Biweekly Binge: I Am Mother - The parent trap
A fortnightly column on what’s good in the vast ocean of content in the streaming platforms around you, and this week it's I Am Mother
This is the second film this year to use a cover of Moon River and the two usages couldn't be further apart. While the first was Long Shot, the romantic comedy starring Seth Rogen and Charlize Theron, this one is I Am Mother, the Grant Sputore's Sundance hit which is currently streaming on Netflix. The song shows up for about five seconds when Mother, a droid and not the fun Star Wars kind, is scrolling through songs to play for the human baby she is cradling. If the droid is the Mother, the baby grows up to be Daughter, played by Clara Rugaard. The film wastes no time in telling us what happened, and it is nothing that we haven't seen before — a human extinction event happened 24 hours ago, there are thousands of embryos stored in the bunker and one droid. Zero humans. When an embryo is chosen and incubated, we get the helpful message — Humans on site: 001.
Sputore's film is a sci-fi that plays out like an inversion of some of the genre's best recent films. Consider Duncan Jones's Moon. (Spoilers for Moon ahead). We have Sam Bell toiling away as the lonesome labourer on the moon with only the helpful computer GERTY for company. By the end of the film, everything changes. Sam Bell on the moon is not the Sam Bell on earth. As Sam Bell on the moon becomes more self-aware than ever before, he realises that he is simply one of several clones of the real Sam Bell who is living a comfortable life on earth. Or consider the more idiosyncratic Ex Machina from Alex Garland. Ava is close to gaining the intelligence required to outwit not one, but two humans. In both films, it is the artificial intelligence realising something wicked and brutal about the human condition. In I Am Mother, this question is taken further, and the roles get reversed to an extent. We don't see an intelligent, self-contained system designed by humans like in Moon. Neither do we see humanity's ugliest proclivities projected on to the man's creation like in Ex Machina. Here, the Mother, the droid, is the caretaker. The human, the Daughter, is cared for, educated and trained. But what is all this for? What is the Mother's larger purpose?
I Am Mother, written by Michael Lloyd Green, doesn't want to surprise us. It takes the beaten path in terms of storyline but boasts of some inventive flair on screen. We learn that the daughter is schooled, gradually and systematically, on all walks of life — everything from fitness to pop culture to philosophy and decision making is fed to her. During a lesson, she's asked, "Don't you think every human has intrinsic value and equal right to life and happiness?" The Daughter shoots back, "I did last month when you were teaching Kant." The Mother insists that all this training is really to see the progress of herself and not that of the Daughter's, the import of that statement dawning on us much later in the film. By then, the inevitable happens — the Daughter having grown up in the bunker meets with another human, an injured woman simply called Woman. That's the first fellow human being the Daughter encounters which reshapes everything she has learned inside the bunker so far.
A lot of themes wrestle for attention in I Am Mother. There is, of course, the question of ethical living, caring for the planet, climate change and other ecological imbalances for which mankind is solely responsible. The other more apparent theme is, of course, that of parenting and a parent-child relationship. It's not a coincidence that the teenage years are when the Daughter develops an ability to think for herself and begins to rebel. She questions old wisdom, wonders if adults are always right after all. That is when she starts sneaking around the bunker when Mother is recharging, that is when she snoops for more information and holds secrets from Mother. While the first half plays out like a relationship drama, the second half has more action and even shifts outside the bunker. The Woman played by Hillary Swank wants to help Daughter get out of her misery and is sure of Mother's larger plan. The Woman wants to be the saviour, luring Daughter into her care. The God-fearing Woman with her portraits and figurines of Christ is an evangelist, out to proselytise the Daughter as a way of rescuing her. There are several biblical allegories — from Adam and Eve and the Garden of Eden to the statement that a droid says to the Woman at the end of the film, loaded with mythical possibilities.
The film is also economical with its shot compositions. To bring out the absolute terror in the Daughter's heart, Sputore lowers the camera as the Daughter herself lowers her face to the edge of the table. We see only her eyes, taking in some disturbing facts she has just unearthed about her Mother. Or when the film shifts outside, the dystopian wasteland feels like a call-back to several well-known films — from Interstellar to Planet of the Apes (1968). The content in I Am Mother may not be new for its genre, but the storytelling is rewarding enough and leaves us on a potential cliff-hanger — we know the kid and teenage Daughter. Now, what is she as an adult?