dir: Grant Sputore
There’s a lot going on in this flick. A lot. Firstly, and this is going to blow your mind because you’ve never heard of such a thing before, it’s set in the future, it has robots, and the robots have turned eeeeeeeeeevil.
I know! Whodda thunkit?
Every day we have news media telling us automation is taking over all our jobs and that robots are now doing heaps of things previously only people could do, from complex tasks to climbing stairs and doing backflips. And every night we have movies telling us that if we make smart robots, they will one day try to kill us all.
People, we’re getting mixed messages. Or maybe they’re just partial messages that we need to combine in order to get the full message: “The Robots Are Coming and they’re Going to Kill Us All!”
It has been science’s job for centuries to tell us how or why things happen, and to explain the progress we’ve made as a species, and science fiction’s job to tell us how and why we should be afraid of that progress. Even as far back as the first famous science fiction novel, which is probably Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus, science fiction has been telling us that just because you can miraculously do something that couldn’t be done before doesn’t mean you should. Doing something previously impossible often brings with it unfortunate consequences we have little chance of foreseeing because a lot of the time you can’t predict the possible outcomes of scenarios you’ve never imagined before
In I Am Mother, something terrible has already happened wiping out the humans on this sad planet Earth. In some kind of secure facility, a solicitous and kind robot (voiced by Rose Byrne), raises a child from an embryo, that she calls Daughter (Clara Rugaard, eventually), and who calls her Mother. The robot that is Mother in no way approximates human features – the robot is sleek like an appliance and very functional. The voice it uses has this lilt of concern or feeling, but is fundamentally cold. Mother uses all sorts of functions and programs to maximise its efforts in child-rearing, probably having read all the What to Expect When You’re Expecting-type books and follows all the advice, even the stuff that contradicts the other stuff.
If it could, Mother would probably breastfeed and give super formula at the same time to maximise the infant’s potential, but the difference is (one of a multitude) that this Mother doesn’t second-guess herself (itself) constantly, doesn’t constantly compare herself to other mums on social media and find herself inadequate; she doesn’t have to try to balance the needs of her relationship with looking after the kids and looking after a house and balance a job and try to have a social life and do find time for self-care and not feel undermined by her mother-in-law / younger Instagram influencer sister.
No. This Mother does one thing, having perfected what it thinks human children need, and does it without doubt, maintains a perfectly safe environment free from contagion or things covered in child vomit, and, when not needed, can literally power down instead of lying there all night thinking about everything it should have done differently and everything it needs to do over the course of the next week.
Daughter, as daughters inevitably do, starts to question the perfect logic of the ‘world’ in which she lives. She is told that outside this cold facility there is nothing but wasteland and death, that some plague wiped out humanity, and that the only place to be safe is here. Nothing can be allowed to enter, and she can never go out. For amusement all she has access to seemingly is ancient recordings of The Johnny Carson Show, but most of her days seem filled with exercise, learning and tests. You have to wonder what the point of such tests could possibly be. She wouldn’t need great marks to get into a private school now, because there’s no-one’s neighbours kids to compare her to and envy anymore: there’s no neighbours, there’s just...endless activity with seemingly no purpose.
It is of course not enough for Daughter. She is far more curious than Mother will allow for, and clearly highly intelligent, like maybe one of those super-intelligent sharks from Deep Blue Sea, genetically engineered to kill Samuel L. Jackson. She notices things. She wonders. She plans.
When she hears something outside the facility where nothing should be, she naturally has to find out what the heck is going on. In defiance of all of Mother’s dictates, Daughter opens the door and finds a wounded Hillary Swank. I am using two-time Oscar award winner Hillary Swank’s name because the character, if she had a name, never had it used. Like Daughter, her name or title is what she is or what she is in relation to the only other two characters. So, she’s a Woman, or The Woman, maybe.
She is hurt, seemingly shot, very distrustful and difficult to deal with. She doesn’t endeavour to endear herself to us or to Daughter. Mother she screams at like an actual teenager at their mother when they’re told to delete their social media apps. She has an unwavering hatred of the machine, calling it a dozer, and saying it’s just the same as all the other ones, regardless of how well it has mastered the patter of parental concern and the right tone of parental disapproval.
Somehow, the robot even knows that forbidding a teenager from wanting something is the pitch perfect way to get them to do it. How, how does this artificial being know something that even the rest of us humans have difficulty grasping unless it’s explained to us by sitcoms?
The Woman speaks of other people, other humans, living in secret, underground, to avoid the kill crazy rampages of the robots as they try to wipe out the remnants of our despicable species. But Mother points out several anomalies in the Woman’s story, things that don’t quite add up, like the wound for which she refuses treatment not being one that the robots would have produced, seeing as they don’t use bullets.
Every time Daughter tries to get closer to Woman, she is rebuffed, but the Woman gives her piecemeal information about the world outside. Whenever Daughter confronts Mother, Mother finds a way to deflect attention from whatever awful stuff she’s done or is about to do, and gives another meagre piece of a puzzle that no-one could reasonably piece together because no-one knows the real story.
Except for Mother.
This might sound like big, complicated, noisy sci-fi bullshit but it’s actually quite small scale, oddly intimate for something involving two women and a robot programmed to seem caring. It’s closer to something like Duncan Jones’s Moon with Sam Rockwell or There’s a confusion and an intimacy that’s really intriguing and genuinely interesting. I am not going to say more about the plot because I don’t think it needs to be spoiled in order to be reviewed properly, because no revelations that follow are of the “A-HA! How did you not realise that this was all happening at the bottom of M Night Shyamalan’s pool the whole time?” rug-pulls, but they do keep pushing back the borders of the world as the characters understand it.
And really, even with Swank’s prominence in the story, it’s mostly about the relationship, as we perceive it, between Mother and Daughter. Each keeps information from the other, some of it truly horrifying; each has ways of diverting the other or convincing them of their intentions, but only one of them is really aware of just how difficult parenting is when you try to control for absolutely every single possible variable that could come up in a child’s life.
Humans aren’t really up to the task, as anyone who’s even been a parent or a child knows deep down in their bones. All we can do is try with whatever resources we have, both financial and personal, and if it requires destroying the world in order to get my girl into that exclusive Early Learning Centre, by all the gods I’ll give it my best shot.
I really enjoyed this flick, a lot. I thought it was well made and well acted, even with most of the acting on the robot’s part being CGI (projected onto a motion capture actor). All the same, the voice work by Rose Byrne goes a great way towards selling the character and selling the story, because every time we forget that she is a machine, and believe the almost-concerned tone in her voice, or every time we think maybe she’s somehow ‘evolved’ like Wall-E to be more than the sum of her programming, there are enough reminders in the steely, distant tone to give us goosebumps, and remind us that Terminators can’t be reasoned with, they can only be stopped, and if you can’t stop them, well, humanity maybe doesn’t stand a chance, then.
8 times Hillary Swank must be pretty confused about what she was promised with this role versus what ended up happening out of 10
“Mother, I got it all working again” – I Am Mother