'I Am Mother': Film Review | Sundance 2019

Ian Routledge/Courtesy of Sundance Institute
Clara Rugaard in 'I Am Mother'
'Mommie Dearest' meets 'Ex Machina.'

Newcomer Clara Rugaard has to choose between the robot who raised her in isolation, voiced by Rose Byrne, and Hilary Swank's fearmongering intruder from the outside world in Grant Sputore’s postapocalyptic sci-fi thriller.

Advanced robotics are either going to be the salvation or the annihilation of humanity, depending on which shady adversary you believe in the woman-vs.-machine smackdown of I Am Mother. Australian commercials director Grant Sputore makes an uncommonly ambitious feature debut with impressive design work, sharp visual effects, a fabulous A.I. creation and a compelling lead performance from talented Danish newcomer Clara Rugaard. On the other hand, its familiar ideas about mankind's path to self-destruction, its glacial pacing and shortage of emotional involvement will confine the film to the more marginal end of the art sci-fi spectrum.

The enduring influence of Ridley Scott's Alien is all over the seductive opening sequence exploring production designer Hugh Bateup's vast high-tech bunker, as cinematographer Steve Annis' camera prowls the labyrinthine low-light corridors through a series of automatic doors. At the same time, digital text blips up onscreen that might just as well have been generated by the computer brain controlling the Nostromo — another "Mother" — spelling out the setup of Michael Lloyd Green's script, its story developed with Sputore. Days Since Extinction Event: 0. Human Embryos on Site: 63,000. Current Human Occupants: 000.

Built at New Zealand effects and props company Weta Workshop, which came to prominence with Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy, Mother is a practical droid suit worn by Luke Hawker, who also oversaw its manufacture. The physicality of the machine alone distinguishes the film from similar genre pieces that have actors working in a green-screen void with CG elements added in post. It creates genuine intimacy in the central relationship between the robot and the child it hatches in a massive lab of test tube embryos, part of a sprawling facility designed by humans "before the wars" to repopulate in the event of global extinction.

The actual birth process is hypnotic, as much for Mother as the audience. The droid sits patiently watching the 24-hour development cycle from embryo to bawling infant, its strangely expressive rectilinear head and single illuminated eye trained on the entire elaborate process. Speaking with the soothing voice of Rose Byrne, Mother shuffles through songs to calm the infant before finding the appropriate choice in — what else? — "Baby Mine" from Disney's Dumbo. She's the Robocop of the maternity ward.

Sputore and dexterous editor Sean Lahiff then flash through early childhood — craft projects, origami, sticker fun, ballet lessons — until Rugaard steps in as the smart, questioning human teenager identified only as Daughter. The extensive scope of her education from Mother gradually becomes clear via lessons that combine medical problem-solving with ethical dilemmas and philosophy. Only when Mother powers down each night to recharge does Daughter have time alone to wonder what's the holdup in bringing her brothers and sisters into their hermetic world. "Mothers need time to learn," the machine later explains.

During one unsupervised period, a disturbance in the complex's power network leads Daughter to find a mouse in the airlock separating them from the outside world, a scorched terrain where Mother has assured her no organic life form can survive. Briskly incinerating the rodent before ushering Daughter off to a decontamination shower, Mother appears to bristle at the accuracy of her measurements being questioned, with Byrne's warm tones taking on a mildly icy edge as she replies, "Have you ever known me to be mistaken?"

The major catalyst for disruption arrives when Daughter one night hears a woman outside calling for help. Her curiosity and desire for human contact by that time having overcome her fear, she admits the wounded stranger (Hilary Swank), also never identified by name, before Mother can stop her.

The movie prior to that point has begun slipping into a lethargic rhythm, but the pace picks up momentarily as Mother perceives the threat and goes bolting through the corridors with the purposeful sprint of a Tom Cruise. Needless to say, she and the woman don't exactly warm to one another, especially given the outsider's claim that she was shot by one of the droids that police the barren world beyond the bunker, where a small community of human survivors purportedly hides out in a mine.

Although the woman refuses to let Mother near her to treat her infected wound, she finally concedes to Daughter extracting the bullet. During her recovery, a hesitant trust is built between the two humans as the woman begins planting seeds of doubt in the girl's head about the information the robot has been feeding her, while Mother does the opposite. Deflecting the stranger's accusations of a sinister purpose, Mother states, "My primary directive is to care for humanity." Just as a bloody, violent clash between the two figures vying for Daughter's loyalty becomes inevitable, so does her emergence into the disturbing world outside, a windswept wilderness of ossified tree skeletons and black sand. Once she ascertains that neither Mother nor the woman have been entirely truthful, she takes her own courageous steps to ensure the survival of the species.

All this more or less hangs together but it's seldom quite as unsettling or psychologically complex as Sputore and Green appear to believe. And as it trudges on into the second hour, nor is it as gripping as it needs to be to sustain the 120-minute run time, despite an almost wall-to-wall soundscape combining unnerving techno clatter with a score by Dan Luscombe and Antony Partos that ranges across ambient rumble, symphonic lushness and pulsing electronica. Irrespective of the dodgy validity of Mother's motivations, the rise-of-the machine element explores too little fresh territory to hold the attention, beyond the aesthetic fascination of watching the droid in action.

Swank attacks her role with grim tenacity, but the character remains distancing, defined by her unwavering hostility, gnawing paranoia and hard-bodied toughness. The pain of her losses before coming to the facility is quite literally illustrated, but that vulnerability never finds its way into the characterization. Rugaard is more interesting, her intelligence and open-faced intensity recalling the early performances that put actors like Natalie Portman and Brie Larson on the map.

The problem is that despite his considerable skills, Sputore is so caught up with the cool technology he loses his grip on both the suspense and the primal human emotions that should be driving this physically imposing but numbingly cold dystopian vehicle. And it doesn't help that even with the focus here on female characters and the bonds of motherhood, the interaction between artificial intelligence and flesh-and-blood figures never bites into human frailty or technological menace with anything approaching the disquieting spell of Alex Garland's far superior power struggle, Ex Machina.

Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Premieres)
Cast: Clara Rugaard, Rose Byrne, Hilary Swank, Luke Hawker
Production company: The Penguin Empire, Southern Light Films
Director: Grant Sputore
Screenwriter: Michael Lloyd Green; story by Grant Sputore and Michael Lloyd Green
Producers: Tim White, Kelvin Munro
Executive producers: Terry Dougas, Paris Kasidokostas Latsis, Jean-Luc De Fanti, Grant Sputore, Bryce Menzies, Phil Wade, John Wade
Director of photography: Steve Annis
Production designer: Hugh Bateup
Costume designer: Mariot Kerr
Music: Dan Luscombe, Antony Partos
Editor: Sean Lahiff
Visual effects supervisors: Chris Spry, Stefan Coory, Jonathan Dearing
Casting: Nikki Barrett
Sales: Endeavor Content, Mister Smith Entertainment

120 minutes