The thing about studying science fiction for a living is that people love to send me recommendations for movies I simply must watch. A few years ago, everyone I know (and a few folks I’d only just met) told me I absolutely had to see Grant Stupore’s 2019 I Am Mother on Netflix. It’s fascinating, they said. I’ll need to write about it immediately, they said. So I watched it. And it was, you know, fine. Immediately after, Netflix recommended Ben Young’s 2018 film Extinction. And it was also, you know, fine. There’s nothing particularly groundbreaking in either movie as far as science fiction or robots go. But seeing them back-to-back, being forced to read them in relationship to one another, opens up a new discussion about the state of technology and ethics at the moment that is, as it turns out, fascinating.
Extinction and I Am Mother are both ostensibly about robot families. In Extinction, a man named Pete begins having nightmares that his family is being attacked by space invaders. Soon, the invasion actually begins, so the family flees their apartment. During their journey to a nearby factory with a safe bunker, Pete’s wife, Alice, is wounded. One of the invading soldiers attempts to help her. In this moment, we discover that Pete, Alice, and their two children are all androids, and the invaders are humans who have returned to Earth to slaughter their creations. The father’s nightmares, it turns out, had been resurfacing memories of the initial wave of war when the humans attacked the androids, and the androids fought back. The father and wife met on the first day of the rebellion and soon “adopted” their two children, orphan androids whose human parents had been murdered for being synthetic sympathizers. By the end of the film, the entire family flees to a literal underground railroad to safety.
Meanwhile in I Am Mother, a humanoid robot attempts to raise a human child, aptly named Daughter, in an underground bunker. An outsider human woman invades and convinces Daughter that her mother is a killer who is not to be trusted. Daughter flees her perceived captivity in the bunker, only to find that Woman is living in a shipping crate by the ocean, alone and terrified of technology. By the end, Mother has created a new human child, a male, and Daughter returns to the bunker to murder Mother and take care of the baby.
Both films are about the horrors of human nature and whether robots can truly participate in familial, domestic life. Yet, they’re actually an inversion of one another and offer distinctly opposing cultural views on gender, technology, and care. On the one hand, Extinction shows the family unit as the core site of caretaking and love, both in the home and in the dark spaces of the underground rebellion. On the other hand, I Am Mother explores the tension between organic and inorganic motherhood, figured in the differences between ocean and bunker, religion and technology, embodiment and disembodiment, human Woman and robot Mother.
Both films are obsessed with reproducing (pun intended) the family unit, both as a collection of interrelated people and as a space where domestic happiness thrives. In Extinction, the heteronormative family is the core unit of care, with a father, a mother, and two children. At the start of the film, we see the family’s mid-century modern styled apartment, brightly lit, filled with plants, and decorated in earth tones. Everything in their home feels natural, warm, comforting. Their life is the very picture of the American Dream.
But with the start of the invasion, the spaces the family finds themselves in become increasingly dark and threatening, from an elevator shaft to a filthy room where Pete, upon discovering his true nature as an android, hooks his energy core up to Alice’s so that she can be revived. Finally, the family enters an underground subway station with others from the android resistance movement and flees on an underground railroad to safety. The final scene of the film returns the family to nature, as the train emerges from the side of a mountain and crosses a bridge over a lake. The last shot of the family is the four of them looking out the train window, with the reflection of the mountains over their faces: artificial beings, reflected in nature. The implied takeaway is that the heteronormative family unit, however artificially created, is both natural and the ultimate site of healing from the traumas of the past.
Conversely, in I Am Mother, the technological family and the natural family are thematically pitted against one another. The bulk of the action takes place in an underground bunker that is both dark and sterile, filled with technology and cold, metal surfaces. There are no fathers in I Am Mother, which gives the film a veneer of feminism without actually engaging in the critical work of feminism. In other words, it shows us a world in which technological reproduction is possible, a sort of nod to “when you want to throw the whole man away” philosophies of the 1970s, without actually interrogating gender roles or norms. According to sociologist Jennifer Beggs Weber, “the absent-father theme often serves as a comfortable prop for making sense of adolescent girls’ and boys’ poor choices….” In I Am Mother, Mother’s entire goal in raising Daughter is to create a perfect form of humanity, perfectly rational, perfectly ethical. But in the unspoken absence of a paternal figure, Daughter revolts and begins pushing back against her lifetime of training.
In contrast, Pete in Extinction is a model father figure whose emotional distress over his disturbing nightmares begins to put a strain on his marriage. Pete is complex and fiercely loves his family. In one scene, he fixes his daughter’s toy and talks through her feelings with her. Later, he literally gives his energy to help his injured wife, his body hooked up to hers in a visual portrayal of how love connects them. Although we know Alice and Pete did not have a “traditional” relationship by meeting, falling in love, and starting a family, we do know that Pete’s empathy for Alice is inherent. In one flashback scene, as human commentators debate whether the androids deserve human rights, Alice, then a housekeeper, drops something off her cart. Pete, a maintenance man, walks over to pick it up for her. “Why did you do that?” she asks, surprised at his kindness. “I don’t know,” he responds. Through this quiet interaction, we learn that Pete has always been a caring man. In this world, robot fathers and mothers are equal partners, care for each other, are attuned to their children’s emotional needs, and ultimately come together with other families to survive in the face of the inhuman humans.
In I Am Mother, as the title suggests, everything is about mothers and maternity. The robot Mother continuously tells the nameless Daughter that they’re building her family and the future of humanity. Literally, the future of human civilization rests on the reproductive and caretaking capabilities of a robot and her daughter. When Woman—another nameless cisgender lady—arrives, she is visually and thematically aligned with Mother Nature and analog technology, in stark contrast to the digital technology of robot Mother. Woman carries a paperback book instead of a digital tablet, draws pictures instead of insisting on mathematical precision, uses a firearm instead of a laser rifle, lives on the beach next to the wildly moving ocean instead of the safety and stasis of the underground bunker. And most importantly, she still believes in the “old” Christian religion. This is important later in the film, when we discover that Daughter is not actually Mother’s first child, but is one of a series of failed attempts at producing the “perfect” human, free from the imperfections and irrationalities of humanity. Each previous child was burned in a furnace, a project that was literally aborted. In this sense, the film establishes two polar opposite mothers: one electronic, cold, frightening, and pro-abortion; the other analog, warm, inviting, and pro-life. This oversimplification of maternal archetypes is, as I have mentioned, what gives the film the veneer of feminism without actually questioning gender roles. As sociologist Kath Woodward points out, “The advances of technoscience have already led to the need to develop new terminology to categorize the donor mother who provides the egg, the mother who hosts the foetus and gives birth and the mother who rears the child. These are not all new categories, of course, and surrogacy has a long history; but technological and social developments have demanded greater clarity about these distinctions.” It’s ironic, given the film’s attention to artificial reproduction and mothering, that it attempts to re-assert such a classic and cliched dichotomy between the artificial mother and the natural one. Meanwhile, in Extinction, there is no distinction made at all between artificial and natural mothering; in fact, for the first half of the film, we are led to believe that the robot mothers are human mothers, and their position in the family structure is rendered natural. Further, the very cohesion of the robot family unit, the coming together of father, mother, and children after the brutality of the war, is one of the central sources of emotional weight in the film.
Yet, in neither film is the natural more important than the artificial. In Extinction, the “natural” humans are portrayed as inhuman bug-like creatures from outer space, with no empathy for their robot creations. The “artificial” robots are the ones with natural interiority, emotional connections, and mundane middle-class lives that ostensibly mirror the viewers’. Meanwhile, in I Am Mother, the artificial and the natural are treated as equally horrendous: Woman betrays Daughter just as much as Mother does. Woman lied to Daughter by telling her that there were other humans, a ploy to get her away from the technology and to the “safety” of her oceanside hideout. Daughter, unable to abandon her brother for life with Woman, returns to the bunker, where she learns that Mother is actually networked with all murderous technology on the planet. By the end, as Daughter murders Mother and becomes the sole caretaker of the one and only male character, the film quickly slides into a libertarian both-sides-ism, revealing that both mothers—both authority figures—are equally terrible, and the only true means of finding freedom is through individual choice.
So, what do we learn from these films? Like I said, they’re pretty cliché. We’ve seen the humans who turn out to be androids with memory problems before, thanks to Philip K. Dick’s classic novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and the adaptation Blade Runner. It’s been done to death. And we’ve seen the perils of artificial reproduction stories, from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein on up through basically every AI book, movie, and TV show ever produced. It’s also been done to death. Even more frustratingly, both films are invested in upholding normative cis-het gender roles in their portrayals of parents and parenting. And yet, when seen together, there’s something about these two films that feels fresh and pressing. I would argue that it’s precisely because the foundational themes taken up by science fiction for the last 200 years continue to speak to human civilization: how we destroy each other and our creations, how we strip ourselves of our humanity through that destruction, how we get so caught up in controlling reproduction and the next generation that we lose sight of our own humanity.
Globally, we’re well on our way to robot-dependent societies. Our factory robots replaced workers and upended the middle class. Roombas clean our houses. Alexas assist us in every task. Even the Google search engine is itself a form of AI. But so far, that technology isn’t necessarily helping us become better, more caring humans. In many ways, science fiction reminds us, we continue to be the same people we always were. But what we do with the tech, here and now in the 21st century, is key. Extinction and I Am Mother were produced during the time of the Trump administration, and now we can look back at them through the lens of the pandemic, rising fascism, climate change, and a global human rights crisis. Should we, as I Am Mother suggests, hide away in a bunker, cut off from the world, putting only ourselves and our immediate family’s needs first? Or should we, as Extinction hopes, band together as not just a single family unit but as a whole underground resistance wrestling with the worst of our nature?
Liz W Faber
Liz W Faber is assistant professor of English and Communication at Dean College, adjunct instructor of academic and science writing in the University of Maryland Baltimore Graduate School, and the special issues editor for the Popular Culture Studies Journal.