I Am Mother is one of those original Netflix movies that feels both ambitious and undercooked. It takes place, we are told at the outset, in an undefined future where an “extinction event” has taken place, wiping out most if not all of the human race. But stored in an underground bunker in case of just such a crisis are some 63,000 frozen human embryos, all carefully tended by an a robot named Mother (voiced by Rose Byrne, performed in an incredibly believable suit by Luke Hawker), who hatches one of the embryos in the bunker’s medical lab and grows it via montage into a teenage girl named Daughter (newcomer Clara Rugaard).
Mother acts as Daughter’s parental figure, friend, playmate, doctor and teacher, and when the girl is naturally curious about what lies outside the bunker, Mother regretfully informs her that the toxicity levels from whatever occurred outside are too high for them to even open the front door. That all changes, however, with the appearance of an unnamed woman (Hilary Swank), who pounds on the entrance and screams that she’s been shot. A stunned Daughter lets her in — and the woman shares information that begins to drive wedges into both Mother’s story and Daughter’s trust in her.
Directed by Grant Sputore from a script by Michael Lloyd Green that made Hollywood’s famous Blacklist of quality unproduced screenplays, I Am Mother works best in the early going, as we get to watch Mother and Daughter together in their lonely and evocative setting. Seeing Daughter sit alone in a shadowy room full of school desks, or sleeping in a similar chamber filled with rows of empty beds, creates an undeniably haunting effect, and there is initially genuine chemistry between the promising Rugaard and the robot, with Byrne striking an eerie halfway point between empathy and logic (the design of the machine is quite effective as well, with a “face” that’s lit with subtle warmth).
Once Swank’s interloper appears, however, the potentially rich ideas in the script — about parenting, the nature of love and nurture via technology — go out the window in favor of a standard and rather humdrum thriller. Swank is very good, teetering either on the edge of a breakdown or violence, but despite her skill at delivering raw emotion she’s not given a whole lot to do beyond that. Neither are the other players, actually: I Am Mother devolves into a confusing and muddled series of twists, reveals and chases (including two endless sequences in which we watch Mother run through the halls), all of which lead to a petered-out ending that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.
Sputore has a great eye and does a lot with relatively little — the setting is almost a star itself — but he and Green fail to explore the issues that the movie raises in the way that, say, Alex Garland might have. The idea of Swank being a second and more human mother figure in Daughter’s life is never delved into, and Daughter herself seems too much like an average teenage girl for someone raised underground by a robot and entertained pretty much by old Tonight Show recordings. And what about those empty beds and desks? Is Mother capable of hatching and raising only one embryo at a time? Real-life mothers everywhere would like a word if that’s the case.
For a movie based around three characters in mostly one place, I Am Mother is far too long and never quite taps into all the concepts it excitedly puts on display. In that sense, it’s more like the work of Ridley Scott than Garland or, say, Denis Villeneuve: fantastic to look at but little going on beneath the eye-popping surface. Perhaps some stern advice in both the writing and editing stages might have made this a movie a parent could be proud of.
I Am Mother is streaming now on Netflix.
Don Kaye is a Los Angeles-based entertainment journalist and associate editor of Den of Geek. Other current and past outlets include Syfy, United Stations Radio Networks, Fandango, MSN, RollingStone.com and many more. Read more of his work here. Follow him on Twitter @donkaye