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I Am Mother: Sputore’s clever sci-fi thriller is exquisitely unsettling

I Am Mother: Sputore’s clever sci-fi thriller is exquisitely unsettling (Sundance Film Festival)

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Grant Sputore’s perfectly engineered sci-fi tale of a robot who raises the first of a new generation of humans is a clever analysis of human behaviour and a captivating thriller that you won’t be able to forget. 


What if the entire human race had become extinct and the fate of our species was in the hands of a robot? And what if this robot happened to be an extremely relatable, empathic, almost too human-like being with a soft voice, extraordinary levels of patience and an array of motherly gestures to display? At the start of this intriguing sci-fi thriller, director Grant Sputore introduces us to Mother, an unusually kind and incredibly fascinating android that appears to embody all these qualities and more. At the same time, the more we get to know Mother, the more we realise that we don’t really know much about “her”. We watch her as she strolls around what appears to be some sort of nuclear bunker, handling futuristic machines and showing off one trick after the other to raise her human daughter, but we don’t even know where exactly and how far into the future we are. But, as more and more questions come to our mind, one certainty remains: if Sputore’s Mother is no ordinary robot, she is no ordinary human being either.

It’s “days_since_extinction_event: 001” when Mother selects a human embryo to raise out of the 63.000 occupants of the bunker and gains our sympathy with her ingenious, sometimes even comical attempts to handle motherhood. The relationship between our two leading characters – whose actual names are, quite literally, Mother and Daughter – develops between one bedtime story and the other, and young Daughter (Tahlia Sturzaker) gets to have a childhood that could even be defined as normal. She plays, she asks questions, she decorates her mother’s mechanical arms with stickers and quickly becomes familiar with the small world she calls home. “Humans can be wonderful”, mother says, and we marvel at how human our robot can be. Sure, a power failure can knock her out and her teaching methods can be unconventional if not even questionable, but nobody’s perfect. After all, “mothers need time” to learn how to raise a child, and this Mother certainly is the most empathic, caring, loving parent Daughter could have hoped for. 

Sundance Film Festival I Am Mother
​Luke Hawker and Tahlia Sturzaker in I Am Mother (Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival)

At 13.867 days after extinction, Daughter (now played by Clara Rugaard) is a teenager and Mother is not only a maternal figure but also assumes the role of her teacher. And I’m not just talking about English and Maths: teenage Daughter knows how to perform medical procedures and can quote Kant in philosophical arguments. As Mother works on her communication skills and attempts to make jokes, Daughter is more curious than ever. She knows her way around the bunker, but she keeps exploring and questioning the world around her. Which doesn’t only mean watching The Tonight Show in her spare time: when Mother is recharging and the only human in existence is left alone with her questions, she longs for human connection and wonders about the tales she’s been told about the toxicity of the Earth. When she gathers the courage to find out for herself, she reaches the bunker’s door and her entire world is turned upside down.

I Am Mother ticks all the boxes you would expect to find in a film that centers around Artificial Intelligence, but it does not stop there. This robot is also a mother who happens to be raising the first of a new generation of humans, and that is precisely what makes Sputore’s take at sci-fi so unique. Screenwriter Michael Lloyd Green’s perfectly timed script enables us to witness this one-of-a-kind Mother/Daughter relationship as it happens, and Clara Rugaard and Luke Hawker (Mother)’s excellent acting turn two already layered, fascinating characters into pure emotion. When we see the complex dynamics that drive both leading characters, we don’t just wonder if Mother really has the ability to think and feel, and if her responses have been programmed or are a geniune product of her own “artificial” mind. We don’t need to find the answer to all these questions: in fact, that is not even the point of the film. As Daughter becomes more independent and her relationship with Mother evolves, it’s not a human and a robot that we see. Mother and Daughter are two survivors driven by different needs who are still trying to figure each other out, and that is what I Am Mother is all about.

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Sundance Film Festival I Am Mother Hilary Swank
Hilary Swank in I Am Mother (Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival)

But I Am Mother is not just interesting from a psychological point of view. In a film that makes us question the nature of everything we see, it is the introduction of a new character (Woman, masterfully played by Hilary Swank) that alters the delicate balance holding this unusual family together. When Daughter discovers that another human being is alive, all her certainties fall apart and the film takes a completely different, much scarier turn. Woman’s very existence questions everything, and we are just as confused as Daughter is when we hear her version of the story. “What if you’re wrong?” Daughter questions Mother’s choices, and morality comes into play. After all, how do you learn to judge right from wrong and develop your own ideas if you’ve only ever had one role model for all your life?

So many films about Artificial Intelligence have been made that it’s hard for a sci-fi thriller of this kind to be truly original, but Sputore manages to create a story that, just like its main characters, is clever, believable, unconventional and cannot be confined into just one category. I Am Mother belongs to more than one genre, and that is its true strength. This dystopian thriller is a thought-provoking tale with witty references (think Ridley Scott and James Cameron’s alien classics meet Ex Machina and Sweeney Todd) that centers around an unconventional family in which complex dynamics are always at play. It’s a psychological analysis of extremely human, layered characters that raises important questions on our values as a society, but it’s also an investigation on some of the darkest, most disturbing aspects of humanity and ultimately an unsettling, perfectly engineered sci-fi thriller that will keep you on the edge of your seat until the very end.

Sundance Film Festival I Am Mother Clara Rugaard
Clara Rugaard in I Am Mother (Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival)

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