This slow-burn dystopian sci-fi thriller questions the motives & limits of maternal love.
With the future of the planet looking perhaps its bleakest, dystopian science fiction is becoming a little less fun and a little more like a sneak preview of what the world will become in our lifetimes. Those of us who manage to survive Earth’s imminent destruction might be left to scrounge and survive on our own. Or, if we’re lucky (or unlucky), we might end up being taken care of by a no-nonsense but nurturing and capable robot with a hidden agenda, as in Grant Sputore’s I Am Mother. With considerable nods to Blade Runner and The Terminator, it’s a fascinating, oddly moving at times thriller that puts a high tech spin on the impossible standards our parents set for us.
It opens in an isolated “repopulation facility,” where a droid is activated the very second after the last human being on Earth dies. The droid (Luke Hawker, its voice provided by Rose Byrne) exists to harvest fetuses from the facility laboratory, where in just 24 hours they’ll grow to fully formed infants. The droid raises just one, however, a girl she simply calls Daughter. “Mother” plays lullabies, reads Daughter bedtime stories, and does arts and crafts with her, promising that there will be more children eventually, but none ever come.
Daughter (Clara Rugaard) eventually grows into a teenager, living a lonely existence of watching old episodes of The Tonight Show and studying philosophy. Raised to believe that it’s unsafe to leave the facility – and that there isn’t anyone out there anyway – Daughter begins to bristle under the close attention Mother pays to her, and the demands she places on her for endless aptitude exams. She’s also shaken up by Mother’s brutal efficiency when it comes to preventing contamination, such as incinerating a mouse Daughter finds skittering around the facility.
Her small, isolated world is further rocked by the arrival of a wounded woman (Hilary Swank) who begs to be let into the facility. Hostile and suspicious rather than grateful for the help, the woman tells Daughter that she’s one of a handful of survivors left after droids like Mother decimated much of the human population. For her own safety, Daughter must decide which one of them is telling the truth – is it the volatile woman, or calm, reassuring Mother?
Or maybe it’s neither of them.
Though it drifts a bit in the third act, when some of the action takes place outside the facility, I Am Mother is clever and eerie, a three character play in the spirit of Ex Machina. Its numerous twists are both creepy and tragic, and seem obvious once they reveal themselves, but it’s unlikely that you’ll see them coming.
Both the woman and Mother not only demand Daughter’s loyalty, but her acknowledgment that they know what’s best for her.
Despite its futuristic setting, in which babies are grown inside what looks like a fancy fishbowl, it’s mostly about the subtle (and occasionally not so subtle) manipulation and gaslighting that takes place between mothers and daughters. The woman and Daughter develop their own familial bond with unsettling ease, largely because Daughter is so desperate to see someone who looks like her. Both the woman and Mother not only demand Daughter’s loyalty, but her acknowledgment that they know what’s best for her.
While Swank occasionally leans a little too hard into sweaty, tough as nails Sarah Connor pastiche, Rugaard is excellent as literally the perfect daughter, who strives to please Mother without ever questioning or making demands of her. There’s a sad sweetness to the scenes where Daughter as a little girl decorates Mother with stickers, and later rests her head on her shoulder. The need for a maternal figure is so innate and primal that we might start calling a bag of flour with a face drawn on it “Mom” if we’re desperate enough. Despite Mother being a robot with one unblinking eye (and a head shaped like a toaster, it must be said), her soothing voice and the stability and encouragement she provides make her as good a parent as any human.
Daughter is forced to consider whether Mother is actually capable of loving her, or if she’s merely been programmed to do and say all the things a child needs. Even without the dystopian setting, it’s the sort of existential question that keeps one up at night. Is maternal love instinctive, or is it learned, programmed, if you will? And what will it take to unlearn it?
I Am Mother is currently streaming on Netflix.