Netflix has unveiled a new sci-fi post-apocalyptic flick called “I Am Mother” that, if I’d paid to see it theatrically, I would’ve been very disappointed. Watching it relatively risk-free in my living room made it all go down a little easier, though its faults are no less obvious.
The film opens with an unspecified ‘extinction event’ outside of a thick isolated shelter/sanctuary/nursery that is tended by a lone robot named Mother (voiced by Rose Byrne, motion-captured from the performance of Luke Hawker). Mother takes an embryo from thousands of cryogenically stored human embryos to raise as its daughter. Over time, we a progression from infant, to child, and to eventual teenage “Daughter” (Clara Rugaard), who forms a close bond with the maternal robot. Mother tends to Daughter’s education (making Daughter brilliant), and Daughter even learns how to do maintenance around the compound, as well as perform minor repairs to Mother itself. It’s a near-perfect symbiotic relationship between human and machine.
This initial relationship between Mother and Daughter was, for me, the most compelling part of the entire film. Sadly, it doesn’t last…
While wandering unsupervised one night during Mother’s recharging time, Daughter hears another human voice outside the thick airlock doors. Fearing the high contamination in the outside world Mother has warned her of, she grabs a pair of biohazard suits and nervously opens the outer airlock door to let the injured “Woman” (Hilary Swank) in. Woman suffers from a gunshot wound, which Daughter tends to, since Woman won’t allow Mother to care for her. Woman is semi-feral and deeply distrustful of robots like Mother. This new interloper quickly becomes the serpent in this story, upsetting the conflict-free, symbiotic relationship between Mother and Daughter by telling Daughter the truth; “Mother” is one of a race of killer robots who ravaged the outside world, and left the remains of the human race to die. They are Skynet 2.0.
As she recovers, Woman begins to sow discord between Mother and Daughter, trying to persuade Daughter to join her in the outside world which is not radioactively contaminated, though a harsh environment all the same. Woman tells Daughter stories of her fellow resisters, including a young man about Daughter’s age, in an attempt to act on the young woman’s hunger for more of her own kind. This is the only inkling we ever see that Daughter might have an innate sexual identity of some kind.
Daughter also learns that she was not the first embryo born in the complex… previous attempts by Mother to raise a daughter ended in ‘failure’ and were cremated (why Mother kept the cremated remains around to be discovered by its very clever Daughter is a major plot hole that is never explained). When we saw mother raising an infant, and later a child, those were different girls who didn’t make it. Mother cremated them all. Daughter is just the latest and most successful attempt. This discovery adds extra incentive for Daughter to escape.
Complicating matters is the recent birth of another embryo in the complex, which Mother allowed Daughter to choose. Daughter chose a brother. The baby is soon born and creates an impetus for Daughter to remain with Mother, as Mother intended.
At this point, I had to wonder; would it have been too much to ask that screenwriter Michael Lloyd Green give these characters names? Yeah, I get it…they’re all metaphors. “Mother” “Daughter” “Woman” “Brother” etc. It’s laid on so thick it’s practically subtitled in all caps.
Anyway, I digress; moving on…
Woman makes her escape attempt, using Daughter as a human shield in order to force Mother’s compliance. The two women are allowed to leave out of the airlock, with no time to go back for the newborn baby boy. Daughter learns that the outside world is a vast wasteland, with robotic attempts to restore balance (a cornfield is being grown for eventual human repopulation). Hunter robots are everywhere, and care must be taken to avoid them.
Woman takes Daughter back to her ‘home’… an abandoned shipping container along a deserted beach. Daughter learns the bitter truth; there are no other survivors. Woman simply wanted a companion and tricked Daughter into escape. Realizing her existence on the outside will be a harsh one based on lies, Daughter chooses to go back and try to reconcile with Mother (for her brother’s sake, as well).
Daughter also learns that all of the killer robots patrolling the outside world are from the singular shared consciousness of Mother itself (again… Skynet). Daughter confronts Mother, takes her baby brother and then destroys the maternal machine. Daughter chooses to remain in the complex, using her own advanced knowledge (courtesy of Mother’s teachings) to become the new ‘mother’ for a new human race. She is mother now.
Terminator Redux: Mother’s Day
“I Am Mother” (2019) is a story about the battle for the soul of a young woman between two flawed, would-be mothers; one human, the other machine. The story is a very intriguing idea, but it’s weighed down with a ton of sci-fi cliches, such as a generic robot apocalypse and the ever-present dystopian wasteland (we even see a “Planet of the Apes”-style human hunt in a cornfield). Graphically there is some of Neil Blomkamp’s “Chappie” in there, along with the austerity and loneliness of Duncan Jones’ “Moon” (which itself was an homage to 1970s science fiction). Unfortunately, “I Am Mother” isn’t quite in the league of the films it homages… it’s more like a copy of a copy.
The production design looks almost generically science fiction. Mother’s enormous nursery/sanctuary looks like it was recycled from the Acheron colony of “ALIENS” and the Sarang Lunar Mining Base from “Moon”. This is one of those sci-fi flms where almost everything in it looks as though it were made for a science fiction film, with lots of unnecessarily complicated Syd Mead-looking angles and blinking doo-dads all over everything. Even the simple pad that Daughter watches her old TV shows on has a needlessly clunky, almost-1990s look to it. My own iPad mini looks more sleek and futuristic.
Some good things; the film is backed by strong performances from Clara Rugaard and Rose Byrne (voice of Mother). The flawless robotic performance of Mother was motion-captured from actor Luke Hawker by CGI FX mega-house Weta (“Lord of the Rings”). Byrne’s ambiguous, feminine take on HAL 9000 is a nice fit for the role, while Rugaard’s “Daughter” holds her own very effectively.
The only disappointment for me was Oscar-winner Hilary Swank’s character of “Woman”, who spends most of the film feeling like a poor man’s Sarah Connor. I wish I were exaggerating, but it’s basically a 1:1 riff on Linda Hamilton’s “Sarah Conner” from T2, but without that character’s resourcefulness. Swank is a terrific actress, and she rages with all she’s got. But like the movie’s production design the character, as written, feels like a copy of something superior.
Summing up “Mother.”
Despite the movie’s already padded running time of just under two hours, I would’ve liked to have seen more of what we saw in the first act of this movie; the bonding between human and machine. How would a child raised by machines think? How would Daughter deal with her own emerging sexuality, a situation with which Mother cannot relate? Is Mother sincere in its attempt to create a new, better human civilization? Is Mother genuinely alive, or just a series of preprogrammed answers and responses? None of this is ever dealt with in any depth. Such depth is ultimately sacrificed in favor of simpler moralizing.
Ultimately Mother is depicted as a psychotic mechanical monster… a mass murdering robot that doesn’t really deserve a chance to redeem itself. This is unfortunate, because Mother actually makes a few compelling arguments bolstering its view that humanity is hellbent on self-destruction. It would’ve been far more interesting to me if we could’ve seen human and machine somehow reconciling, admitting both sides made horrible mistakes, and moving forward. Perhaps we could’ve seen human and machine achieve true forgiveness. At the very least, it would’ve been original.
On the plus side, the film is bolstered by a couple of strong performances and an intriguing first act that sadly dissolves into a collection of familiar science fiction tropes by the end. Not a complete waste of time, but nothing terribly special, either. “I Am Mother” is a textbook definition of middle-of-the-road entertainment… almost like a science fiction film made by a machine.