A massive, clunky robot moves alone through a futuristic bunker. A blinking title card tells us it’s been one day since the “extinction event,” and this bunker is home to tens of thousands of human embryos, but no human life. That is until the robot chooses one embryo seemingly at random and incubates it into a newborn. The robot – “Mother” – cares for the infant – “Daughter” – playing her lullabies, rocking her to sleep, reading her The Wizard of Oz, offering her toys and affection, or at least a robotic approximation of such. As the child grows, the robot teaches her ballet, science and moral philosophy.
We jump forward and now Daughter is a graceful young woman, and her bond with Mother is both profound and complex. She’s lived out her entire life in this bunker with only this droid for company, because Mother tells her the earth is barren and inhospitable. But when a Woman (Hilary Swank) arrives at the bunker, it calls into question everything Mother has told Daughter about the world outside, and why she’s here.
I Am Mother is the first feature film from director Grant Sputore, and it’s quite an achievement, visually assured and compellingly paced. The bunker is an elegant, high-tech oasis that manages to feel both safe and sinister at times, depending on Daughter’s perspective of it, and what we see of the world outside its doors is striking. The screenplay, from Michael Lloyd Green, was a Black List title, and it’s not surprising that it was considered one of the best unproduced scripts, a nervy combination of thoughtful and suspenseful, thinky science fiction that asks big questions of humanity’s purpose and direction, and of our peculiar relationship with the machines we’ve built to make our lives easier.
But the real triumph here is in the performances, especially Clara Rugaard as Daughter, who evolves from doe-eyed innocent to axe-wielding, tanktop-wearing Ripley descendent with equal conviction. Swank is a scowling enigma who arrives just in time to disrupt Mother and Daughter’s uncommon home, and Rose Byrne voices Mother with a placidity that’s gentle until it’s not.
That’s a good way to describe I Am Mother, too, which starts out serene and even downright cute, with this hulking machine cradling a tiny infant, our favorite Iron Giant memories brought to live action. Slowly we’re given hints that something’s not entirely peaceful here, before we’re dragged into some extremely stressful action marked, notably, by Mother bolting her giant, blocky form down the hallway with the speed and focus of a Heisman winner. Something about a running robot is, frankly, terrifying.
But what’s scariest about I Am Mother are its implications, the far-off future that doesn’t feel so far, after all. It’s what works about the best sci-fi: the plausible future hits us much harder than any fantastic impossibility.