longer future commensurate with their implanted memories and growing love of life” (Kellner, Leibowitz, Ryan para. 6). 

Similar to Brazil and Metropolis, The replicant family interacts in a highly analytical, detached, and unemotional way. Sam’s Mother in Brazil is treated more as a sex symbol then a matronly figure, and her demeanor is extremely materialistic and self centered. Her body language in most shots is similar to that of Johs in Metropolis; she communicates with her back towards Sam. In one scene, she hardly flinches at the news that a bomb has just been detonated in the dining hall, and instead gloats to the rest of the dinner party that Sam has been promoted in the Ministry of Information. Her need to keep civilized and orderly correlates with her inability to give up power when it comes to Sam’s life. Her need to control nature and stay youthful with continuous plastic surgery draws a comparison to Maggie’s need for control in Surrogates. By the end of Brazil, Sam’s mother looks just as plastic as Maggie’s surrogate, making it obvious that it is her material appearance, rather than her immaterial qualities that are most important to her. In order to survive with all of the pain they have accumulated through their past experiences, these characters have to maintain a cold exterior. Joh must live with the fact that the fruits of his labor were earned on the backs of thousands of slaves. Sam’s mother gets plastic surgery and attends dinner parties to make up for her meaningless existence as a socialite, and the replicates, as Roy puts it, “have seen things [we] wouldn’t believe” as slaves for the Tyrell Corporation.

The replicants drive to create a lifestyle fashioned after a family stems from the human blueprints programmed into them from their creators. The film presents family as a naturalized social unit, with all four replicants trying to recreate how individuals in a highly socialized system would behave. This becomes problematic, however, seeing as the replicants don’t possess any of the institutionalized characteristics of a family. Performing the task of meshing nuclear family ideals with a robotic framework produces an entirely different sort of science fiction family; one with multiple parents, siblings as lovers, and citizens turned robotic. 

 Unlike Alien’s Ripley who strengthened the notion that one must behave like a corporation in order to survive in such an atmosphere, Blade Runner promotes emotion over analytic rationality as a worthwhile characteristic. Every major character other than the replicant is reclusive. They live detached from humanity and “Seem to derive their only comforts and indeed their sole purpose from those doubles which they either create or destroy; these people apparently have little alternative, since this is the way of their society rather than an aberration from the norm” (Kuhn 155). In Blade Runner, these recluses reside outside of the nuclear family and act more mechanical then the actual replicants. “The Tyrell Corporation invents replicants in order to have a more pliable labour force, and the film depicts how capitalism turns humans into machines, a motif that recalls Lang’s Metropolis” (Kuhn 63). In the Directors Cut of Blade Runner, Ridley Scott leaves the question of whether or not Deckard was himself a replicant a mystery, although most believe he was.[6]

The family dynamic played out in the film is a projection of one such fear of the post-nuclear family. J.F. Sebastian, the chief genetic engineer and Dr. Tyrell, the mastermind being the Tyrell Corporation, could be likened to the two fathers of the replicants. When Pris and Roy go to visit J.F. Sebastian, J.F. is clearly disturbed by their appearance. Why would his creations come back to visit him? “This is the friend I was telling you about. This is my savior J.F. Sebastian” Pris tells Roy. The lighting is extremely dark in J.F.’s apartment, with Pris painted a pale white. A wide angle lens shows just how lifelike Roy and Pris are compared to the lifeless robots lying around then, with the setting dominated by low key lighting. Roy makes out with Pris, who is conceivably his sister, and notifies her that Leon and Zhora have died and that they are the only two left out of the group. After asking for help, J.F. tells them that ‘there is some of him in them’ because he created their minds. His relationship to them is very paternal, yet their objective is not to get to know him as a father, but to ask for assistance as their creator.11

We find this relationship between parent and genetically altered offspring in Andrew Niccol’s Gattaca. With a tag line of “There is no gene for the human spirit,” Gattaca plays on our fears of a future where genetic discrimination is the norm, and those without genetic alteration are termed invalid. Vincent Freedman (Ethan Hawke), our genetically inferior protagonist, stresses the effect that genetic engineering has had on him and his father during the first few moments of the film, “I’ll never understand what possessed my mother to put her faith in god’s hands rather than the local geneticists.” Seemingly harmless, Vincent’s natural birth produces an abnormally weak heart that inhibits him from doing most of the activities that a young boy would. Before Mr. and Mrs. Freeman can revel in their new creation, the doctor produces a laundry list of issues that could plague Vincent throughout his life. The camera settles in on Mrs. Freeman with a troubled look on her face, surveying Vincent for what appears to be defects. Learning from their mistakes, Vincent’s parents try to have another child; this time through the safety net of science. Unlike Marty, who possessed the ability to create offspring he could feel proud of giving his surname to, Mr. Freeman is clearly crushed from the news that he won’t be able to produce a son in his image. He decides to not name Vincent after himself; instead saving his name for their next attempt at the perfect child. 

David Kirby questions in his The Devil in our DNA what it means to be human in science fiction films and draws the conclusion that, “The anxiety is not over the ‘soul’ of the modified individual but rather the impact on the altered individuals authenticity” (Kirby para. 1). The anxiety, in Gattaca’s case, seems to lie squarely on the individual that has not been modified. In this future scenario, discrimination is brought upon those that refuse to change with the times, rather than those that do. This anti-techno discrimination is pervasive throughout many science fiction films and is constantly a driving force for the adoption of new. In Blade Runner, the replicants are angered over the ways in which they were modified. Regardless, family members who were adapted, or controlled, through science seem to hold a grudge towards those that had the authority, and power, to do so. 

In Blade Runner, when Roy finally meets his second father and true maker, Mr. Tyrell, he kills him because he can’t fix the inherent problems he was born with. Dr. Tyrell’s apartment is a lot more maternal than J.F. Sebastians due to the lighting and props within the room. “It’s not an easy thing to meet your maker” Roy admits to Tyrell, “Can the maker repair what he makes?” In Gattaca, Vincent feels a similar resentment towards his parents because he could have been genetically altered himself. Roy is angry at both his father’s because he could have been programmed differently, yet they consciously decided to make him the way he is. 

In Gattaca, The Freeman’s decide to have a second child, Anton, who fits into all of the genetically predisposed ideals of what the perfect boy should be. Mr. Freeman is clearly proud, marking with excitement Anton’s height in the banner of their home. We see Vincent rubbing off the record of his own height while the family embraces one another in the background. The positioning of the characters in the frame shows a clear line between nature and technology, with the family ultimately embracing technology. All of the characters we’ve analyzed have had their own way of coping with the technological pressures brought upon the family. With the help of futuristic gadgets and scientific instruments, Vincent goes through an elaborate scheme to take the identity of someone else in order to overcome his weak genetic profile and assume a position at Gattaca. Metropolis’s Freder rebels at his father and joins the workers who fuel Joh’s city. In Brazil, Sam’s mother completely sheds her parental responsibilities because she can live forever as a young socialite. At one point in Back To The Future 2, Marty actually pretends to be his son so he can fight of Biff Jr. In Surrogates, Maggie uses a robotic replica of herself in order to permanently maintain a youthful, party-going lifestyle. It’s apparent that, through these pressures, technology creates the opportunity to experiment with and explore different roles than the nuclear family does not offer. Just as father figures used technology to evolve as caretakers, and sons to create their own families, so too have these individuals used the circumstances brought on by societal and technological change to express themselves. 

Something interesting to note is that rarely in this genetically altered family dynamic do we see any sort of motherly figure, even though her presence is pervasive. In Blade Runner, “This tension between pre-Oedipal and oedipal, imaginary and symbolic, the figure of the mother becomes a breaking point in the text. Replicants can be unmasked by a psychological test which reveals their emotional responses as dissimilar to those of humans” (Kuhn 190). Leon cracks over an insignificant question regarding his mother, who he can’t recall because no memories of her were programmed into his head. The only replicant who does manage to break this cycle, create her own emotions and overcome the four year time limit is Rachel; Deckard’s love interest, because she has a false memory of herself with her mother as a child. In Blade Runner, the mother is a cornerstone of the family, “Necessary to the claiming of history and affirmation of identity over time” (Kuhn 191). Reflective of our own fears as a society, our unconscious believe that that the nuclear family will always pervade our lives in one form or another permeates the science fiction genre. The four replicants each fall to the hands of their own need to exist longer then they were programmed to, and the two father dynamic is crushed at the hands of their own creation. 

The science fiction family of the future is awarded special opportunities because of the technologically advanced atmosphere it abides in. Depicted in Alien, the father does his best to survive and adapt to a society that values him less and less, and fuses his energies with technologically superior entities in order to explore and conquer the world. The son of the future, on the other hand, is able to leverage technological progress to create a family in his own image as we saw in Back To The Future 2. His need to constantly control his surroundings and life situation are a direct result of the father’s absence, and although he feels he is doing a service by protecting and altering his family, the benefactors of this kindness, specifically Blade Runner’s Roy and Gattaca’s Vincent, eventually grow resentful over their lack of power and destiny. Those affected by this overly controlled environment take matters into their hands and gradually transcend classic nuclear family roles. Technology’s ability to alter, manipulate, and change qualities within us that have been consistent for years has a similar effect on the nuclear family. Much like a snowball picking up momentum as it rolls down a mountain; the displacement of the father figure offers the opportunity for his offspring to get creative with the advanced tools awarded to them. As we saw in Bicentennial Man, these surrogate technologies are, at first, a way to make family life easier. Such as the case in Surrogates, the enhancement of a tool such as Andrew into that of a mechanical clone awards us the opportunity to explore alternatives to the conventional mode of living in a family system. Almost all of the characters explore and experiment with different family roles whether they are conscious of it or not. Scientific progress, as depicted in science fiction film, is a force driving societal change. By modifying one pillar in the family dynamic, technological progress begins to corrode the foundations of the nuclear family, allowing those willing to transcend their anxieties to explore a technologically advanced existence. 


Works Cited


Alien. Dir. Ridley Scott. Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation, 1979. DVD

Back To The Future Part 2. Dir. Ridley Scott. Universal Pictures, 1989. DVD

Bicentennial Man. Dir. Chris Columbus. Buena Vista Pictures, 1999. DVD

Biskind, Peter. Seeing Is Believing: How Hollywood Taught Us to Stop Worrying and Love the

Fifties. New York: Pantheon, 1983. Print.

Blade Runner. Dir. Ridley Scott. Warner home Video, 1982. DVD

Brazil. Dir. Terry Gilliam. Universal Pictures, 1985. DVD

Bruno, Giuliana. “Ramble City: Postmodernism and Blade Runner” Ed.Kuhn, Annette. Alien Zone: Cultural Theory and Contemporary Science Fiction Cinema. New York: Seventh Impression, 2003.

Byers, Thomas B. “Commodity Futures.” Ed.Kuhn, Annette. Alien Zone: Cultural Theory and Contemporary Science Fiction Cinema. New York: Seventh Impression, 2003.

Cornea, Christine. Science Fiction Cinema between Fantasy and Reality. New Jersey: Rutgers UP, 2007.

Dadoun, Roger. “”Metropolis: Mother-City—-“Mittler”—Hitler.” Camera Obscura. 137-164. Duke University Press. Web. 27 Apr. 2011.

Gattaca. Dir. Andrew Niccol. Sony Pictures Releasing, 1997. DVD

Kellner, Douglas, Flo Leibowitz, and Michael Ryan. “Blade Runner A Diagnostic Critique.” Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, (1984): 6-8. Jump Cut. 1894. Web. 27 Apr. 2011. <http://www.ejumpcut.org/home.html>.

Kirby, David. “ The Devil in Our DNA:A Brief History of Eugenics in Science Fiction Films.” Literature and Medicine. 26.1 (2008): 83-181. Project Muse. Web. 27 Apr. 2011.

Kirby, David. “The Future Is Now: Diegetic Prototypes and the Role of Popular Films in Generating Real-world Technological Development.” Social Studies of Science (Sage) 40.1 (2010): 41-71. Academic Search Premier. Web. 27 Apr. 2011.

Metropolis. Dir. Fritz Lang. Transit Classics, 1927. DVD

Olson, David H. L., and John D. DeFrain. Marriages and Families: Intimacy, Diversity, and Strengths. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2003. Print.

Palmer, R. Barton. “Imagining The Future, Contemplating the Past” Ed.Kuhn, Annette. Alien Zone: Cultural Theory and Contemporary Science Fiction Cinema. New York: Seventh Impression, 2003.

Ryan, Michael and Kellner, Douglas “Technophobia.” Ed.Kuhn, Annette. Alien Zone: Cultural Theory and Contemporary Science Fiction Cinema. New York: Seventh Impression, 2003.

Stoehr, Kevin L. “2001: A Philosophical Odyssey.“ Ed.Sanders, Steven M. The Philosophy of Science Fiction. Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 2009.

Surrogates. Dir. Jonathan Mostow. Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment, 2009. DVD

Telotte, J.P. “The Doubles of Fantasy and the Space of Desire.” Ed.Kuhn, Annette. Alien Zone: Cultural Theory and Contemporary Science Fiction Cinema. New York: Seventh Impression, 2003.

[1] In his Seeing is Believing, Peter Biskind notes the polarizing nature of science and military depictions in 1950’s cinema. “In sci-fi, the federal government in Washington plays the role of the army does in war films” and “Science replaced therapy as the guiding light of corporate-liberal sci-fi, in which the coalition of the center was managed by scientists and soldiers, not cops and docs” (Biskind p.103) While both factions were sometimes faced with a threat known as “The Other”, or a force symbolic of American threats at the time, these two groups were often at odds with one another and, depending on the point of view of the film, one groups opinions and values were dominant.

[2] “While musical, horror and science fiction films all made spectacular use of technologically clever cinematic effects, the science fiction genre was usually distinguished by its frequent creation and display of fantastical new technologies as a central component and diving force within the narrative world of the film“ (Cornea 249).

[3] While analyzing the primary texts for this essay, I noticed that many science fiction families were torn apart by loss in one form or another. In Surrogates, Maggie looses a son which makes her emotionally crippled. In Brazil, Sam’s father passed away for an unknown reason. The city in Metropolis is created to honor Joh’s lost wife. In Minority Report (which I was unable to cover in this essay) the protagonist loses his son during a trip to the local swimming pool; destroying the relationship with his wife and bringing him to the point of drug addiction. Finally, in Blade Runner, Deckard’s wife splits up with him because he was too involved with his work. This motif seemed to spur a lack of emotion between most of the primary characters, which I believe has to do with the fact that technological progress, order, and reason are seen as incompatible with emotion. Having a character’s loved one die in a futuristic society is a great starting point when depicting an unemotionally involved populace overruled by technology. 

[4] Typically, those looking to escape the futuristic metropolises in these films tend to flee to the country side or nature. See Blade Runner, Minority Report, Brazil. “Science fiction films concerning fears of machines or of technology usually negatively affirm such social values as freedom, individualism, and the family. In 1970s films, technology was frequently a metaphor for everything that threatened ‘natural’ social arrangements, and conservative values associated with nature were generally mobilized as antidotes to that threat” (Ryan and Kellner 58).

[5] Which is peculiar, seeing as Sir makes the claim not 10 minutes before his upset with Andrew leaving that “at the end of the day we are talking about a machine…You can’t invest your emotions into a machine” (Bicentennial Man 39-39:15).

[6] See Cornea p.154 “Rachel learns that these memories are false and that she too is merely a replicated form of being; a condition that is extended to the Blade Runner, Deckard (Harrison Ford), in the director’s cut of the film (1992).”

[i] See Cornea, Christine. Science Fiction Cinema between Fantasy and Reality. New Jersey: Rutgers UP, 2007. 255. Print.

[ii] See p.155 Abrams, Jerold J. “The Dialectic of Enlightment in Metropolis. ”Ed.Sanders, Steven M. The Philosophy of Science Fiction. Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 2009.