The best sci-fi movies never allow their big ideas to be steamrolled by their budgets. Smart filmmakers put their efforts into the story’s characters and themes. Any otherworldly activity is placed on the back burner in favor of exploring aspects of ourselves that we wouldn’t have otherwise noticed. The sci-fi genre is rife with opportunities to analyze human nature by filtering it through a high-minded concept.
The Netflix film I Am Mother so easily could have breathed the same air of intrigue as Duncan Jones’ Moon and Alex Garland’s Ex Machina. Its story buildup isn’t so far off planet in that regard. However, once you know the story’s destination, the film doesn’t amount to anything special. It may have all the bells and whistles of an exceptional work of sci-fi, but soon enough, you’ll be redder than Mars.
I Am Mother drops us into a post-apocalyptic scenario. Like A Quiet Place or 10 Cloverfield Lane, we don’t know what happened or how we got here. All we know is there’s a robot (voiced with grace by Rose Byrne) called Mother who has big plans of restarting the human race. She operates in a facility filled with human embryos and one day decides to launch this project by creating and raising Daughter (a very good Clara Rugaard).
Through a heartfelt montage sequence, we watch the two develop a bond akin to any loving mother and daughter relationship. Mother teaches the human girl everything she needs to know about how to be a smart and capable leader who can care for herself and others. She schools Daughter about history, English and dance. But Mother isn’t programming her to be a soldier. She wants Daughter to develop interests of her own, which includes watching The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson and exploring the facility while Mother shuts down for the evening.
Naturally, Daughter longs to know what’s happening in the outside world. That’s when a stranger knocks at the door. Daughter notices an injured woman (Hilary Swank) asking to be let inside to tend to her wounds. Initially apprehensive, Daughter allows her curiosity to take control and she sneaks her aboard.
Slowly the truth Daughter sought begins to present itself. Daughter then must decide if she’s going to trust this woman she just met or the mother who raised her.
I Am Mother is at its strongest during its first half. The relationship growth is wondrous despite the characters’ everyday confinement. You have no idea where the film is heading and you’re pulled into their daily routines.
Once Swank’s character comes into the picture, you want to know about the outside world just as Daughter does. You feel that tug of war that’s happening within her. The mysterious woman seems trustworthy, but so does Mother, who has been nothing but nurturing and caring since Daughter’s birth. Of course, we’ve seen enough sci-fi movies (like 2001: A Space Odyssey and the Alien franchise) to know that artificial intelligence shouldn’t be trusted, but you don’t know if that’s the case here.
When you arrive at the film’s denouement, all curiosity evaporates. I Am Mother fails to separate itself from other movies like it. It’s frustrating that a promising concept loses its drive to exist beyond its end credits.
Great sci-fi movies ask questions, but not so many that you are left scratching your head without the desire to dig deeper. It’s a misfire.