A film review by Craig J. Koban August 17, 2019


2019, No MPAA rating, 114 mins.


Hilary Swank as Woman  /  Clara Rugaard-Larsen as Daughter  /  Rose Byrne as Mother (voice)  

Directed by Grant Sputore  /  Written by Michael Lloyd Green





The new Netflix film I AM MOTHER is an atypically handsome looking and thoughtfully scripted sci-fi genre effort for the streaming network, one that refreshingly favors compelling themes and empowered performances over bombastic action and VFX overkill.  

Based ever so loosely on the young adult novel THE SEARCH FOR WONDLA by Tony DiTerlizzi, this Grant Sputore helmed film represents a solid feature debut for the Australian director, one that's small scaled and low budgeted, but nevertheless ambitiously high concept.  I AM MOTHER dabbles into ideas that are as old as the genre itself, that of mankind's troubled relationship with dangerously unhinged android artificial intelligence, making this film a part of an already heavily crowded pack.  Thankfully, Sputore places great faith in his performers - and the intelligence and patience of viewers - in crafting an intelligently scripted and visually dynamic outing that remains hypnotically intriguing throughout. 

The film is set at an unspecified time in the post-apocalyptic future, during which time a gigantic extinction level event has ravaged the Earth, leaving humanity on the verge of being wiped out forever.  The opening sections are hauntingly powerful, as we are introduced to a massive sterile scientific facility that's replete with thousands upon thousands of human embryos that are being cared for by one being...a robot dubbed "Mother" (voiced by Rose Byrne).  Her task is a lonely, but crucial one: to care for these unborn beings and ensure there future survival, no matter what the cost.  In the introductory sequences we witness intricate machines taking one embryo out of cryo-storage and mechanically growing and birthing it, which results in a baby girl within 24 hours.  The first thing this child sees is not a human's face, but that of Mother, and despite the fact that she's made up of gears and wires, she still cares for the vulnerable infant's every need. 



A time lapsing montage ensues and we see Mother tending to the growing baby's day-to-day requirements, and we witness her grow into childhood and adolescence.  This "Daughter" (Clara Rugaard, an extraordinary new find) has literally spent years with her robotic parent, never having see another human face-to-face, but Mother has still provided for her everything that a human needs while maturing, like a well constructed education, and it's clear that Daughter has emerged as a highly self-sufficient and remarkably bright girl, despite her highly unorthodox upbringing.  Still, Daughter has never known the embrace or voice of a human in her life, and has never ventured out of her facility home and into the outside world, the latter of which Mother has insisted is a place of dangerous, life threatening contagions.  Mother cares for Daughter arguably as much as a human parent would and is just as obsessively protective of her.  Daughter, in turn, obeys Mother, but she still has a lot of questions about what lurks outside. 

Her questions magnify tenfold with the fateful appearance of Woman (Hilary Swank), who's banging away outside of the facility, frantically begging to be let inside to safety.  This, of course, goes explicitly against Mother's orders to never let Daughter go outside and for her to never let anything from outside in.  But, like any rebelliously inquisitive teenager, Daughter blatantly disregards Mother's wishes and lets the bleeding, weapon brandishing Woman in to care for her wounds, which upsets Mother to no end.  Endlessly complicating things is the fact that Woman begins to plant the seeds of easy distrust of Mother (and A.I. in general) in Daughter, which threatens to completely unravel her decade-plus long harmonious relationship with the being that has looked after and protected her.  When Woman begins elaborating on her claims that other humans exist outside of the facility and have been treated dreadfully by malicious robots like Mother, this sends Daughter into an emotional tailspin of anxiety plagued paranoia, leaving her unsure of who - or what - to trust: The flesh and blood human or her mechanical surrogate parent. 

The central notion of a robot raising a human from birth to her mid teens and completely separate from the rest of humanity is compulsively fascinating.  Mother herself joins a too long to count list of other hyper self-aware and smart androids that may or may not turn on people that have populated science fiction, and early on it appears that Mother is a figure to be trusted.  She does indeed look after Daughter in every emotional, mental, and physical manner...buuuut...it remains unsettling to see a nearly faceless and somewhat intimidating robot pick up a newborn baby that's utterly helpless and vulnerable.  Something just feels...off...about her from the get-go, and the audience's growing unease with Mother only continues to grow with Woman appearing to upset the tight status quos of the facility.  Mother is the product of some truly cutting edge and eerily convincing visual effects, but comes more to life with Byrne's emotionally detached vocal demeanor that hints at a distant female cousin to Hal-9000.  She has a soothing voice, to be sure, but one that's almost too unnervingly laid back. 

On top of Mother's bravura design and execution, Sputore makes a thoroughly exquisite looking film that greatly benefits from superlative production design work and art design.  The lush and sumptuous cinematography also does a stellar job of evoking the vast, yet paradoxically claustrophobic confines of the facility that Daughter has called home for years, and that Mother has potentially lived in for way, way longer.  When the film does open up and gives us foreboding vistas of an Earth that has been severely diseased and scorched, you gain a keen understanding that Sputore is a strong cinematic visualist that knows how to marry startling images with narrative and performance particulars.  I AM MOTHER is anything but an empty minded endeavor.  Everything visually here works in concert to tell the enthralling story of a young girl's unraveling faith in her robotic caregiver, whereas so many other mindless examples of the genre wow us with million dollar visual delights and ten cent scripting.  The central ties between Mother and Daughter is as morally complex as one would be between two humans, but seeing as Daughter owes her entire livelihood to Mother it creates this whole other added dimension of conflict to her ever escalating unease that she experiences as the story progresses.   

Thankfully, I AM MOTHER is, as mentioned, an actor-driven paradise of riches to compliment the stupendous imagery on display, with Swank in particular given the thankless task of crafting a character that will either emerge as relatable and sympathetic or a manipulative liar...or a combination of both...and all without prematurely tipping off the audience as to her true motivations.  Her tightly wound and intense work here is a reminder why she's a two time Oscar winner.  The true acting find of the film is the 21-year-old Rugaard, who easily runs the widest possible emotional gambit during the course of the entire story.  She traverses between being a steadfastly obedient young adult to a questioning skeptic and later to a chillingly distrusting soul that's on the verge of total breakdown when her world comes crashing down around her.   Rugaard's tour de force and tenacious performance carries the heavy dramatic load of I AM MOTHER.   

Yet, for as much as there is to admire here in terms of its unsettling themes about the nature of A.I. and what constitutes real motherhood and a proper upbringing, I AM MOTHER is a top loaded affair that's consistently mesmerizing in its first two thirds, only to give way to a final climatic act that doesn't quite come together and pay off as splendidly as I would have liked.  The best parts of the story occur in the post-apocalyptic scientific bunker and highlight the three way stalemate between Mother, Woman, and Daughter, with the former two trying to usurp control and influence on the latter.  This ideological tug of war is where I AM MOTHER truly flourishes, but I couldn't shake the feeling that Sputore and screenwriter Michael Lloyd Green wrote themselves into a corner when it comes to bringing everything to a close.  The final moment has an ambiguous potency, but is also the result of a few too many distracting and preordained plot twists.  I AM MOTHER audaciously grasps for genre greatness, but falls a bit short, but as far as sci-fi fare - either on the small or big screen - it innovatively breathes new life into an old premise, which isn't easy.  And it's quite wonderful to see another sci-fi thriller (after last year's ANNIHILATION) completely dominated by women...in this case human and non-human alike. 

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