Recent years have arguably seen a noticeable change in science fiction titles, with movies such as 2016’s “Arrival,” 2017’s “Blade Runner 2049” and 2018’s “Annihilation” mostly abandoning whirlwind blockbuster action in favor of slower, more thoughtful pacing and an emphasis on exploring concepts. Now, in 2019, Netflix’s newest original sci-fi film, “I Am Mother,” is continuing this trend, providing an unhurried narrative that still manages to be intense, thought-provoking and often deeply disturbing.
“I Am Mother” takes place in a future where an event — never revealed to the audience — has wiped out the human race, resulting in the activation of a hidden bunker designed to repopulate humanity. The bunker’s automated systems fashion a lone robot called Mother (voiced by Rose Byrne, performed by Luke Hawker), who draws a single human embryo from a vast storage area, grows it in an incubator and begins to raise it as her child.
The child, simply known as Daughter (Clara Rugaard), grows up with Mother acting as both her parent and her teacher. While Mother is surprisingly warm, gentle and affectionate for a machine, she still puts firm boundaries in place, forbidding Daughter from leaving the bunker due to the world outside being contaminated.
Although Daughter loves her mechanical guardian deeply, as a teenager she comes to question Mother’s warnings, particularly after a mouse manages to find its way into the bunker. Despite Daughter’s protests, Mother swiftly incinerates the animal, citing the risk it poses due to outside contamination. Daughter, however, wonders if the mouse is or is not proof that life can exist beyond the bunker’s walls.
When Daughter’s growing suspicions lead her to explore the bunker’s airlock, she is startled by an injured woman (Hilary Swank) who suddenly appears outside, begging for help. Daughter convinces the woman to don a hazmat suit before reluctantly allowing her inside, hiding her from Mother.
The woman’s arrival marks a major shift in both the story and in Daughter’s life. Before, Daughter had been told she was the last human and that it would be her responsibility to assist with raising her future “brothers and sisters.” Now, as the woman begins to tell her of other survivors, Daughter is forced to confront the possibility that Mother has either been wrong in her assumptions or — perhaps even worse — lying.
Adding to Daughter’s growing doubts are the woman’s claims that the outside world is completely clean. The real threat, she insists, are hostile robots who will attack humans on sight — robots that supposedly resemble Mother.
Still, Daughter is not certain she can trust the woman, who appears desperate and may not be telling the whole truth. Then again, this woman does not seem to be contaminated, whereas the gunshot wound she has reportedly suffered from the robots is quite real.
“I Am Mother” is a film that plays with the audience’s expectations, challenging its watchers, much like Daughter, to question what has been assumed and what is actually true.
Even though Mother is initially presented as a compassionate caregiver, both Daughter and the viewer must soon consider whether she is truly capable of feeling emotion or if she is, in fact, a cold, calculating machine whose real motives remain hidden behind an artificial, motherly facade.
What exactly is it Mother wants — to reestablish humanity? If so, will this be a humanity with self-determination or one which Mother herself will guide? What degree of power will she have? What of the other robots the woman speaks of? If they are real, is Mother aware of them? Does she wish to protect Daughter from them, or is she working with them? Is there a darker plan for humanity at play?
Much like the protagonist, the audience is presented with a number of disturbing possibilities, not just with Mother. The woman is a stranger and could be making up any number of things simply to bring Daughter to her side. Did she really have a brother, as she claims? Is there such a place as “the mine,” where other human survivors can be found? What if this is really all an elaborate cover story, meant to lure the unwary?
The woman is also armed. She has the first real gun Daughter has ever seen. Does the woman only carry it for protection, or does she have more sinister intentions in mind? Is she an innocent survivor, or could she be a bandit, a murderer? Did her gunshot wound come from hostile robots, or from other humans?
“I Am Mother” raises all of these questions, both directly or implicitly, although, ultimately, it is up to Daughter to find the answers. But the more Daughter starts to dig, the darker the secrets she uncovers.
On one level, the film can be said to represent that time in adolescence where one realizes the sources of information they have placed their trust in, including their own parents, may not have been as reliable as they first thought. Daughter, the very foundation of her beliefs shaken by the woman’s revelations, comes to understand how uncertain and terrifying reality can be.
On another level, “I Am Mother” critiques humanity’s increasing reliance on machines. In this instance, a machine is placed in charge of the destiny of the entire human race, starting with Daughter. Mother is given full reign over Daughter’s life and education from the time she is a baby up to the film’s present.
Even though Mother claims she is programmed only to care for humans and never to harm them, the woman’s intense fear of the robot, coupled with her stories of machines gunning down humans in cold blood, gradually begins to make Mother’s presence feel profoundly ominous. Mother slowly comes to seem less like Daughter’s guardian and more like her warden.
“I Am Mother” does not need to rely on special effects to frighten its viewers. The film’s thrills come primarily from the tension it builds through sudden twists and turns, as unexpected happenings and alarming discoveries keep the audience ever in a state of uneasy anticipation.
Perhaps even more horrifying is simply the vision of the future the film supplies: the human race under grave threat, dependent on a machine that may yet prove to be its doom. Like all great science fiction, “I Am Mother” offers a window into what could be — and perhaps what already is.