Netflix’s I Am Mother is a slow, tense movie about how we love and fear AI
Welcome to Cheat Sheet, our brief breakdown-style reviews of festival films, VR previews, and other special event releases. This review comes from the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. It has been updated and revised in conjunction with the film’s release on Netflix.
When a fictional AI “goes rogue,” that often really means that it’s working exactly as intended. Tell a machine to make paperclips, and it will turn the entire world into little twists of metal. Ask it to save the planet, and it will decide that people are Earth’s greatest threat. We dream of creating machines that are smarter, more ethical, and more logical than ourselves. Then we fear where that logic will take them.
I Am Mother, the debut film from Australian director Grant Sputore, follows in this tradition. It’s a story about the bond between a mother and child where the mother is a robot, the child was an artificially gestated embryo and is known only as Daughter, and they’re both living in an airtight shelter after the end of the world. I Am Mother doesn’t plumb the potential weirdness of that premise, and it’s working in a well-worn genre without breaking much new ground. But it effectively dramatizes our perennial love-hate relationship with artificial intelligence.
This review contains spoilers for early sections of I Am Mother***.***
Photo by Ian Routledge / Courtesy of Sundance Institute
What’s the genre?
Highbrow science fiction thriller. I Am Mother’s first act is slow and meditative, set entirely within a sterile, spaceship-like bunker. It offers little backstory, although the design of the parental AI Mother — based on real robots like Boston Dynamics’ Atlas — grounds the world in near-future territory. The film mostly focuses on its characters’ mundane but eerie daily routines, occasionally throwing in quirky details about their lives, like Daughter’s love of Johnny Carson-era Tonight Show episodes.
After I Am Mother’s first major twist, though, the film becomes less enigmatic and more plot-driven, as Daughter (Clara Rugaard) tries to figure out Mother’s real agenda. By the end, it’s a fairly traditional science fiction action movie.
What’s it about?
Years after a mysterious “extinction event,” a hulking but soft-voiced robot known as Mother (voiced by Rose Byrne) is raising the first of a new generation of humans. Daughter has been trained in advanced engineering and medical skills as well as the intricacies of moral philosophy. She believes the outside world is lifeless and ravaged by disease, thanks to humans’ self-destructive behavior — until an injured woman (Hilary Swank) shows up at the bunker’s airlock, begging for help.
The survivor’s presence proves that at least some of Mother’s stories are lies, but the woman is cagey about the truth, which sets up a conflict where Daughter has no idea what’s true or who to trust. When information starts emerging, Mother insists that the woman can’t be trusted and that she has her own selfish reasons for gaining Daughter’s confidence. Daughter has to navigate the conflicting stories and her own dreams of building a bigger family in a human world. Then she has to decide whether to stay with Mother in the bunker or help the woman escape, against Mother’s express wishes.
What’s it really about?
How robots are probably going to destroy us, and we’ll have only ourselves to blame. After the premiere, Sputore described I Am Mother as “largely a study about what it means to be good.” Its plot hinges on how artificial intelligence might interpret goodness in a world where people seem hellbent on driving themselves toward extinction, and “robots will either save us from that, or they’ll probably expedite it.” In I Am Mother, Swank’s character chips away at Daughter’s unquestioning faith in Mother, who is more powerful and dangerous than she initially appears. But the woman also justifies Mother’s concerns about humanity.
On a more personal level, I Am Mother is about a child learning that parental figures aren’t objective, infallible beings. Its best moments follow Daughter as she navigates the power struggle between two potential mothers: one offering safety and self-actualization, the other promising freedom and companionship, and both telling half-truths about their motivations.
Is it good?
I Am Mother’s premise may seem awfully familiar to anybody who’s watched a few killer-robot movies. The more secrets are revealed and ethical conundrums are posed, the less compelling the story becomes because every twist makes it more reminiscent of other high-concept dystopian films. That’s especially true with Mother, who is most interesting in her first iteration where she’s hyper-competent but still vulnerable and still in the process of learning about parenthood.
The film loses track of its characters’ relationships when it focuses too much on utilitarian thought experiments. It also wastes the story’s strongest conceit: a protagonist who seems deeply ambivalent about humanity and how she deals with meeting a real person for the first time. One of I Am Mother’s early scenes has Daughter lamenting the fact that she’s human because “they ruined everything.” Beyond watching celebrities on late-night talk shows, her experience with human behavior seems limited to discussing Kant and trolley problems with Mother.
Initially, the injured woman is furious at Daughter for forcing her to trust a machine, and their mutual antagonism might have made for an interesting relationship, with Swank’s grim, violent, manipulative character representing everything wrong with the old world. Instead, Daughter responds to her like any standard post-apocalyptic vault-dweller, blandly curious about life outside the bunker.
But while parts of I Am Mother are frustratingly generic, Mother’s physical design — conceived by New Zealand special effects studio Weta Workshop, and played by effects artist Luke Hawker in a robot suit — is distinctively imposing. I Am Mother breaks with the convention of depicting powerful AI as bodiless and omnipresent, opting to obscure exactly how much Mother hears and sees. The robot’s blocky figure, which a young Daughter adorns with colorful stickers, contrasts charmingly with her gentle mannerisms.
As the pair’s relationship deteriorates, though, watching a worried Mother charge down corridors inspires the same uneasiness as those Boston Dynamics videos of robots doing parkour or running obstacle courses. It makes the actors seem hopelessly small and fragile, and it’s menacing in a way that more futuristic, human-like designs wouldn’t be. I Am Mother isn’t an incredibly smart or memorable take on artificial intelligence, but the film still taps into some potent cultural anxieties.
What should it be rated?
At the upper end of PG-13. The film sets its apocalypse off-screen, and it focuses more on high tension than violent confrontation. But the human characters end up sporting a few bloody, painful-looking injuries.
How can I actually watch it?
The film launched on American Netflix on Friday, June 7th. Check local listings for international Netflix access.