Raunchy replicants and amorous aliens: How real is sci-fi sex?

As part of our report exploring the future of sex, we get hot and sweaty with science fiction from "Blade Runner" to "Her." Not all of it is so far-fetched.

Richard Trenholm Former Movie and TV Senior Editor
Richard Trenholm was CNET's film and TV editor, covering the big screen, small screen and streaming. A member of the Film Critic's Circle, he's covered technology and culture from London's tech scene to Europe's refugee camps to the Sundance film festival.
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Richard Trenholm
6 min read
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Warning: This story contains descriptions of racy onscreen sex -- and seductive aliens.  

In Woody Allen's 1973 comic caper "Sleeper," 22nd-century citizens hop into a machine called the Orgasmatron for instant sexual gratification. Sounds pretty fantastical if your idea of high-tech sex is Netflix and chill, but as we slip into wearables that measure pelvic thrusts and have sex with increasingly lifelike robots, it seems the steamiest moments in sci-fi movies and TV shows might be coming sooner than you think.

As part of our CNET special report Turned On exploring the intersection of technology and sex, we take a romp with onscreen science fiction to see what's already made its way into our beds and what still awaits our touch. 

Now let's lie back and think of the future.

Watch this: Sex in sci-fi: The future of love, seen on screen

Sci-fi often looks to tech to provide an alternative to all that icky, sticky physical fumbling. The 1968 sexploitation classic "Barbarella" sees lovers of the far future taking "exaltation-transference pills" and pressing together their palms instead of their mucky bits. And in 1993's "Demolition Man," defrosted man-out-of-time Sylvester Stallone looks forward to a night of passion with Sandra Bullock -- until she places brain-scanning helmets on their heads and kicks off a colorful sensory overload that proves too much for the Italian stallion.

Jane Fonda in Barbarella
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Jane Fonda in Barbarella

Jane Fonda slips out of her spacesuit in "Barbarella."


At the climax of "Barbarella," a villainous scientist puts Jane Fonda's titular bed-hopping space adventurer into an orgasm-inducing device called the Excessive Machine. You probably don't have to worry about a deadly climax if a bad guy takes control of your favorite vibrator, but you do have to worry about today's smart sex toys being vulnerable to hacks

Not all onscreen sci-fi gadgets provide happy endings. One of the most chilling, desolate moments in British TV series "Black Mirror" comes in "The Entire History of You." A couple's fractious bickering leads to an energetic bout of passionate lovemaking -- until we realize they're dispassionately reliving an earlier, better time in their relationship thanks to their tiny, memory-replaying camera implants. 

Randy robots

Many sci-fi stories warn that replacing real love and sex with undemanding technology could lead to an austere, dysfunctional society -- and real-life academics have expressed similar concerns. In the 2013 movie "Her," Joaquin Phoenix plays a man in an idealized relationship with an AI. That scenario doesn't seem so far off considering we can already hang out with customizable sex chatbots.

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Joaquin Phoenix gets close, very close, to his computer in "Her."

Warner Bros. Picture, For Times Community News

Sci-fi also shows us the ultimate sex toy: fully functional robots. Increasingly lifelike RealDolls with programmable personalities are just months away, though it may be awhile before they're bed-hopping with the masses. In the sci-fi future, however, people are having it away with androids left, right and center.

Daryl Hannah In 'Blade Runner'
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Daryl Hannah In 'Blade Runner'

Daryl Hannah as a doll-like "basic pleasure model" in "Blade Runner."

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"Star Trek: The Next Generation" sees Data getting his robotic rocks off more often than some of his fleshy human shipmates. In the polluted future of "Blade Runner," meanwhile, lifelike androids known as replicants colonize the galaxy, fight wars and generally do the jobs no one else wants. That includes entertaining the troops: Pris, played by Daryl Hannah in a straw wig and racoon makeup, is "a basic pleasure model." The scenario brings up uncomfortable questions of consent around sentient beings created solely for the gratification of others, an issue we're already beginning to confront with sex robots that can be programmed to resist your advances.

Recently, we've learned artificial intelligence can pick up our prejudices, but it's already happened on film. The robot in 1980 horror movie "Saturn 3," written by novelist Martin Amis, picks up the worst proclivities of Harvey Keitel's villain, including a murderous lust for Farrah Fawcett.


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If we ever do find ourselves in conflict with artificial intelligence , our biological urges could prove our undoing. In the 2003 "Battlestar Galactica" series, the Cylons spot this weakness and infiltrate the human race through the clever tactic of being really, really hot.

X-rated extra-terrestrials

In real life, alien life will probably take the form of bacteria, which isn't anyone's idea of a hot date. In sci-fi, however, many aliens not only know English, but speak the language of love. Good news for Star Trek 's Captain Kirk and Commander Riker, who are forever going on stardates, seeking out new life forms and new uncivilized things to do to them.

While Kirk and other sexual spacefarers have a girl in every galaxy, plenty of aliens have made the return trip with a twinkle of stardust in their eyes. David Bowie, Jeff Bridges and Jeff Goldblum make the earth move for the human women they encounter in "The Man Who Fell To Earth" (1976), "Starman" (1984) and "Earth Girls Are Easy" (1988). And in 1988's "My Stepmother is an Alien," Kim Basinger's race gave up sex 3,000 years ago, but that doesn't stop her getting it on with Dan Aykroyd to the strains of "Pump Up The Volume."

Star Trek
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Star Trek

William Shatner as Star Trek's Captain James T. Kirk, doing his bit for interplanetary relations.

CBS Photo Archive

Another otherworldly being who learns about humanity on screen is the orange-haired Leeloo of 1997's "The Fifth Element," played by Milla Jovovich. She's designed to be the ultimate weapon in the battle with a vast and ancient evil. But once that's out of the way, what better way to celebrate than bumping multipasses with Bruce Willis? Big badaboom indeed.

Interestingly, alien beings taking on female form are often treated as horrifying or predatory. "Lifeforce" (1985), "Species" (1995) and "Under the Skin" (2014) all feature beautiful but deadly aliens taking the form of seductive human women to seduce and kill hapless horny men.

Cultural theorists like Barbara Creed have had a field day with these portrayals of female sexuality, referring to the Freudian concept of the archaic mother and the monstrous feminine.

That brings us to the "Alien" series, which inspired a vast mythology and endless scholarly articles around its phallic and vaginal imagery of violent penetration, impregnation and birth.

The series is rammed full of terrifying moments of reproductive body horror -- from the moment a monstrous egg gloopily peeled open and a facehugger leapt out in 1979's "Alien," through the egg-laying of the towering queen creature in 1986 sequel "Aliens" to the visceral gore of this year's "Alien: Covenant," in which an alien curls its spiked tail between two lovers and skewers them mid-coitus.

Fortunately, plenty of celluloid aliens have sex without all that blood and screaming, like the Antareans who join with Steve Guttenberg for a cerebral coupling in a swimming pool in 1985 heartwarmer "Cocoon."

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The creatures of the "Alien" series mix phallic and vaginal imagery to horrifying effect.

20th Century Fox

Lonely clones

Historically, sex has been important to, y'know, continue this whole human race thing. In the future, however, technology could come up with new ways of propagating the species -- and the impact on society might not be much fun. George Lucas' first film "THX-1138" in 1971 and the 2015 film "Equals," starring Nicholas Hoult and Kristen Stewart, depict austere societies in which emotions and sexual relationships are banned in favor of dispassionate reproduction. While we're moving toward gene therapy and debating the merits of editing the DNA of our children, no one's yet suggesting we give up entirely on making the babies the old-fashioned way.

Fertility is at stake in Hulu's recent hit series "The Handmaid's Tale," based on the horrifying novel by Margaret Atwood. In the near future, it's not technological change at issue but social change, as women are subjugated under a totalitarian religious system in which the few fertile "Handmaids" are repeatedly raped and brutalized. Most chilling is that this sci-fi parable parallels some women's real-life experiences.

Behind the scenes at a sex robot factory

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In the bleak, near-future parable "Code 46," released in 2003, cloning comes with its own new problems. The state monitors relationships to ensure no one with similar DNA gets together. That's enforced with smart viruses, including one that makes the people in relationships feel physically sick at the sight of each other, which kind of ruins the moment.

Nice piece of astronaut

With all those amorous androids and ardent aliens awaiting us, no wonder we're so keen to explore the stars. No one's had sex in space yet (as far as we know), but with commercial spaceflights nearly ready to blast off, it's surely a matter of time before someone joins the 62-mile-high club. 

2000 movie "Supernova" and 2015 TV series "The Expanse" are among the sci-fi stories giving us a preview of zero-gravity groping and grinding, but perhaps the best example of getting wet and wild while weightless comes in "Moonraker." The late Roger Moore's James Bond celebrates saving the day by (what else?) "attempting re-entry."

Let's hope our sexual future is a little more Roger Moore than Woody Allen.