I Am Mother has some really cool apocalyptic sci-fi imagery that aids its incredible world-building. However, the story that populates it doesn’t live up to those technical standards, instead, more concerned with the relationship between a droid and the human child it raises from birth, confining them to a massive underground bunker. Their mother-daughter dynamic never reaches any substantial depth, despite a great premise that should allow them to.
The film opens strong, channeling the zero-dialogue opening of Up, in which the droid, Mother (Rose Byrne), picks an embryo from a lab and raises the child from birth through her teenage years, referring to her only as Daughter (Clara Rugaard). There’s incredible humanity in this entire sequence, an accomplishment when the main character is a droid. As a teenager, Daughter is curious about the outside world. Mother had said a virus had wiped out the rest of humanity, leaving the two of them inside the bunker, and Daughter the only human left. When Daughter finds a mouse inside the bunker, she starts to wonder. The score by Dan Luscombe and Antony Partos helps humanize these opening moments, setting up a hopeful future for the two drastically different species.
The discovery of another human (Hilary Swank) of course creates tension between Mother and Daughter, and the rest of the film goes back and forth between Daughter trusting Mother and being suspicious of her. Mother keeps telling Daughter she was tasked with taking care of humanity before humanity wiped itself out, and that’s what she’s been doing with Daughter. Every year, Mother makes Daughter take an aptitude test and with the results Mother hopes to create a superior human race, which she can do with the thousands of embryos that fill the lab.
The reason for why the world is now in this post-apocalyptic landscape is never really explored, but outside the bunker, there’s incredible shots of what the world is now like. But it all just feels like the start of something great. The film lacks follow through on some of its more interesting aspects, while meandering on the less-than-exciting ones. However, the performances help sell some of the emotion the film is reaching for. As Daughter, Rugaard plays to the innate curiosity of the young and innocent perfectly, but doesn’t back down from the tougher emotional scenes. One in particular is a complete silent breakdown that changes everything. But the character of Daughter doesn’t go much beyond the initial conflict of the trust and distrust she feels for her mother. It’s almost as if the film wants to go the nature vs. nurture route, and there seems to be a moment where it comes into question. Swank’s beaten down survivor tries to convince Daughter she belongs with other humans and criticizes the safe environment Daughter grew up in. It ultimately leads to nowhere, instead focusing on the future of humanity as spawned by this droid and continued through Daughter. It’s not entirely clear what it’s trying to say about it, though. No question of whether humans should continue to exist or how the droids fit into that future. There is a strong “the future is female” vibe, but again, it doesn’t dive deep enough to make any real impact.
There are big ideas here that ultimately get lost in the spectacle of what it’s trying to accomplish. The design for the AI is another great sci-fi aspect of this film. Some of the best moments come from Mother racing down the halls of the bunker at dead sprints, adding a level of terror to the droid’s mostly maternal instincts. But for all that the film succeeds when it comes to technical artistry, there’s simply not enough story to convey the large, universal truths I Am Mother goes for.