Review by C.J. Bunce
Using a meticulously designed new robot from Weta Workshop, the Australian science fiction movie I Am Mother has all the components of a good story steeped in the classic sci-fi of the 1950s. It takes place on Earth after an apocalypse that could easily be interwoven into the Cyberdyne/Genisys destruction from the Terminator series, and has that futurism straight out of a Philip K. Dick short story. What’s left are robots running everything, some on the surface, but one in particular inhabits what looks like a space station buried beneath the planet’s surface. This robot is called Mother, voiced seamlessly by X-Men series co-star and Australian actor Rose Byrne. She has preserved several of the last bits of humanity–embryos–in order to repopulate the species via rapid-growth technology. The production, the design, the light-up props, and the pacing all create the right framework for a significant sci-fi film. Unfortunately the story is single-threaded, building opportunities for subplots that get left ignored, much like January’s direct-to-Netflix sci-fi release Io.
The build-up is nicely rendered by first-time movie director and script writer Grant Sputore. The common theme of this genre, as much sci-fi horror as merely sci-fi, is “things aren’t what they seem.” Or maybe they are. The audience sees Mother raise a single child from the bank of embryos stowed on the facility, a girl known simply as Daughter, played first by young Tahlia Sturzaker, then for the bulk of the movie by Clara Rugaard, both giving fine performances. We believe the humans are long gone outside, until a woman arrives, played by two-time Best Actress Academy Award winner Hilary Swank. She’s been shot, and whether she was shot by humans or robots becomes a mystery for Daughter to solve. Both Swank and Rugaard look so much alike, their likeness simply must be a plot point: Are they related, and if so, how? Sisters? Clones? Same hair color and length, eyes, bone structure. Was Swank’s lost human a former captive in the underground bunker? How many times has Mother created Daughters or Sons? How many years from Armageddon is this story really happening? It’s the answers–or lack thereof–to these questions, and the ultimate payoff Sputore delivers that doesn’t match the rest of the film.
Part of the legitimacy of the film as something more than mainstream popular sci-fi is the amazing body movement work of Luke Hawker acting inside the robot suit he helped design and build with the Weta team. How rare is it that the designer of the tech is also the actor, who is featured in 90% of the scenes of the film? The added surprise is this was not a CGI motion capture process, but a practical effect that had to be created with real-world materials. There is some actual chemistry between Daughter and Mother, and Mother is a pretty great mother to see in action. It’s like watching young Will Robinson interact with his Robot in Lost in Space. Add to the believable robot the cold and lonely tenor of the film and you have something like New Zealand’s low budget 1985 sci-fi marvel The Quiet Earth.
The better movie telling a similar story can be found in another film introduced to U.S. audiences via Netflix, the Spanish 2017 science fiction masterpiece Orbiter 9, a better sci-fi horror study can be found in Ex Machina, and a better ending and payoff can be found in 2016’s genre bender Midnight Special. Audiences don’t need to make the decision of whether to see I Am Mother in the theater or instead of these other films. It’s pretty much a closed set piece so nothing visual introduced would compel anyone to see this on a big screen, if that were an option. But as another of the hundreds of new releases available with a Netflix subscription, the decision to give it a try is a no-brainer. Most of the two-hour running time is worth it. You just might be left wishing for more of the ideas raised in the film to actually be allowed to play out.
But the “science” part of the science fiction here is vacant, beginning with the well-adjusted grown girl, the idea that a handful of humans could hope to re-populate Earth, the likelihood a single robot would last long enough to utilize all those embryos–all of these things are ignored.
For fans of Weta Workshop and anyone wanting to see more about the Mother robot, check out this feature:
Fans of classic sci-fi stories should enjoy I Am Mother. It attempts well enough to be like many short stories adapted to screen from the minds of writers of the past including Philip K. Dick, Arthur C. Clarke, Ray Bradbury, and Isaac Asimov, even if it misses its mark. I Am Mother is now streaming on Netflix.