I Am Mother
Director - Grant Sputore
Cast - Clara Rugaard, Rose Byrne, Hilary Swank
Rating - 4/5
The central plot twist in I Am Mother would arrive towards the end in most other films -- when the villain has finally received their comeuppance, and the hero has triumphed. But here, in a film that has no heroes or villains, it arrives at the end of the first act. This is just one of the many ways in which debutant director Grant Sputore’s science-fiction film, out now on Netflix, turns the tables on tropes.
His star, Hilary Swank - the most recognisable face in a film that has only three characters - compared him to Christopher Nolan in an interview during the Sundance Film Festival, where I Am Mother premiered earlier this year. She enjoys championing talented first-time filmmakers, she said, and Sputore’s understanding of both the technical and thematic demands of storytelling reminded her of Nolan, whom she worked with years ago on Insomnia.
She’s quite right. I Am Mother is a tense little sci-fi thriller, featuring strong performances and an uncommonly intelligent script. Not only does it aim higher than the average genre film, it frequently hits its ambitious targets. The Nolan comparison might be a little generous, but Sputore displays a control over the tone and the characters that reminded me of a young Ridley Scott, or James Cameron. Certainly, how he handles the central theme of motherhood - in all its flawed and complicated beauty - will remind many viewers of Cameron’s Aliens, a sequel to Scott’s pathbreaking original film.
It’s set almost entirely inside a bunker, after an extinction level event has wiped out all humanity. A robot named Mother has been made in charge of re-population, which she commences by growing an embryo and nurturing the child over several years. Mother teaches the child - a girl - moral and ethical lessons, and trains her in ballet. When the child grows up, she wonders why Mother only chose to grow one embryo. Mother says she needed to practice first; to make sure that she is capable of raising a child at all.
During one of their ethics lessons, Mother presents a thought experiment to the child, whom she has started calling ‘Daughter’. There are five patients on the verge of death, Mother begins. Each of them can be saved by replacing one damaged organ. A sixth patient - also near death - arrives. The new patient has all the necessary body parts than can save the other five, but by donating them, the sixth patient will die. Who will you save, Mother asks Daughter; the sixth patient, or the five older ones.
I won’t spoil the answer that Daughter gives, but I will say that it reflects the film’s higher than usual intellect. How refreshing! But in addition to being a fine sci-fi movie, I Am Mother is also a rather slick home invasion thriller. At the risk of revealing a potential twist, Hilary Swank arrives onto the scene, an external threat invading Mother and Daughter’s familial bliss. She is a survivor, she says. There are others out there, and a whole new world to explore. Daughter needn’t stay with a robot any longer; humanity perseveres.
Despite being confined to a bunker, I Am Mother never feels claustrophobic. I’m not entirely sure if it is mean to. Like Daughter, we come to accept our surroundings. The supposedly uninhabitable outside world is not worth pining for. And as it is, humanity is inherently limited in its imagination; we believe what we are told.
And how could we not, when the teller is as convincing as Mother, voiced by a very warm Rose Byrne. Despite Mother’s very clunky and classical design - she’s almost like something you’d see in a Neill Blomkamp movie - not for one minute do you question her humanity. And that is the complicated idea that Sputore’s film explores. What does it mean to be human? Is being human the pinnacle of existence? Given our propensity to violence and self-destruction, are we even worth saving?
In addition to announcing his own arrival, Sputore also introduces the world to Clara Rugaard, the supremely talented young actor who plays Daughter. It’s a role that requires an unusual maturity, often without the comfort of context - she has lived a cruelly secluded life. Like Daughter, I Am Mother has an inquisitive mind, but more admirably, it also has answers. And in a typically understated manner, it never draws attention to the fact that each of its three central characters is female. The benefits of saving humanity are debatable, but with artificial intelligence capable of birthing children in the future, is there any point in preserving men?