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Modern science fiction films are too often another chapter to a continuing saga. Oh, how we crave a self-contained tale! After all, some of the best sci-fi entries are brief windows into an imagined future that seek to examine humanity and spark discussions. In being single stories, their conclusions can often serve as acts of abandonment that leave us alone with ourselves and new existential questions to ponder.
Grant Sputore's I Am Mother is this choice type of sci-fi. Netflix’s own Ex Machina. It’s an effective, small-scale genre film that follows the relationship between a empathetic robot mom (Rose Byrne) and its teen daughter (Clara Rugaard) – lovingly named “Daughter.” The pair are the sole life forms living in a high-tech facility with walls lined in human embryos. Mother tells her that one day they will build a family together with these embryos and keep humanity from fading from existence. That is, until a mysterious woman (Hilary Swank) turns up at their front door.
Daughter is then faced with an intriguing predicament. Who will she trust? The strange woman, who is the first she’s seen of her kind, or the hunk of metal that has raised her all her life? She’s caught between the emotional and the logical. Nature versus nurture. The clear side for Daughter to take isn’t obvious.
What makes I Am Mother so clever for audiences to enjoy is how little we know about the world we find ourselves in, so here we are right along with the protagonist for the ride. Blinded. What a beautiful position that is to be in when the sci-fi genre feels more formulaic than ever.
I Am Mother is Clara Rugaard’s first leading role in a film, and witnessing her play Daughter feels like the legitimate rise of an up-and-coming leading lady. In one scene you’ll do a double take… wait, is that Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley? Her character’s situation is heartbreaking, but her strength is even more enthralling.
Hilary Swank may take a backseat to Rugaard’s talent in her first Netflix outing, but she too still dazzles nonetheless. It’s great to see the actress take on a smaller production that reminds us of her raw talent. Her unnamed character is in survival mode throughout, and her motivations suspicious. Rose Byrne’s voice role as Mother is the second side of the same coin, and unrecognizable without her typical Aussie accent. The pair disappear in their roles, thus elevating the alienating tone I Am Mother presumes.
The movie places us in the position of what it might be like to be raised by a machine. How might we turn out? I Am Mother also asks the question the engineers behind self-driving cars have had to ask: how does an A.I. decide who lives and who dies when places in a life or death situation? What casualties are necessary and who’s concerns are more important? If you love to think through these kinds of questions, I Am Mother is a good space to live in.
The presence of so many ideas is, however, also a double-edged sword for the movie. While just a couple of themes approached are interesting enough, the film ultimately offers two times as many as needed. Perhaps it’s more realistic to find the future dizzying then have the luxury to just explore a few. Either way, it doesn’t benefit the film when we reach I Am Mother’s third act. While the goal may be to give audiences the kind of hit in the head Interstellar or Arrival does by the time they reach their twisty conclusions, the execution underwhelms in this outing.
Don’t be too discouraged by this, however. I Am Mother still ends up making the journey feel worth it. The movie is a nice reminder of how special a good indie science fiction movie really is. It’s the kind of fix we turn to nowadays on television shows such as Black Mirror and the recent Twilight Zone revival. It’s exciting to live in these kinds of thought experiments, and then think through it all as the credits roll. It’s a unique feeling when a story has the power to unfold our imagination and expand our brain for a moment without a huge budget. I Am Mother does that, even if not executed with perfect precision.