It’s always a great sign when piece of sci-fi cinema leaves you with chill-inducing ideas to mull over. Netflix’s ‘I am Mother’, the largely contained feature debut from filmmaker Grant Sputore, gets a load of credit on this front. On the flip side, ‘I Am Mother’ also leaves you with fists clenched because of the frustrating lack of restraint keeping it from rising to something resembling exceptional.
As hinted at by the title, the idea of motherhood and how it shapes one’s sense of self is the most coherent idea posited by this lean apocalyptic thriller. The first maternal figure is the robot known as Mother (Rose Byrne), who is activated when the doomsday clock runs out.
Operating from a bunker, which is a contingency put in place to repopulate the earth, Mother gets to work extracting one of the hundreds of frozen embryos that she nurtures into Daughter (Clara Rugaard). Mother, who had me thinking of those killer robots from ‘Space truckers’, initially defies decades worth of warnings from sci-fi cinema to evoke a genuine maternal presence as we see a babe respond with affection to her as it would to flesh and blood.
But the isolation and strict curriculum (that notably includes some Trolley Test-style problems) doesn’t strip Daughter of the rebellious teenage tendencies that put a strain on her bond with Mother. She has questions about the outside world as Mother comes off as more controlling than either of them would like to admit. Daughter’s questions are answered when a woman with a gunshot wound (Hilary Swank) arrives ominously at the doorstep of the facility.
Swank’s character, credited as Woman, sparks the story to life after a little narrative stasis. She arrives with an infectious bout of the darkest human sensibilities as Daughter comes face to face with human nature for the very first time.
There are a few fascinating ways to read ‘I am Mother’. I love to fan the tiniest spark of biblical allusion into a rich bonfire and it’s hard not to think of man’s fall in Genesis when thinking of the way Woman’s intrusion triggers an erosion of the central relationship that was for all intents and purposes a marker of perfection.
Daughter’s thirst for more of the world around her opened her up to much more than the truth. She gets a taste of pain, fear, grief and, most heartbreakingly, violence. There isn’t a hint of ill intent in Woman’s motives though her desperation is palpable. Given the state the world is in, Woman’s default mode of self-preservation is no surprise. And she is almost an audience avatar in that she is terrified by what Mother and her single eerie eye could represent.
But is Woman entirely trustworthy? Some of the scripts finest moments come when the tensions rise above mere apprehension to place daughter at the centre of two imperfect maternal figures. She will have to choose; ostensibly between nature and nurture.
Mother exists in service of creating the perfect human existence; intellectually, morally and even artistically. But like ‘The Matrix’ touches on, Mother’s goal appears to be a mere march towards dissonance as evidenced by how easily Daughter’s head is swayed from the safety of her bunker to the unknown that birthed a bloodied woman.
Then there’s the Turing test of it all. Given that this is reaching for the psychological heights of ‘Ex Machina’, it’s easy to take for granted that Mother sometimes comes off as more than a network of 1s and 0s? It’s to do with the small moments that mirror real parenthood, like how she appears to break protocol to allow a baby Daughter to sleep in her room.
It’s the traces of jealousy that come to the fore in Mother’s programming that I found most compelling. When Woman enters the fray, the definition of duty, per Mother’s motives is blurred. Is there genuine fear in Mother’s hardware that Woman will snatch away her babe or are her coldly calculated moves in service of her mandate to repopulate the earth?
I welcomed the opportunity to speculate and overthink things. The problem here is that we get answers to key questions quenching the fun. I dare say all the answers we get punch holes in the plot because of muddied execution in the final act. There’s a quick jolt of excitement when piecing the puzzle together only to realise there were some misprinted pieces, leaving you some bitter sprinkled on your sweet.
The script is quite clever and offers twists that subvert the certain genre workings we are used to. For one, there is this air of domesticity that makes this a legitimate story about family bonds and not destroying Skynet to preserve humanity. But the script still trips over itself and undercuts this point in favor of misplaced closure.
The direction is functional enough striking the right tone for large chunks and Sputore likes to keep things moving even if the story feels like its warming up for far too long in the first act. But there is much to savour in some of Sputore’s simple choices. The shots of Mother cradling a baby are transfixing enough as incongruities in cinema. There is an innate paradox in the levels of comfort Daughter derives from Mother which speaks to our dependence on technology today and how it is the latest altar of perfection. You don’t even notice when you are being swept away by that quiet but overwhelming moment Daughter rests her head on Mother’s angular shoulder.
There are garnishes of sci-fi horror that give life to the film’s finale. Sputore gets to filter a homage to the likes of Ellen Ripley and Sarah Conor through Daughter in a strong performance by Rugaard that effectively conveys the toll the central conflict. Swank is great too and half of the film’s intensity seems to flow from her eyes alone. Bryne (with the motion work from an actor) lends an auditory performance that keeps you guessing simply because of her affectation, which never strays from its warm beginnings despite increasing angst.
‘I Am Mother’ asks the age-old question about what it means to be human in interesting ways. I doubt I’ll watch a more interesting sci-fi film this year. It’s a debate between nurture and nature and Sputore seems to pick his winner with the final shot of the film; a close-up of Daughter’s face which left me cold – as it was meant to be.