I Am Mother review: Netflix sci-fi chiller is one bad mama
Hillary Swank stars in this tense, strikingly shot film now streaming on Netflix.
Richard TrenholmFormer Movie and TV Senior Editor
Richard Trenholm was CNET's film and TV editor, covering the big screen, small screen and streaming. A member of the Film Critic's Circle, he's covered technology and culture from London's tech scene to Europe's refugee camps to the Sundance film festival.
The film premiered at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival in January, and is now streaming on Netflix. Evoking taut, contained sci-fi thrillers like Alien and Moon, the flick introduces us to a new robot on the list of sinister cinematic droids. Named simply "Mother," this maternal mechanoid is tasked with one simple job: raising the last human left alive after an apocalyptic cataclysm wipes out the human race.
Mother hangs out in a sealed bunker with only 630,000 frozen embryos for company, all stowed in the deep freeze to repopulate Earth in case of disaster. In the movie Alien, a clear inspiration, the computer is known as Mother too, but that was just metaphorical. Here, the mechanical mammy is an actual hands-on parent.
The film opens with Mother breaking open an egg and birthing the first of those stored humans, followed by a bravura opening sequence as we see Mother nurture the little 'un from howling baby to giggling toddler to curious child, all in the space of the opening credits. It's like Wall-E meets the first 10 minutes of Up meets Matilda, and it boldly sets the tone for just how smart this movie is, and how well thought out the world of the bunker is.
Shot in an ominous gray and scarlet palette, the bunker is a closed-off location bursting with drama. Writer Michael Lloyd Green and director Grant Sputore wring tension from the shut-in situation. Is Mother really the nurturing figure she says? What's really outside? And how will Mother react if her Daughter turns against her?
Decked out in a striking red outfit that's surely destined to show up at a few cosplay conventions, young actor Clara Rugaard is phenomenal as the child known simply as Daughter. Though Mother is possessed of a genuine -- and unsettling -- personality, Rugaard brilliantly anchors the movie with a human face and heart.
A clanking automaton that incongruously speaks with a gentle, motherly voice (provided by Rose Byrne), Mother tries to teach and guide Daughter. It's a touching relationship, albeit one that's clearly heading for trouble.
As daughter hits her teenage years, she's soon ducking tests and testing her boundaries instead. Kids, eh? Except this mother-daughter dynamic has implications for the future of the planet. And the steel matriarch soon shows her steely side, sprinting into protective mode like a maternal Terminator when her charge is threatened.
Things go really wrong in the crib when there's a knock on the door, and mysterious stranger Hilary Swank shows up. Swank has more than a touch of Alien heroine Ripley or Terminator 2-era Sarah Connor about her, and there's even an action scene set in an '80s-style foundry. Unfortunately the film doesn't seem to quite know what to do with Swank, who ends up being a fairly static character as the movie's precision-tooled first half gives way to its more meandering second.
Once Swank turns up, the stage is set for a clash in parenting styles. The Alien movies' subtexts of birth and motherhood launched a thousand media studies essays, and I Am Mother is also ripe for interpretation. You could, for example, interpret the wild-haired human Swank as a birth mother upsetting the order of a cold, disciplinarian stepmother's adoptive home. Or you could just get a pizza and enjoy the taut, tense sci-fi thrills.
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At its premiere at Sundance, I Am Mother recalled the sort of low-budget sci-fi Netflix is pumping out these days, so it's perhaps no surprise the streaming service has now snapped it up. Luckily it's a clear cut above most such flicks. Taut, stylish and well-acted, I Am Mother is one bad mama.