'I Am Mother' Review: This Emotional Sci-Fi Is the Reason Netflix Exists
Hillary Swank and Rose Byrne star in what is almost the sci-fi gem of the summer.
It costs something like seventeen bucks plus tax to see a movie in theaters (at least in New York), which is why people turn out to watch big events, like the Avengers punching Thanos, but not smart, important movies Booksmart. That’s where streaming comes in, allowing “smaller” movies get exposure they wouldn’t get through traditional distribution. I still believe the theater to be sacred, like church; my married sister and her husband with busy lives think otherwise.
It’s folks like those I have in mind when it comes to films like I Am Mother. Streaming on Netflix right now, I Am Mother, directed by Grant Sputore, is a sparsely populated thriller about a teen named “Daughter” (Clara Rugaard) raised in isolation by a maternal android, “Mother” (voiced by Rose Byrne). Though the world has ended, a wounded woman (Hillary Swank) appears at their doorstep, forcing Daughter to doubt everything Mother has told her.
Gorgeously shot, beautifully designed, but only competently paced, I Am Mother is not a perfect film, but it does make the perfect night in. Though it’s got an overly-sci-fi premise and production design, complete with a robot who looks like one of those Boston Dynamics parkour bots had an affair with the mascot for Schick Hydro, the core emotional questions are profoundly universal. For Daughter, a lifetime of trust is at stake while her search for the truth amidst a potentially abusive relationship becomes desperately urgent.
Like Bird Box and Bright before it (though I Am Mother was only acquired by Netflix out of Sundance, and not produced by it like the other two), I Am Mother is a difficult case for venturing to the theater but an easy one for planting yourself on the couch. It’s long (just under two hours), it’s slow, it’s just a little weird — if you’ve never seen an android coo a gooey baby, you will — but it’s got dynamic performances by two famous actors, and one promising unknown (Rugaard is sublime), who will keep you from hitting the back button to rewatch The Office.
The central mystery — Is Mother lying? — propels the plot in ways that are both bold and frustrating. Neither Mother nor Swank’s unnamed woman are innocent in how they treat Daughter. Both lie to get what they want, which tragically leaves Daughter truly alone in the universe.
At the same time, I Am Mother is not consistent. Genre fans will appreciate the film’s refreshing takes on post-apocalyptic settings and its questions on the nature of humanity, but others may find its turn into a monster movie tiresome.
It’s also, in many ways, joyless. Daughter’s upbringing in the facility is about the only time there’s any happiness in the film. This is a crucial element for tension between characters, to balance out the eventual negativity of Mother. Like Daenerys setting fire to King’s Landing in Game of Thrones, we should ask ourselves, Will she? Won’t she? instead of seeing it a mile away. There’s just not a single moment of necessary joy (except in archival footage of Steve Martin on Johnny Carson). But if you’re okay with two hours of apathy or misery, I Am Mother has that in spades.
A quick word about Mother, though: Rose Byrne is AWESOME. Her warm voice, through a subtle artificial filter, brings comfort to Daughter’s ears as well as ours. So when her true side is revealed, it’s all the more horrifying that there’s not a single change in octave or delivery. Had I Am Mother been a different and better movie, Mother could easily become a 21st century horror icon to rival 2001: A Space Odyssey’s HAL.
Sentience and free will are not new themes to science-fiction. Everything from Metropolis to the newest season of Black Mirror has tackled the ambiguity of synthetic free will. You can add I Am Mother to the pile, which doesn’t explore new territory but brings along with it compelling themes regarding, quite obviously, motherhood. As someone who is decidedly not a mother, but is a single guy in his late twenties, I’m excited to hear from real mothers who could shed light on the film’s exploration of what it means to protect a child.
If only it were a better movie, I Am Mother would have been the gem that stands out from the thousands of other Netflix sci-fi films seemingly generated by algorithm. But at least you’re not investing anything more than two hours and the monthly subscription to Netflix. In fact, I’m betting for some of your mother’s are paying for it.
I Am Mother is streaming now on Netflix.