Imagine if you could use a DNA testing company — such as 23andMe — on a new movie to identify its cinematic family tree.
It would be no surprise that “I Am Mother,” an Australian-American thriller-science fiction film directed by Grant Sputore, has some well-known cousins: “Westworld,” “2001: A Space Odyssey” and “Blade Runner” all come to mind. The film’s premise is built upon a dark speculative thread that has been pervasive in science fiction literature and film for more than a century. Its closest and most iconic relative is 1984’s “The Terminator.”
Except “I Am Mother” is a completely different film. Where “The Terminator” is known for its frenzied action sequences and its relentlessly fast pace, “I Am Mother” is tense, cerebral and stylish.
As the film begins, the viewer learns that an extinction event has taken place. A robot, housed in an automated bunker, begins its preset task: repopulating Earth using a reserve of human embryos. The robot, which self-identifies as “Mother,” raises a single human female, named “Daughter.” Mother provides Daughter with food, shelter, education and entertainment. The robot appears to be programmed to nurture her human ward, developing — or synthesizing — an emotional bond while instructing her on increasingly complex ethical models.
The appearance of an injured stranger disrupts the routine. Her story contradicts much of what Mother has told Daughter about the extinction of humankind and the condition of the outside world. Soon, Daughter begins questioning Mother’s objectives.
Employing familiar science fiction tropes, “I Am Mother” delivers a smart, compelling tale that is cunningly unpredictable. Sputore keeps the audience guessing and takes several unexpected turns along the way. The film moves at a deliberate pace, gradually ratcheting up the tension.
The setting plays a significant role in “I Am Mother.” Most post-apocalyptic films take place in charred cities or wastelands. Instead, Sputore places his tale in the sterile, high-tech refuge of bunker. At the onset, it seems to be an idyllic sanctuary. Its comforts and conveniences are steadily eclipsed by its sinister secrets.
Clara Rugaard turns in a breakout performance as Daughter. If “I Am Mother” is viewed as a coming-of-age film, Rugaard’s could not have made her character’s transformation more credible. Rose Byrne provides the voice of Mother. Her soothing, docile tone immediately calls to mind Douglas Rain’s voice as HAL 9000 in “2001: A Space Odyssey.” Hilary Swank portrays the Woman, the injured stranger that arrives at the bunker. Swank nimbly keeps her character’s motives unclear. She comes across as sympathetic one moment and manipulative the next.
That ambiguity is as crucial as Mother’s somewhat ominously lulling voice. At various points of the story, both Mother and the Woman can be viewed as unreliable narrators, underscoring Daughter’s uncertainty.
My only qualm with “I Am Mother” is that it did not receive the theatrical release it deserved. Sputore’s feature film debut premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January. Netflix acquired distribution rights to the film, releasing it June 7. As much as I enjoy big-budget, mass market sci-fi action flicks — such as “Godzilla: King of the Monsters” — it would be nice to see ambitious, high-concept films like this reach a wider audience.