To be totally frank, the opening 20 minutes of 2019’s I am Mother underwhelmed me. It begins with a prologue written to give you a sense of the film’s slightly cliche, dystopian setting: a future where civilization peaks at singularity and ultimately meets its fall. Then, it heads into a montage built to present its sparse cast: a sentient-sounding robot and a young girl who live on sterile, space station-esque premises.
I, a self-proclaimed science-fiction movie connoisseur and annoying ending predictor, was convinced I knew where this was going. It was giving me flashbacks of Moon (2009), Infinity Chamber (2016) and honestly a few scenes from 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). I actually paused the film at one point to double-check Rotten Tomatoes to ensure I wasn’t hallucinating when I saw its 91% rating.
Yet nothing could have prepared me for the disturbing, existential film that is I Am Mother.
Going into this movie without having seen any trailers and reading only a minimal summary of its premise was probably key to my enjoyment, so I hesitate to give too much away.
All you need to know is director Grant Sputore paints a picture of a post-apocalyptic world in which there seems to be two sole survivors: a teenage girl, played by Clara Rugaard-Larsen, and her robot “mother,” voiced by Rose Byrne. Together, they co-exist in a sort of high-tech bunker — a building neither is allowed to leave because Mother says the outside world is toxic and unkind to humans.
But one day an “outside” woman, played by Hilary Swank, finds her way in.
As the story unfolds, you start to realize something isn’t quite right with Mother and Daughter’s unlikely friendship, though it isn’t until the end when pieces of the puzzle really start snapping into place.
I Am Mother is also absolutely carried by its cast.
Utterly gripping performances by Byrne and Rugaard-Larsen foster an undeniable on-screen chemistry. They reflect the nuanced relationship between human and AI convincingly enough to make me full-on consider whether I should fear or respect things like ChatGPT and Amazon Alexa, both of which technically live in my house.
There was a moment where I vividly felt my perspective of the film’s events change, despite nothing tangible provoking that change. And I suspect that each person’s “moment” like mine will be unique, based upon their own perception of life.
I know how cagey this sounds, but you’ll see what I mean.
This movie also manages to keep you engaged with expertly crafted and tense sequences throughout. (Even during those initial 20 minutes I didn’t love, I couldn’t peel my eyes away from the screen.) Though simultaneously, it explores a swath of intriguing philosophical questions about what it means to be alive.
You’ll find yourself wondering if robots can really be trained as sentient; if there’s an unshakable reason “human” is the root word of “humanity;” and most importantly, if morality is clear-cut like a utilitarian might argue — or more ambiguous like a deontological ethicist would.
To that end, however, I do feel the film left a few fascinating roads untaken.
I often felt distracted by I Am Mother’s pseudo-jump scares, action-and-adventure chase scenes and “what’s going to happen now!” cliffhangers, wishing the movie focused more on its existential drama. I thoroughly believe this film was rich enough in ideas to be much quieter, thoughtful and maybe even more experimental than it ended up being.
For instance, Rugaard-Larson delivered an array of guttural emotions I think the camera could’ve lingered on for a few seconds longer to give the viewer time to digest why those emotions were expressed. And the writers could’ve embedded Swank’s character with more emotional nuance, seeing as it was purely her presence that disrupted Mother and Daughter’s entire lives. Most of the time, she presents as cautious and angry. It’s hinted at as to why she seems to be that way, but I’d have liked to know more about her motivations and backstory to firmly establish her nature.
Those “why” questions are probably the most interesting part of the movie.
And I know this is really petty, but I also personally didn’t love the way Mother’s robot body looked. Some of her (its?) features — which I suspect the design team included to emulate facial expressions — were confusing to decode and took me out of the zone at times. I mean, I felt much more connected to Interstellar’s TARS, despite that robot buddy literally being a couple of rectangular blocks stuck together.
But looking back, it isn’t those minor setbacks that fill my memory of I Am Mother. It’s the aftertaste of all the technological, existential dread this movie forced me to conjure.