I Am Mother review – brooding sci-fi thriller tackles timely questions | Sydney film festival 2019

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During a tender moment in Australian director Grant Sputore’s futuristic chamber piece I Am Mother, a principal character expresses a wistful analysis of her personality and her parental abilities.

“I’m governed by different parameters,” she admits, but adds, as if making the following point not only to her audience but to herself, “I’m a good mother.”

If this sounds a little different from the kind of comment you might expect to hear from your own mother, it’s for good reason: this one is a robot. The person she is conversing with is a teenage girl known only as Daughter (Clara Rugaard) who Mother (voice of Rose Byrne) has raised since birth – or since selecting her from a test tube, then retrieving Daughter’s baby body from a vat of fluid. The creation of humans, in this Brave New World, being a just-add-water process – like whopping together two-minute noodles.

In an elegantly paced introductory montage, Sputore swiftly details the child’s lonely formative years inside a secluded spaceship-like bunker. We see Mother hugging her, cradling her, teaching her to read. Despite the director’s unironic approach, it’s hard not to consider an inherent cynicism at play; swapping a human mother for a robot changes everything.

Introductory text informs us that the story transpires in a “repopulation facility” after “the extinction” – in other words, another rosy picture of what lies in store for human kind. Visions of the end of the world have long fascinated audiences, but in the current climate change crisis there is added eeriness and existential angst to this kind of apocalyptic setting, and to questions like those from Daughter – about where all the humans are, and why people ruined everything.

Sputore’s approach in this Australia/USA co-production is nothing if not contained, spatially as well as stylistically. It is obvious from early in the piece that the film-maker will be reluctant or even unwilling to take us away from the steely spaceship-like setting. Which begs the question: what is the world outside like?

On this subject Daughter is understandably curious. I Am Mother reminded me of the excellent 10 Cloverfield Lane, another brooding and tightly controlled chamber piece featuring a character – the robot here, and a paranoid, scenery-chewing John Goodman in Cloverfield – the audience and the protagonist grow suspicious of. Is the huffing and puffing Goodman, ranting about the apocalypse, insane? Is Mother telling the truth when she/it describes to Daughter the state of the universe?

In both instances a question mark is placed over the nature of reality. The event that triggers the protagonist of I Am Mother to contemplate whether her entire life is an elaborate exercise in machine-tooled gaslighting is the arrival, about 25 minutes in, of a bloodied stranger billed simply as Woman (Hilary Swank, affecting as always), who forces her to wrestle with some difficult concepts.

Still of robot from I Am Mother
Mother, voiced by Rose Byrne. Photograph: Ian Routledge

At this point the film begins the slow task of unveiling its secrets; think of it as a movie-length episode of The Twilight Zone or Black Mirror. This naturally includes pondering the purpose and motivation of the robot, as it did in the writer-director Alex Garland’s Ex Machina – another contained, AI-themed drama geared around three key players.

I Am Mother’s influences include obvious connections to the work of James Cameron and Ridley Scott. A key theme of the writer Michael Lloyd Green’s script, which starts strong but ends a little flat, explores the increasing trust we place in artificial intelligence – a timely question in the age of Siri, Alexa, Bixby and Cortana.

Films such as I Am Mother have dangerous structures, in that they pile on buildup at the risk of a potentially unsatisfying resolution. Until the final act it is difficult to know whether, by restricting the scope of the story, the film-makers has boxed themselves into a corner or played their hand cleverly.

Here it is more the former than the latter. I Am Mother doesn’t have the psychological heft of Ex Machina or 10 Cloverfield Lane, with an unexceptional finale that loses grip of its most interesting psychological questions. Still, it’s not devoid of interest or impact. In its handling of a family dynamic the film is, as Mother might say, governed by different parameters. The way it subverts (to say the least) traditional concepts around a parent/child relationship gives it uniqueness and value.

• I Am Mother is screening at Sydney film festival, and on Netflix

Source: The Guardian
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