'I Am Mother' Is One of the Few Netflix Sci-Fi Movies That's Actually Decent
This post contains spoilers for Netflix's I Am Mother.
What happens when artificial intelligence rises up and destroys mankind, only to repopulate the planet in their image? With its new movie I Am Mother, Netflix flips this common sci-fi trope, aiming to not only answer that question but hold a mirror up to our society, giving us a look at our own preconceived notions surrounding motherhood, technology, and the perseverance of the human condition.
The concept of "The Singularity" -- a reality in which artificial intelligence surpasses humanity in intellect and power -- is nothing new. We've seen tons of takes on this idea, from classics like 2001: A Space Odyssey and Blade Runner to blockbusters like the Terminator franchise to high concept shows like HBO's Westworld and Netflix's Black Mirror. We all know what it may look like when the robots revolt, but one thing we don't often see is the aftermath.
In its opening frame, a title card reads "Days Since Extinction Event: 001," setting the stage for something quite bleak to unfold. And it does, but not in the formulaic way you'd expect. I Am Mother, which premiered at this year's Sundance Film Festival back in January, follows a lone robot in an underground bunker, giving the allusion that the world above ground is no longer fit for human life. We watch her -- this robot is known as Mother and, yes, she comes with her own gender identity -- as she sorts through a whole supply of human embryos before she chooses one to plug into the facility's system, soon birthing the first human girl into this brave new world.
As Daughter grows, Mother is shown teaching her lessons on human nature and philosophy, positing noble values of honor and sacrifice into the young woman's mind. But as Daughter begins to express curiosity about the world outside of this glorified fallout shelter, posing some bigger picture-style questions about her own identity and where she fits into things, a strange woman sporting a gunshot wound appears at the bunker's door. Her introduction ends up throwing daggers of doubt at Daughter, causing the girl to further question everything she has ever learned about herself, about Mother, and about the Earth that exists outside these walls.
Usually, stories like these play out in a big-budget manner where a large cast and overpriced special effects can take away from the necessary human element. But that's not the case here. The majority of I Am Mother takes place in one setting and the cast sports just three actresses: Rose Byrne as the voice of Mother, Clara Rugaard as Daughter, and Hilary Swank as the injured woman. The tiny cast, along with the sparse, mostly claustrophobic, nature of the film's setting, gives the movie a place to settle and breathe, embracing not only the big chaotic moments (and there definitely are those) but the quiet, thoughtful spaces in between.
Given that Grant Sputore doesn't have a big roster of credits to his name, he displays some strong directorial chops here. It's a challenging feat to deliver an engaging story, with constant tension -- the feeling of dread is consistent and steadily builds throughout the near two-hour running time -- while maintaining a firm cohesiveness to the narrative, allowing the actors to build out their characters and handle their conflicts to a conclusion that is satisfying enough.
But, while the actors do their jobs well, the ending leaves major room for the audience to fill in the blanks. Yes, this is a futuristic tale of world-destruction, and subsequent colonization, by an enemy robot species, but the issues explored in I Am Mother go beyond this glaring reality. There's value to human life amid this apocalyptic hellscape, and the moral responsibilities that come with bringing a child into the world, along with the consequences that come from a parent's protective lies, paint an abstract, yet relatable, picture of the ongoing struggle mothers go through daily.
Except, of course, most children in the real world aren't raised by murderous droids. Daughter eventually learns that Mother is not the loving parent she was raised to view her as. The bot may have been the one who brought the girl into the world, raised her, protected her, taught her valuable lessons, but it's revealed in the third act that Mother is just a technological shell, a cog in the greater machine, sharing a consciousness with countless other robot soldiers out there policing the planet.
They may not be Star Trek: The Next Generation's Borg, but their mission to dominate the Earth and raise a new generation of superior humans brings to mind hints of Hitler's "Ubermensch" and Blade Runner's "more human than human" motif.
Needless to say, this idea of a policing body dictating how children are born and raised -- it's eventually revealed that Mother incinerated a bunch of kids because they just didn't live up to certain quality control standards -- feels a bit too relevant to the current issues of the day.
Rebelling against her own robotic parent, Daughter eventually follows the wounded woman and makes it out of the bunker alive. But the bleak wasteland that lays waiting outside these walls doesn't offer her any sense of reprieve. And when she learns that this stranger had been lying to her about the state of humanity's existence, that they're all alone in this post-apocalyptic maw, it doesn't take long before Daughter heads right back to the place she was born.
Hilary Swank may be the biggest name attached to the project (her performance here is fine), but the story is fully carried by Rugaard, who brings a nuanced, emotional vitality to her role. Byrne's vocal performance as Mother delivers a welcome feminine flair to the film's lead robot body, her subdued acting bringing a caring, yet ominous feel that permeates the whole thing, giving us major HAL 9000 vibes.
In the end, Daughter chooses the bunker over the world outside. Mother allows her to destroy her robot body, giving the young girl a moment of empowerment. But that beat is quickly replaced with the realization that she's the mother now -- and it is her responsibility to look over the thousands of embryos, waiting in stasis, to be born.
Does she follow the path she'd been groomed for since birth? That's all left up to interpretation. As the movie ends on the girl's face, she looks in on Earth's future human population. This ambiguous ending may leave many with a bad taste in their mouths, taking this final story twist as an anti-abortion message of sorts. But, when taking a step back, it feels as if I Am Mother is, like many science fiction films before it, warning us of the dangers that come with our growing dependence on technology, while assuring us of human nature's enduring drive to survive -- and thrive.