Science Fiction is replete with disconcerting robots. They might be overtly murderous, like the Terminator. They might be going ever so slightly mad, as 2001’s HAL. Or they may be following their programming to unexpectedly lethal logic, as per I Am Robot. So where does the titular ‘Mother’ sit in this cannon? Well, the skill of I Am Mother’s screenplay is that for a large chunk of the movie there is enough reasonable doubt to keep you guessing.
This ambiguity is established right from the opening shots when we see Mother activate whilst an intro scroll states that an extinction event is underway. In an underground bunker rocking with distant explosions, Mother delicately selects a tiny foetus from a rack of ready to go humans, runs it through a 24-hour speed cycle, and then – ping – the first new human baby has arrived. Aided by Rose Byrne’s warm lilting voice, Mother raises the child (simply named ‘Daughter’) with all apparent affection.
Of course, as Daughter (Clara Rugaard) gets older she becomes more inquisitive as to her situation. “Have I ever given you reason to doubt me?” says Mother, softly. Yet, the presented narrative is shaken when there is a knock at the door, and Daughter secretly lets in a wounded and wild-eyed woman (Hilary Swank) who, according to Mother, shouldn’t have been able to survive outside at all. When the entire world is a sealed off bunker and we only have two characters (one of them a large robot) to see interact, it is a testament to both the acting of Rugaard and the design of Mother (courtesy of Weta Workshop) that this is so engaging.
Mother’s movements are smooth and gentle, with subtle head tilts to convey emotion. There is no ‘human face’ proxy at all. Aside from two little bolts that sorta kinda could form the odd wry smile, the empathy is all in the body movements. Of course, this makes it all the more disconcerting when Mother sits bolt upright and launches into a straight-backed sprint once Daughter opens the exterior airlock. Swank’s terror at the sight of Mother (“You’ve got a droid in here!” she hisses) slowly reveals an alternative narrative. Daughter is clearly intelligent, but her love for Mother is there on the screen and Rugaard delivers a fine performance as someone who almost can’t bear to learn her ‘truth’ might not be so.
I Am Mother is very strong in the first and second acts. After establishing the norm, Swank’s appearance shakes events and the movie skilfully makes both of their explanations appear equally credible. It isn’t until the start of the final Act until more information is slowly revealed. And despite the sci-fi trappings of extinction events and A.I. powered robots, for a large portion of the movie you could easily swap out the robotic Mother for a human one and still have the same interactions, which is a credit to how well realised Mother is.
That said, the last act also peters out somewhat. Once we hit the outside world I Am Mother starts to lean on the tropes of the genre and it loses the skilfully crafted triumvulate of Mother, Daughter, and Woman. Without giving the ending away I would say that I am disinterested in movies that undermine all preceding events for the sake of wrapping things up too neatly. However, for a movie that has so few characters, I Am Mother’s strong thematic thread of motherhood in all its forms makes for a powerful closing shot which successfully wraps up a very enjoyable 113 minutes. A parent can but prepare their child for independent life, and director Grant Sputore has delivered a bundle of joy here of which he can be proud.
Words by Michael Record