Tales of mothers have been tied to science-fiction for as long as the genre has existed, with the relationship having a particularly storied history in cinema. From the power of maternity in Aliens to its reverence in Children of Men, sci-fi films have used the concept of motherhood to explore and subvert gender roles in ways no other medium could have dreamed.
Since theorist Donna Haraway first tied feminist teachings to cybernetic beings with her influential essay A Cyborg Manifesto, robots have had held a special place in speculative fiction’s analysis of gender roles. Netflix’s newest release, the cornily titled I Am Mother, represents a natural progression of that thematic trend, placing a robot literally in the role of a maternalistic caregiver. On the surface, there’s not much that separates the film from any number of other films with similar themes, from Ex Machina to the film that first called an artificial intelligence Mother: Alien. But through a keen sense for the genre’s history and an astounding knack for technical craft, I Am Mother makes a case for itself as a riveting if slightly derivative continuation of the medium’s long obsession with exploring gender roles through genre filmmaking.
The plot of the film is simple enough; after a mysterious extinction phenomenon leaves the outside world decimated, a robot (chillingly voiced by Rose Bryne) tasked with raising thousands of human embryos chooses to raise a single subject as her child. Known only as Mother and Daughter (newcomer Clara Rugaard), the pair grow a special bond as Daughter develops into a highly intelligent and gifted teenager, with Mother stating she will awaken the other embryos when Daughter is ready to help raise them. Their idyllic existence is threatened when a mysterious outsider (Hilary Swank) comes knocking on the door; revealing the world outside is not what Mother made it out to be.
In its essence this film is about the damnation of prescribing motherhood as an expected role, how telling a woman her duty is to love and nurture without hesitation can lead them down a very dark path. Mother herself is like the world’s most terrifying helicopter parent, sweet as candy one minute before bolting towards you like an alien Tom Cruise the next. Bryne voices her with an eerie detachment that’s somehow scary and warm, leaving you constantly guessing whether or not she’s looking out for daughter or plotting against her. The paranoia is only heightened by the arrival of Swank, who gives one of her best performances in years as a sympathetic if duplicitous survivor whose distaste for Mother is impossible to pin down.
Mother is a breathtaking achievement of visual effects, perhaps one of the first robots put to film that feels utterly seamless in its presentation. Created by the mad geniuses at the Weta Workshop, Mother feels like a legitimate piece of scientific progress. Everything about the robot’s functionality and design is brilliantly executed, from the warm glow of the heating pads attached to her body for keeping infants warm to the fact that every drawer in the facility is locked with keys embedded in her fingertip. I Am Mother may not be the most original film in the world, but the sheer attention to detail in regards to Mother’s character is something that immediately sets it apart from other sci-fi thrillers.
The technical craft on display is all in service of the film’s mission to hammer home its ideas about female servitude, creating a hauntingly oppressive world for its trio of female characters. Writer Michael World Green and director Grant Sputore have crafted a fully realized world designed for discomfort, one that makes the characters’ twitchy anxiety feel earned and authentic. This is a film riddled with hidden prisons lurking around every corner, threatening to trap its already claustrophobic women into even tighter spaces.
Most startling of all is the breakout performance from Rugaard, who more or less sells you on the entire film with her complex, attuned direction as Daughter. Rugaard is the beating heart of this seemingly cold, machine-like story, giving I Am Mother its stakes and sense of purpose. It’s a tricky role that could easily wander into an over-theatrical territory, but she embraces the challenge with a grace that makes her feel human in a world designed to reject that notion.
The film’s somewhat messy ending nearly results in a serious act of self-sabotage, but I Am Mother is largely a successful bit of head-scratching sci-fi that earns major points for its confident craft alone. With a truly magnificent technical creation at its center and some terrific performances to bolster its somewhat derivative script, this is a Netflix original that stands out from the crowd.