Robots! Causing us puny fleshbags nothing but trouble since Czech playwright Karel Čapek first dreamt them up in 1920!
Surely by now we know not to trust advanced artificial intelligence, right? They'll kill us all! Or maybe the cold pursuit of predetermined goals by an unstoppable force is the only thing that could secure a future for humanity during a species-threatening event? Food for thought! Or maybe there's an in-between.
This is the push-pull conflict underlying I Am Mother, a smart, low-budget science fiction head-scratcher that doesn't exactly jump out and thrill you, but offers interesting twists beneath its stillness. It's also one of those movies where you kinda-sorta know the ending way in advance, but don't quite know how it is going to get there. There ought to be a word for this very specific (and agreeable) kind of filmmaking. Is "aha!core" taken?
I Am Mother begins as we plunge deep into a futuristic bunker. Booms are heard from outside. It's the end of the world, or at least that's what we're led to believe. A humanoid robot (the titular Mother, voiced by Rose Byrne) starts poking around in her embryo factory and voila! a child is born. First-time director Grant Sputore assembles a growing-up-robostyle collage that feels weirdly plausible but also visually unnerving. It's undeniably funny to see a robot reading to a toddler. We then skip ahead and "Daughter" (Clara Rugaard) is a young woman, though I advise you to maybe hit freeze-frame and grab an abacus if you want to get a jump on one of the movie's forthcoming plot maneuvers.
Daughter's life in the bunker is focused on study. She knows that the potential for a larger family exists, but Mother is waiting until she is "ready." Until then, she's a skilled lab scientist well-versed in the works of Immanuel Kant and, oddly, Johnny Carson. The first crack in the seal comes when Daughter sees a rat scurrying around. She's been told that nothing can survive outside: It is a post-apocalyptic wasteland, right?
Well, wrong, because next thing you know a knock comes on the door and it is a frantic, wounded stranger (Hilary Swank). Could Mother — the woman, err, robot who nurtured Daughter — could she have told a lie? Or was she programmed to tell a lie for a higher purpose? It's an argument we've been having about AI since the HAL 9000 attacked Frank Poole in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Only this time it involves Hilary Swank running down sleek corridors getting blood everywhere.
When I told a friend that I saw I Am Mother, she said she'd seen the trailer and wanted to know "who was the bad guy: Hilary Swank or the Robot?!?" I am not going to answer that, but I will say that this question cuts to the heart of this film. (Well done, trailer-making team.) Science fiction is often a great gateway to philosophical discussion, and I Am Mother is part of that tradition. My previous knowledge of Immanuel Kant was mostly from an old Monty Python routine and now I've at least visited his Wikipedia page.
But if that sounds like it could be a little dry, well, there's a bit of truth to that. I Am Mother is a two-hour movie set mostly in one airtight location, and that's a tough sell for a Netflix watch. There's a stretch in the middle that isn't "nuanced, slow cinema," it's just good ol' fashioned boring. Power through the zone-out though, because the reward is there, and don't let the other flashy objects in your house distract you. If you do, you'll look up and say, "wait, what the hell is happening now?" and you'll have to go back. And have you tried rewinding Netflix? It's alarmingly not that easy, at least on my Roku. I go too far back, then I have to go forward and next thing you know you are slaloming all over the timeline trying to find your place. Where's the AI to help with this, huh?!?!
Anyway, look for Grant Sputore to become a significant Hollywood director, as I Am Mother is one hell of a calling card.
I Am Mother is now on Netflix.