There’s a long, absolutely delightful history of demented robots and dangerously self-aware A.I. in science fiction, and for a while, it’s hard to tell where I Am Mother‘s title character belongs in the Bad ‘Bot pantheon. It’s tough to pinpoint why, exactly, you don’t trust Mother, an angular android with a single peering eye and a track-runner’s gait. But you sense there’s something unsettling about this caretaker from the moment you see her pull out a tiny palm-sized packet containing a human embryo and place into a sort of womb microwave. And that’s before you hear Rose Byrne’s eerily calm monotone coming out of this cyber-tiger mom’s voicebox.
Still, Mother does nurture the baby, whom she simply calls Daughter, as the child goes from toddler to inquisitive youngster (Tahlia Sturzaker) to headstrong young woman (Clara Rugaard). They have made the underground facility they live in, a laboratory-cum-bunker that keeps the teen safe from the postapocalyptic wasteland above them, something akin to a home. Maybe, Mother says, she can help pick out some of the other tiny human specimens and one day in the near-future, they can exponentially grow their family together.
Daughter, however, is getting restless. She wants to know what it’s like beyond those steel doors. So late one night, after her guardian has powered down, she slips into a biohazard suit, with the intention of slipping out. Then Daughter hears a pounding from outside. A woman (Hilary Swank), haggard and injured, is yelling for help. She’s let inside. Mother awakens. The visitor hears loud, metallic footsteps echoing through the hallways. There’s a droid here?!, she asks. The stranger has met these types of machines before. It didn’t end well. And suddenly, you find yourself clearing a space for Mother between Saturn 3‘s Hector and Skynet in the Evil Tech Hall of Fame ….
From here, I Am Mother slips nicely into the slot of sci-fi cat-vs.-mouse thriller, with each of these three taking turns being restrained, outwitted and toggling between predator and prey. Ethics get debated. Everyone has their reasons, even if one of them is primarily a CPU supported by a complex network of circuitry. And Australian filmmaker Grant Sputore, making his directorial debut, has a knack for keeping things moving, whether its within the claustrophobic walls of the “safe” house or, briefly, in the evocative scorched-earth landscape above ground. There are a handful of shots — a laser-sighting on someone’s sternum that turns into a hive of red dots, an approaching figure behind a plastic tarp holding an axe — that suggest he’s got a keen eye for this kind of visual storytelling even if the script often drives the narrative into a brick wall. And you’d be surprised how much mecha-maternal emotional mileage you can get out of the sight of a head gently resting on a metal shoulder.
Yet this is an actor-driven vehicle as much as it’s a genre piece. Byrne’s detached lilt gives you a suggestion of actual attachment to her ward beneath the pre-programmed protectiveness (she’s helped by actor Luke Hawker, who’s responsible for Mother’s movements, gestures and head-tilts). Hilary Swank reminds you that her intensity knows no bounds and that no American performer is more adept at acting with her jaw. And Rugaard, a Danish-Irish 21-year-old, feels like a major discovery — she’s the not-so-secret motor of I Am Mother, a dynamic presence that lends blood, guts and soul to this dystopic vision. It’s not a spoiler to say that the movie ends on a close-up of her face, staring directly into the lens and forcing viewers to mull over what they’ve seen and where things have been left. You’re left with a human moment in a film that questions what it means to be human. There’s a lot going on in Rugaard’s visage. Her mother, real or computerized, should be proud.