Like Moon or Monsters before it, I Am Mother primarily exists as small-budget sci-fi sizzle ahead of an eventual studio steak plated for its director, Grant Sputore. Only time will tell whether Sputore can cut around considerable pockets of fat and sinew better than Duncan Jones or Gareth Edwards. But after this 2019 Sundance darling — acquired by Netflix and streaming on the platform Friday — Sputore is certainly bibbed, forked, knifed and ready to eat.
A one-time Black List script Sputore co-wrote with Michael Lloyd Green, Mother feigns at an interrogation of parenting as a system solely of control and compliance. Almost solely through the performance of standout Clara Rugaard, it achieves fitful momentum as a sort of biomechanical bildungsroman, even if its attempts at introspection perhaps play better on a printed page. But even as Sputore and music-video cinematographer Steve Annis present an impressive, compelling collection of apocalyptic aesthetics, this is a thin taffy-pull to two hours.
Mother neither expands into an exciting excursion to the edges of its world’s existence nor ratchets up enough rat-maze tension in its claustrophobic, close-quarters environment where it largely stays. In that fortress, Annis and production designer Hugh Bateup bring a panache equivalent to Bateup’s pricier work with the Wachowski Sisters on Cloud Atlas and Jupiter Ascending. Look, flashing colored lights are a prerequisite in things like this, but it’s been some time since an emergency lighting sequence this enveloping and cleanly composed. It’s as if Rush’s “Red Sector A” has been turned into a tone poem and renamed “UNV HWK Repopulation Facility.”
It’s here that Mother opens to presumed sonic aftermaths of an extinction-level event that precluded the activation of this fortified shelter. There are 63,000 human embryos onsite … but zero human occupants. We then witness the assembly of a robot — a Chappie meets Star Wars Clone with a Roomba-matte finish — that selects an embryo to cultivate in an incubator that’s like a steroidal convection oven for gestation. Once it has someone to speak to, Mother speaks with Rose Byrne’s orderly American accent and soon enough, Daughter (as she’s only ever known) begins to dance, draw and decorate Mother with stickers.
Depicting what is presumably a calm, orderly repopulation of the human race by a humble robot, Mother’s initial moments resemble a more huggable High Life or a neat, extended Super Bowl ad. But soon enough, the teenaged version of Daughter (Rugaard) starts asking the same questions as you: Why not raise more? “Mothers need time to learn,” the robot replies. “Raising a good child is no small task.” Indeed, Mother’s approach is placation and pacifism, perhaps preferring that Daughter’s development stall out in a stasis as chilly as the embryo coolers. And even before Hilary Swank shows up as a mysterious survivor outside the wall, you’ll wonder: Just why is Mother keeping Daughter from the dark for life or hiding her from the waiting world?
Mother’s look is derivative of umpteen other robots, but its depiction is not — largely embodied by Luke Hawker, the robot’s designer, in a robo-suit. Sure, Mother’s Tom Cruise Running Protocol arrives by way of a CGI assist and it’s the shrewd Byrne turn that gives Mother the calm and calculation whose motivations aren’t always certain. But it’s through Hawker that Mother achieves a tangible, tactile presence that no plasticine computer effect could touch.
Paying even modest attention to the HUD-like numbers occasionally displayed, you’ll notice something is … well, a little off about what Mother is telling Daughter. Was there really an extinction event? Is this some practice run for the pending demise? Mercifully, “Grant Sputore” is not some pseudonymous Shyamalanian ruse. However unimaginatively, Mother plays by a fair set of rules, and even as you wish it mustered something more, at least it’s not some wiseass out to prove it’s smarter than you.
Like Ex Machina minus the machismo, Chappie sans comedy or WALL-E without the wonder, I Am Mother lacks ambitious storytelling but makes up for it with a certain artful watchability.