I Am Mother (2019) ☆☆☆(3/4): A slow but tense SF thriller on AI and motherhood

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To be frank with you, I did not have much expectation while watching the trailer of Netflix film “I Am Mother”. Right from the first shot in the trailer, I had a pretty good idea about what it is about as well as how it is about, and I must say that the movie itself did not exceed my prediction much, but it is a modest but fairly engaging SF thriller film driven by not only its though-provoking ideas but also the tense and unnerving relationship dynamics amidst its few main characters – and that was more than enough for me to forgive several glaring weak aspects in the movie.

At the beginning, the movie establishes its gloomy futuristic background step by step. Due to some catastrophic global incident which seems to wipe out the entire humanity on the Earth, a clandestine underground facility is activated, and we meet an artificial intelligence robot which is going to take care of this facility alone for itself. The facility contains thousands of frozen human embryos to be used for the restoration of the human race, and we see the robot selecting one of these frozen human embryos and then putting it in a high-tech incubator where the embryo will grow up to be a baby girl after 24 hours.

More than 10 years later, the robot is now acting as ‘Mother’ to an adolescent girl whom it simply calls ‘Daughter’ (Clara Rugaard). While having learned a lot under Mother’s guidance for many years (You may be amused as she is watching the old clips from The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson), Daughter sometimes wonders about the world outside, but Mother often emphasizes to Daughter how the outside world is still dangerous, and there is a rather cruel moment when it ruthlessly exterminates a tiny biological creature found by Daughter just because it cannot allow any possibility of contamination.

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At least, things do not look that bad for Mother and Daughter despite their many years of isolation. Although Mother is often strict to Daughter, it has been devoted to Daughter’s welfare just like any good mother, and it also promised to Daughter that she will have another family member someday if she is qualified enough for taking care of her future sibling.

Of course, there soon comes a problem into their small world. If you have seen the trailer, you surely know what kind of problem Mother and Daughter are going to face, but now I have to advise you not to read the rest of my review, because I may tell you too much even though I will try to avoid any possible spoiler as much as I can.

Because it was already shown in the trailer and the promotional poster, I can tell you that there is another main character in the story, who is played by Hilary Swank. Through the encounter with that character, Daughter begins to question what Mother has told her for many years, and that naturally leads to the growing tension between her and Mother, which comes to look more insidious as willing to suppress whatever is going on between Daughter and Swank’s character.

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Although the movie could be improved by tighter storytelling with some more clarification and deliberation on what is exactly going on among its main characters, director Grant Sputore, who wrote the story with his screenplay writer Michael Lloyd Green, did a good job of holding our attention with a number of compelling moments which provoke some thoughts and reflections on its ideas and themes. As observing the increasingly problematic interactions between Mother and Daughter, the movie automatically evokes a bunch of notable movies about mother and daughter relationship ranging from “Mommie Dearest” (1981) to “Terms of Endearment” (1983), and it also reminds us of “Ex Machina” (2014) and several other recent SF films which explored our longtime fear and fascination with artificial intelligence. At times, Mother seems to be more than a bundle of programmed responses and behaviors, but then we come to observe its cold-blooded logical nature, and that aspect is chillingly conveyed to us when Daughter happens to discover something quite disturbing and horrifying later in the story.

The movie begins to falter when it tries to move its story and characters to the next local step during its last act, but it continues to engage us despite its several missteps, and its three principle performers carry the film well together. While Hilary Swank manages to balance her rather thankless character between sympathy and suspicion, newcomer Clara Ruggaard is convincing in her character’s gradual development along the story, and Rose Byrne is alternatively assuring and menacing in her calm, monotonous voice performance, which is, along with Luke Hawker’s motion capture performance and the special effects by Weta Workshop, is crucial in presenting Mother as something a lot more than a mere story tool.

Although it is less successful compared to “Ex Machina”, “I Am Mother” did its job as much as intended as a smart, intelligent SF tale, and I was entertained enough by its skillful moments despite my occasional disappointment with a number of weak elements in the film. It did not surprise me much in terms of story and characters, but it induced me to have some musings on artificial intelligence, and, to be frank with you, now I am wondering about how artificial intelligence will regard the movie if it finally becomes possible in our time. I really have no idea, but it will be pretty cool and interesting to hear a self-reflective opinion from artificial intelligence, won’t it?

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