I Am Mother is surely the Netflix-iest sci-fi movie to debut at Sundance this year. I don’t necessarily mean that as a bad thing, and as of this writing I Am Mother doesn’t have distribution, but Netflix has certainly built a reputation in recent years for producing and acquiring twisty sci-fi movies—with varying degrees of quality. I’m tempted to describe I Am Mother in relation to other sci-fi films like 10 Cloverfield Lane and Terminator 2 simply because the original story pulls so heavily from pretty much every sci-fi trope in the bag. And while Clara Rugaard delivers a striking lead performance and director Grant Sputore handsomely crafts the film for the screen, I Am Mother‘s derivative nature only takes it so far, and one twist too many dilutes the impact of its premise.
I Am Mother opens in an abandoned, non-de-script, and very clean bunker zero days after an extinction-level event wiped out humanity. Mother (voiced by Rose Byrne), an anthropomorphic robot, has been put in charge of 63,000 human embryos and selects one to harvest, nurture, and raise. Enter “Daughter”, who lives her life as the only human on earth, bound to the sterile hallways of this labyrinthine science lab.
She doesn’t really seem to mind, and even shows affection and love for Mother. Daughter takes a rigorous exam every year to assess her levels of knowledge, physical prowess, and even philosophy. Mother explains these tests are as much for her as they are for Daughter, as they help Mother to learn how to be the best possible teacher for a new generation of humanity. Indeed, after Daughter has hit a certain level, the plan is to select a second embryo and double the human population.
However, Daughter’s entire reality is thrown into question when a woman riddled with bullet wounds (Hilary Swank) arrives at the airlock one evening, and Daughter lets her in. The woman’s story is compelling and completely contrary to everything Mother taught Daughter, which then forces Daughter to question her entire upbringing, switching her allegiance back and forth between this second human and her robot matriarch.
Plenty more twists and turns abound after this inciting event that I won’t be spoiling here, but suffice it to say it’s all stuff you’ve seen before. There’s nothing inherently wrong with familiar sci-fi tropes as long as your characters and theme have the goods to keep the story refreshing, but unfortunately in the case of I Am Mother, it consistently feels as though the filmmakers don’t have enough confidence in their story and thus just continue to keep adding new plot developments. And thematically, the film has trouble conjuring any new insights with regards to the advent of A.I. technology and humanity’s self-destructive nature.
Rugaard is truly impressive in a somewhat demanding role, as Daughter is forced to come face to face with another human for the first time. She’s confident and assured, but with an elegance that goes hand in hand with her interior strength. Swank is in full “Linda Hamilton in Terminator 2” mode and delivers in that regard, but the story so badly wants to keep you guessing that she doesn’t really have enough time to flesh out her character with nuance. You spend most of her screentime wondering if her story is indeed true.
The robot design is swell, the technology is neat, and the premise is inherently interesting. But when the dust settles, I Am Mother ultimately feels lacking, and twists abound so heavily in the third act that confusion takes over as the primary emotional sentiment, which in turn leads to the climactic event landing with a bit of a thud. I Am Mother has everything and nothing on its brain at the same time. It’ll keep you guessing, but you’ll find nearly every plot contrivance feels derivative or stale. There’s enough to keep the story compelling right up through the end, and Rugaard could certainly be a talent to watch, but in the end I Am Mother is, frankly, unsatisfying.