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On Netflix: I AM MOTHER (2019)

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I AM MOTHER
(Australia/US/Luxembourg/New Zealand - 2019)

Directed by Grant Sputore. Written by Michael Lloyd Green. Cast: Clara Rugaard, Hilary Swank, Luke Hawker, Tahlia Sturzaker, voice of Rose Byrne. (Unrated, 113 mins)

It's little wonder that the post apocalyptic sci-fi indie I AM MOTHER was acquired by Netflix after being screened at this year's Sundance Film Festival. With all the influences it wears on its sleeve and the twist-happy plot, it's another "Netflix Original" that sports the look and feel of a feature-length BLACK MIRROR episode. It's a film with more ideas than it can handle, and it perhaps errs on the side of overlength at nearly two hours. But in the end, it's an impressive debut for Australian filmmaker Grant Sputore, from a high-concept script by Michael Lloyd Green that spent several years on the "blacklist" of Hollywood's top unproduced screenplays. Sputore, with the help of production designer Hugh Bateup, whose credits include numerous Wachowski projects like the MATRIX series, CLOUD ATLAS, and JUPITER ASCENDING, gets a lot out of the film's relatively low budget, making I AM MOTHER look much more expensive than it is.






It opens at a heavily-fortified, underground "repopulation facility" one day after a planet-wide "extinction event," where a single android named "Mother" (Luke Hawker in a practical, WETA-designed costume, and voiced by Rose Byrne) oversees 63,000 human embyros stored on site in the event of such a global catastrophe. She incubates a female embryo in a 24-hour period, then raises her from infant to young woman (Clara Rugaard), and that's when the trouble starts. Daughter (as she's been named) is sheltered, to say the least, with her only permitted insight into humanity coming from old episodes of Johnny Carson's TONIGHT SHOW. She starts asking questions, especially about Mother's claim that the outside world is an uninhabitable wasteland, something that keeps gnawing at her when she spots a mouse in one of the rooms, prompting Mother to incinerate it with no emotion. Mother and Daughter's peaceful existence is shattered with the arrival of a Woman (Hilary Swank) who shows up at one of the facility's entry points while a dormant Mother is "recharging." The Woman has been shot--she claims by a droid who looks just like Mother--and insists there's other humans out there.





For a while, I AM MOTHER functions as an almost satirical allegory of the trials and tribulations of parenting, with Mother, introduced cradling infant Daughter and singing "Baby Mine" (the Mother design also gives her a way to smile) but later growing increasingly irritated by the bad influence that Woman is being on Daughter. But something is off with Mother (watch how that smile can be deployed in a sinister fashion), starting with a parenting style that lands somewhere between overprotective and Munchausen-by-proxy. The Woman doesn't even want to be in the same room with Mother and the feeling is mutual, but they're forced to put up with one another, especially once Daughter figures out that Mother hasn't been entirely truthful about everything. These are things that every parent/child dynamic experiences and utilizing that angst in such a bleak sci-fi setting is an intriguing angle for Sputore and Green to explore. But then the twists and turns start piling on, along with the influences and the shout-outs to everything from 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, ALIEN, BLADE RUNNER, THE TERMINATOR, HARDWARE, SNOWPIERCER, EX MACHINA and probably a few others. I AM MOTHER plays its cards a little too early if you're so inclined to divide the number of days since the extinction event to figure out a key character's age, but while it can't quite get all of its ideas under control and it more or less collapses in the last half hour (incidentally, right about the time the story moves outside the repopulation facility), Sputore's ambition and what he manages to pull off with a not a very significant budget are admirable. It's almost as if he wasn't sure he'd ever get a shot again and wanted to get everything he had out there right now just in case. Flawed but endlessly thought-provoking, it's one of the more promising genre debuts of late, and there's enough here that Sputore could have a shot at being the next Alex Garland a film or two down the road. He gets a lot of help from a two-time Oscar-winning pro like Swank, and the almost eerie maternal calm in Byrne's voice that immediately gives one some HAL-9000 chills. But also keep an eye on Rugaard, who manages to steal the film from her two much more experienced co-stars.

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