I Am Mother | 2019 Sundance Film Festival Review
They Call Me Mother: Sputore Examines What It Means to Be Human in Sci-Fi Debut
Australia’s Grant Sputore makes an impressive directorial debut with the adept low-fi sci-fi I Am Mother, examining the man vs. machine dichotomy in a post-apocalyptic world where it seems humankind has devised a failsafe in the wake of an extinction level event whereby robots will be responsible for re-generating the ‘right’ kind of human. Exploring similar territory on a much more impressive intellectual scale and on a much smaller budget than many comparable predecessors, Sputore manages to express an age-old existentialist conflict concerning artificial intelligence on the backs of three performances. On the downside, a two-hour running time manages to make this futuristic chamber piece a bit weighted down with repetitive themes and interactions, diluting the menace and meaningfulness of its third act.
When humanity is obliterated after an undefined extinction level event, a robot named Mother (voiced by Rose Byrne) oversees 63,000 human embryos kept safely within a high-tech bunker deep beneath the earth’s surface. Time passes and an embryo is selected for development, leading to the birth of the first new human (Clara Rugaard). As Daughter grows under the astute tutelage of Mother, the girl experiences a seemingly pleasant childhood. Suddenly, one day, a wounded woman (Hilary Swank) appears at the doors of the bunker begging to be let in. Much to the chagrin of Mother, Daughter allows the woman entry, and the young woman learns her existence as she knows it may be all based on lies.
Clara Rugaard is the breakout here, allowed a greater dynamic arc within the confines of the material than Hilary Swank, who brings an interesting element as one of a few survivors from the outside world with some secrets of her own. The dynamic of these three female personas instantly makes I Am Mother much more successful and interesting than say, Passengers (2016), which also features two humans locked in heteronormative duress within the confines of a ship which has assigned them predestined roles. However, though based on a highly regarded Black List script, one wonders what further fine tuning may have been apparent had women also been holding the narrative reigns. Despite textural nitpicking, the look and feel of I Am Mother is impressive considering this isn’t a studio feature. And while the third act loses a lot of energy in its depiction of other locales, the design of world in the progress of rebirth is also effective.
Rose Byrne surprises with some dulcet voicework as the titular mother, a figure which ends up being more suggestively dangerous and deceptive as inevitable truths are revealed. In the grand scheme of idiosyncratic robots guiding their human counterparts through futuristic isolation, Byrne’s Mother coaxes uneasy interpretations of the inherently false security of gender (as compared to the immediate distrust one might have for 2001’s Hal or the Kevin Spacey bot in Duncan Jones’ Moon).
And though a welcome femme-centric disposition also elevates I Am Mother, Michael Lloyd Green’s script stops short of anything revolutionary in this regard. For instance, if either mankind or artificial life forms were looking to regenerate humans as less foolhardy and self-destructive, would they program a rebirth to include the same old binary gender patterns? Why must Carla Rugaard be styled as unmistakably feminine? And in all the subject matters she’s tested on, why wasn’t some of this prolonged set-up used to determine how the folly of humankind extended well beyond inherent selfishness and preservation to include our problematic cultural traditions and mores? It’s questions such as these which I Am Mother fails to address completely, especially considering its playful dichotomy of matriarchal prototypes, watering down a suggestive scenario eventually a lot less impressive than it could have been.
Reviewed on January 26th at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival – Premieres. 114 Minutes