Mothers nurture, protect and love their children in the hopes of seeing them become happy, productive adults. It’s in their programming. The science fiction gem, “I Am Mother,” asks what kind of mom a robot would make.
A pretty good one, if you go by the first 30 minutes of the movie, which is set in an underground bunker after an extinction event wipes out humanity. A signpost on the moon could literally say, “Earth ahead. Pop: 1.”
During this early stretch of the film, we watch as Mother, an agile anthropomorphic machine, selects one of the frozen embryos she has on hand and cultivates a baby girl she calls Daughter. She then raises the child, teaching her history, culture and ethics as she ages.
Mother cuddles Daughter and holds her hand, speaks in a soft, soothing voice and plays old songs, including “Baby Mine” from Disney’s “Dumbo.” This emotional fostering cultivates a cheerful child who grows up content with her sterile, windowless home and single mother.
“Dumbo” isn’t the only classic movie to be found in the DNA of “I Am Mother.” Astute sci-fi fans will also notice strands of “2001,” “Blade Runner” and “The Terminator,” which suggests that the face of this idyllic existence must eventually peel back to reveal something ominous.
To get the ball rolling in that direction, director Grant Sputore and writer Michael Lloyd Green toss another human into the mix – an injured surface dweller played by Hilary Swank. (OK, so, the sign on the moon should say, “Earth ahead: Pop. 2”)
Daughter initially hides the woman and tends to her, but Mother soon learns of her presence, triggering events and revelations that take the film to its conclusion.
Built on a foundation of beloved sci-fi trappings, the story intrigues from the beginning. The visuals are just as appealing and kept my eyes glued to the screen, absorbing the sleek imagery and muted but beautifully lit color palette.
The bunker reminded me of the interiors of “Prometheus” (2012) and “Moon” (2009), with long corridors and small, efficient rooms dominating the screen.
Mother herself is a work of art. Although clearly a robot, she’s fast and fluid, and if it weren’t for her metallic exterior, rectangular head and single eye, à la Hal from “2001,” she could pass for human.
So, imagine my surprise when I read that Mother is mostly a practical, not a computer-animated, special effect.
The best effects are those that make you forget you’re watching a fabrication. This could have been Sputore’s way of helping viewers to identify with Daughter, who sees Mother not as an artificial intelligence but a parent. This makes the shift in tone harder to swallow.
Other than Mother, the most impressive aspect of the film’s appearance is the lighting, which Sputore uses to knead the emotions of viewers. The film goes from bright as a summer day, to more menacing as it delves into the dark corners of the bunker, to a blinking, pulsing nightmare.
Near the end of the film, there’s a shot of Daughter standing behind hanging plastic strips, lights flashing in front of and behind her, that’s the most arresting image I’ve seen in a movie this year. Going on “I Am Mother” alone, Sputore is a talented visualist.
All this was done with what appears to have been modest funds. Not that the film’s budget matters. As Josh Jackson writes in his review of “I Am Mother” for Paste, ever since Duncan Jones turned a $5 million budget into the thought-provoking “Moon,” filmmakers have realized they can say a lot and still make a handsome movie with just a futuristic bunker and a clever concept.
Working off a screenplay by Green, Sputore peels back the face I mentioned slowly, taking his time to wring tension and suspense out of the cast of three and the limited amount of space available to him.
As the film’s geography expands and the action picks up, Sputore and Green contemplate a number of questions. How destructive is mankind? What steps must be taken to repair the damage humanity has done to Earth? Are people overly reliant on technology, to their own peril?
These questions and others are familiar, and while the filmmakers don’t dive too deeply into these philosophical waters, the undertones add substance to “I Am Mother.”
My disappointments with “I Am Mother” are limited to two. One, I’m not convinced Sputore and Green nail the ending. But if they do miss it, it’s by a forgivable margin.
Also, “I Am Mother” would have looked and played great in a theater, but it’s available only on Netflix.
Kudos to the streaming service for identifying and providing a platform for good genre projects, but I wish it hadn’t snapped up “I Am Mother” before audiences had been able to see it on a big screen first.
Then again, I can watch it a second time without having to buy a ticket, just to enjoy a skillfully made sci-fi movie with more than spaceships and explosions on its mind.