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Mothers care,
And mothers bear
The heavy weight
Of a child’s welfare.

They guard the gate;
They mind and wait
Until that child
Can negotiate

The world so wild
And be exiled
From all that Mother
Once reconciled.

MPAA rating: TV-14 (aka PG-13, mainly due to heavy themes; nothing gratuitous)

It’s a good time to be a fan of science fiction, and Netflix has been supplying a steady stream of it, with I Am Mother immediately catching my eye with its trailer. One part dystopian sci-fi, one part psychological thriller, it’s a futuristic chamber piece that keeps the audience guessing as it asks whether humans or robots are the more trustworthy.

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The film starts with some unknown catastrophe that prompts a robot called Mother (voiced by Rose Byrne) to activate in an underground facility and begin the development of one of thousands of embryos stored there. We then cut to 38 years later, when a girl only referred to as Daughter (Clara Rugaard) grows into a teenager with Mother as her sole teacher and companion. (And if you recognize a discrepancy between the 38-year time skip and the teenage girl, rest assured that there’s a reason.) Daughter, however, entirely trusts and helps Mother, who has warned her of radiation outside, but the arrival of an injured woman (Hilary Swank) who warns her against her robotic guardian throws everything she’s ever known in doubt.

Those who know dystopian fiction might be able to guess the most likely explanation for what’s going on (though perhaps not all of it), but I Am Mother thrives on its atmospheric uncertainty. Mother seems to be a dutiful, even tender parent to Daughter, yet sci-fi has shown us too many times that advanced robotics are rarely sympathetic to mankind. Similarly, Swank as the unnamed woman knows more of the world and shares a common humanity with Daughter, yet she’s a survivor whose motivations are similarly hazy. There are lies and accusations of lies that can’t be proven, forcing Daughter to choose who has her best interest at heart and letting themes of truth, trust, and motherhood play out as only sci-fi can.

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Both Swank and Rugaard are excellent in their roles, while Byrne makes a surprisingly good female HAL, and the effects are every bit as impressive as a big budget Hollywood version of this story might have been. In many ways, it’s a coming-of-age story, one that shatters the Bechdel test while delivering a thriller that may have familiar elements but still delivers on its thought-provoking suspense. There are plenty of Netflix movies that only got there because they wouldn’t make it as a big-screen film, but I Am Mother is not one of them.


Rank: List Runner-Up


© 2019 S.G. Liput
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