We’ve all seen post-apocalyptic movies in one form or another, so we know there are only so many ways that humanity could be wiped out. I Am Mother knows this as well, and doesn’t focus too much on what that reason is. Here is a film that declares the “why” not that important, that we must realize what the bigger picture actually is, which is looking forward to how humanity can survive again without making the same mistakes that did us in the first time around. How our character and decision-making processes can be fixed.
But what’s character and decision-making without ethical foundation? Thankfully, I Am Mother is that rare science-fiction that gets my point. It gets a lot of points, as it turns out.
An extinction event has nearly wiped out life on Earth, and those survivors are attempting to repopulate with the help of a robot and 63,000 human embryos inside of a secure bunker in a remote location. The robot, named Mother (voiced by Rose Byrne), grows one of the embryos inside of an incubation chamber. The girl, named Daughter (Clara Rugaard), is raised by Mother throughout her life not knowing any other humans. Then again, how could she? There aren’t any left. The world outside the bunker walls remains too toxic for humans to survive, anyway, so repopulating the species must begin inside this laboratory-looking facility.
Daughter asks Mother why she doesn’t have any siblings. Mother explains that she wanted to perfect being a mother with one child before she started taking on more. This makes perfect sense to Daughter, until, as human teenagers are known to do, she develops an independent voice and rebels a little. Arguing with certain philosophical concepts she’s taught in her classes. Mother is raising her to think like her – robotically, ultra-logically with no human response. No set of morals. Beliefs, but not morals. Daughter’s human side comes out, so she speaks up.
Sometimes when we question the ideals our parents have raised us on, we come away with a stronger and more firm belief in them than before. Other times, we come to the conclusion they were wrong. And if our parents were wrong about one thing, what else could they be wrong about?
Daughter starts to realize just that. She starts questioning everything else she was ever taught. What’s really outside the walls of her bunker? And are there really no other humans? As it turns out, there’s at least one other. One night, as Daughter plans on sneaking outside to see the forbidden world for herself, she discovers an adult woman (Hilary Swank) who’s injured and needs her help. But we see this woman is terrified of Mother, claiming that robots just like her are the cause of all the destruction outside.
Daughter knows that can’t be true with Mother. She knows Mother. And because she’s now able to start independently seeing what’s morally right from wrong, Daughter can better attest to Mother’s character. Nevertheless, the new woman’s presence causes a rift in that relationship that may never be mended.
As directed by Grant Sputore, I Am Mother could have easily been just another depressing, dystopian kept allegory high on concepts, yet low on actual enjoyment. Despite having a minimal (human) cast, Rugaard brings so much to the performance of Daughter, sustaining the conviction of a veteran actor for nearly 2 hours. As she’s the only human onscreen for nearly the entirety of the movie it could have been easy to have locked into one note. Instead, we’re allowed to watch her unveil an impressive range slowly as this film progresses.
Other than ethical decision-making, Daughter possesses those certain intangible qualities that makes her human. However, she has some learning to do (she was raised by a robot after all). Not knowing who to trust, she’s forcibly torn between two sides. Having allegiance to Mother because that’s who raised her, but also a responsibility to the human because she’s of her kind. While they just met, you can tell it’s easier for her to empathize with the human because she’s one too.
And taking it one step further, you can subtly tell she knows this to be the case (credit again to Rugaard). But Daughter realizes that just because one does something bad at one point in their life doesn’t mean they can’t be good. Or more importantly, that they can’t be loved.
I Am Mother is unbelievably deep, touching upon profound moral concepts such as playing God, along with the morality of the ends justifying the means. Presenting heavy themes is one thing, but doing so at a level where everything can still result in a cohesive entertainment is downright impressive. Many times high-concept movies like this try hard to stay within the confines of their setting, but here is a story that evolves and adapts kinetically, taking viewers on a journey with few wasted moments. The lines between robot and human – both logic and emotions – become blurred in ways that indicate what the filmmakers have attempted – and succeeded – telling here. That if they’ve taught us anything, it’s that we definitely need both.