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There are a lot of familiar echoes throughout the Australian-American sci-fi thriller I Am Mother, a film that patchworks tropes and ideas from elsewhere but just about crafts something worthwhile in the process. Lines can be drawn from 10 Cloverfield Lane to Moon to Retreat to Black Mirror to Chappie to Ex Machina to any one of the Terminator entries, each acting as a reminder of a mostly superior genre lineage, quite often to the film’s detriment.
The script, from first-time writer Michael Lloyd Green, places us in a sleek “repopulation facility” after an extinction event has taken place in the outside world. An android called Mother, voiced by Rose Byrne, has access to a collection of 63,000 human embryos and one day, she decides to grant life to one of them, birthing a child known as Daughter. She’s raised with the knowledge that life is to be lived within these four walls, her Mother acting as parent, teacher and caregiver. The two share a warm relationship but as she grows up, Daughter, played by newcomer Clara Rugaard, can’t shake her curiosity over what else might exist and when an unexpected visitor, played by Hilary Swank, arrives, their safe home is suddenly in jeopardy.
Swank’s character, never named in the film and simply referred to as Woman in the credits, has a very different story to tell Daughter, informing her that androids aren’t to be trusted and that any chaos outside is a direct result of them trying to overthrow humanity. The majority of the film unfolds like a one-location stage play with two women trying to convince a young girl that the other one isn’t to be trusted. As a viewer, we’re also trying to figure out who or what to believe and there is some fun to be had playing detective. But Lloyd Green isn’t adept enough at scattering the clues, with a string of reveals making us pretty certain of one eventuality early on.
There’s intrigue along the way but somehow suspense is a tougher ask. Despite an almost two-hour running time, first-time director Grant Sputore does maintain a steady pace, ensuring things never flag, but he’s not really able to raise the heart-rate enough to excite. Tonally, his film shifts between thoughtful parable to action thriller and I’d have preferred more of the former because the film works best when it’s wrestling with knotty ideas. The very concept of whether an android can successfully raise a child is fascinating in itself and the film toys with ideas of how this would affect development and what expectations and motivations would guide such parenting. There are nice touches along the way, such as Daughter’s slightly robotic behaviour in certain instances and Mother’s attempts to be seen as both warm and maternal while also maintaining order.
Key to the success of the character of Mother is Byrne, who modulates the soft and the sinister so well that we can almost immediately understand a difficult connection. There’s also strong work from a confident Rugaard, channeling a young Natalie Portman, although the film slips up as her character progresses. She’s been raised by a robot, without any other human or animal for company (just some unexplained old clips of The Tonight Show) yet as her world expands, there’s not quite enough shock or wonder to make us believe that she’s experiencing profound events for the first time. Swank, an actor who excels when accentuating strength and resilience yet often stumbles when required to do much else, is mostly effective, offering up a grizzled Linda Hamilton-lite performance as a woman who may or may not be trustworthy.
Acquired by Netflix after a muted Sundance premiere, it’s a film that still ambitiously aims to be viewed alongside its bigger-budgeted, big-screen sci-fi peers and Sputore, along with production designer Hugh Bateup, does an admirable job at convincing us that we’re watching something on a far grander scale. It’s the sort of slick, splashy debut that should have Hollywood execs scrambling to work with him and I expect to see his name linked to a high-profile project within months. I Am Mother is undoubtedly a strong calling card with plenty on its mind. I just wish it had figured out what to do with it all.
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: I Am Mother review – all-female Netflix thriller is a solid sci-fi watch | Science fiction and fantasy films