Parenting, according to 1990s sci-fi movies

Fighting interstellar war or saving the world from invaders is tough, but it's nowhere near as hard as raising the next generation...

Please note: this feature has a big spoiler for Armageddon, and light spoilers for Face/Off, Contact, Village Of The Damned, The Astronaut’s Wife and Deep Impact.

One look at the first trailer for Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar tells you that it’s offering a meal of science fiction with a side order of parental issues, and there’s nothing new about that. The big franchises all dabble in the maternal and paternal, from Star Wars to Alien, Star Trek to Terminator – they address what it means to be responsible for the next generation, and for all the generations to come.

How come sci-fi has such a connection with the issue of parenthood? Perhaps that’s natural, considering it deals with the future of humanity. But it’s worth bearing in mind that all science fiction is not so much about the unknown as the uncomfortable. It makes us view, with a fresh degree of objectivity, the problems that face us right now in the present time.

So what can we learn about our obsession with generational conflict through science fiction? Here are a few rules that we can make about parenting through examining the 1990s science fiction universe. The nineties was a decade of great science fiction from the blockbusting to the subversive, from the meaningful to the maniacal, and it really had a lot of issues in the parenting department. SF movies may be really entertaining, but, alas, they’re hardly filled with great examples of brilliant nurturing skills. For example, take rule number one:

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1. Fatherhood is the worst job in the world

Being a father is hard. We all know that. You need to raise and let go of your child over the course of eighteen years, and at that end of it you’ll have some amazing memories, a lot of grey hairs, and very little left of your bank balance to show for it.

Unless you’re a 1990s sci-fi dad. In which case, one of the following things will happen to you:

The Armageddon Effect – you’ll end up volunteering to go into space and save the Earth (because you have a beautiful daughter who deserves a long and happy life). And when you get there you’ll end up sacrificing yourself in order to protect the annoying guy your beautiful daughter has fallen in love with. But at least you’ll get an emotional satlink moment with her before you die. That’ll make it all worthwhile, because you’re a father. And that’s enough for you. You’ve lived your life, right?

The Face/Off Issue – You’ll try really hard to save the world from psychopathic bad guys (because you’ve already lost your son, but at least you still have a beautiful daughter who deserves a long and happy life) but one particular bad guy will steal your face and sneak into your family. Will your daughter notice? No, she will not. In fact, she will prefer the psychopath because he arms her with a knife, which is far cooler than you will ever be. Meanwhile, you’ll constantly worry about her even though she hasn’t noticed you’ve gone. Because worrying is what fathers do.

The Contact Conundrum – You have a beautiful daughter who deserves a long and happy life. She will become the first person to communicate with alien intelligence, and it will choose to appear to her in your image, because she loves you that much. This would be the perfect relationship, except you have to be dead for all this to happen.

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2. Your child is right and you are wrong. About everything

If your child comes home from school and tells you that aliens have taken over The Faculty, you need to listen to them and not simply assume that they are on drugs. Even if they are actually on drugs. But you can feel reassured that they won’t tell you any such thing because it’s much easier just for them to deal with the problem themselves.

Yes, your child is much more likely to spot the problem, resolve it, and outlive it. Take Deep Impact – does NASA first identify the comet that is going to smash into Earth and destroy us all? No, that honour falls to a high school student who will then be given a place in a super-duper top-secret bunker because he’s definitely worth saving over the boring old professional scientists. But wait! The teenager decides not to take up that place. If an adult did something that stupid in a sci-fi film they’d be toast in the next scene, but a teenager can get away from a comet with his new teenage wife in tow by simply biking along as the adults have to sit in traffic jams. Your only hope? Give the teenager your baby and wave them goodbye.

If your children don’t solve the problem then bear in mind they might well be the problem. In John Carpenter’s remake of Village Of The Damned, a lot of women get pregnant at the same time and end up having babies that all look suspiciously alike. These children are very superior and obnoxious, but parents aren’t allowed to notice such things so they have to pretend to be happy while having their innermost thoughts read. No matter what happens in this film, it’s going to end badly. Either the parents are going to die or the children are going to die, and the parents will feel horrible guilt about it forever more. It’s a lose-lose situation.

3. The parenting instinct is universal, and nothing but trouble…

Feeling like you want to protect that little life? You idiot. It’s not going to end well. The Alien films have always played with the concept of the maternal instinct, and come full circle in Alien: Resurrection, where Ripley becomes the mother of a Xenomorph/human hybrid. Which is about as cute as it sounds. Still, Ripley remains a complex character even in less interesting movies, and her maternal urges don’t get the better of her.

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If only the same could be said of Charlize Theron in The Astronaut’s Wife. She knows husband Johnny Depp is not the same man who went up into space, and she’s more than a match for extraterrestrial plots. But pregnancy is her nemesis. Suddenly she’s doey-eyed about her offspring, and the Earth is probably doomed. Thanks Charlize.

It’s not only humans who struggle to control their desire to parent. Godzilla, that lizard with panache, is given a twist in the 1998 version. It turns out this is a female monster and it has decided to lay its eggs in Madison Square Garden. You’d think somebody would have noticed it hunkering down, but no; everyone in New York is too busy rushing around in blind panic avoiding the trigger-happy Army. There’s another article lurking in here about how it’s a bad move to choose to live in New York in the sci-fi universe, but I’ll leave that for another time.

4. …Unless the kids aren’t yours to begin with

So here’s the light at the end of the wormhole. It turns out you can having a great parenting experience as long as you’re not actually related to the children in question. Take Jurassic Park. The real parents of Tim and Lex decided that a trip to Isla Nublar to stay with dear old grandfather was a great idea (did he not tell them exactly what he was doing with all that high voltage fencing and frog DNA?). But that bad parenting decision is Sam Neill’s and Laura Dern’s gain. They get the chance to learn the joy of communicating with the next generation, and are more fully rounded human beings by the end of the film. By which I mean they have to make expressions that suggest they’re no longer utterly annoyed at being turned into babysitters against their will. It’s a good thing they’re both such great actors.

It seems ironic that the only way you can be a happy parent in science fiction is if you’re taking on somebody else’s children. Dare to procreate yourself and you’ll end up in a situation where you’ll die, or your child will attempt to kill everyone. Let’s hope that Interstellar gives us a different experience, but even if it all ends in tears yet again we can take comfort in the fact that nobody will be put off from having kids simply because of the entire canon of science fiction movies on the subject. No matter what anybody gets told about the parenting experience – even from the mouths of their own long-suffering mother and father – they don’t believe it until they experience it themselves, do they? So don’t blame us when it turns out you’ve given birth to a little alien who turns you into a guilt-stricken idiot and then grows up into a know-it-all who tells you nothing and buzzes off happily into the sunset without you. They’ll never call, you know. You were warned.

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