Hilary Swank Takes on Maternal Machines in Suspenseful Sci-Fi Thriller ‘I Am Mother’

I Am Mother” begins with sequences of classic, paranoid science fiction. Sometime in the future a massive “extinction event” has depopulated Earth. In a shadowy “Repopulation Facility” a robot supervises the growth of an embryo which it then proceeds to raise as a daughter, even singing “Baby Mine” for bedtime. As we become more dependent on technology our fantasies keep wondering how the machines might come to dominate us. This new Netflix movie, directed with confined tension, covers old ground yet makes it very engaging. It ponders the implications of the machines becoming our parents.

Clara Rugaard plays the “Daughter,” raised by an A.I. robot called “Mother” (voice of Rose Byrne). Mother teaches Daughter the necessary knowledge for survival outside their facility, raising her under the premise that outside the air is toxic and humanity is gone. Once Daughter is ready, Mother plans to grow another embryo (she’s got many of them stored away), this time a male “Brother.” But a woman (Hilary Swank) stumbles into the facility, injured with a gunshot. Daughter is stunned to see another human, and to be informed that there might be more outside and that the air is actually fine. Mother grows alarmed and threatening towards the Woman, afraid of what she might tell or inspire in Daughter. The girl herself begins to suffer a crisis of doubt as the woman tells her Mother is one of a whole armada of robots who roast humans as part of an extermination project.

Director Grant Sputore makes his feature directorial debut with “I Am Mother,” after having mostly directed episodes for an Australian show named “Castaway.” He chose well. Set mostly in the dark corridors of the Repopulation Facility, Sputore combines an almost hallucinatory atmosphere with the suspense of a thriller. The screenplay by Michael Lloyd Green is reportedly inspired by the children’s science fiction book “The Search for WondLa” by Tony DiTerlizzi. Sputore’s opening scenes play like a tech fairy tale, as Mother reads to Daughter, teaches her to dance, feeds her and is a nearly picture-perfect image of robotic family bliss. Yet there is an eerie undercurrent, because they essentially live inside a laboratory for harvesting humans. The cinematography by Steve Annis, a veteran of many music videos for major artists like Mick Jagger and Pink, has a darkly futuristic sheen reminiscent of movies like “Prometheus.” Because the craft displayed by the filmmaker is so strong, they don’t need to rely on too many special effects or even action scenes. Instead of lazily resolving everything with lasers or spaceships (although there are some menacing drones), “I Am Mother” has real dramatic tension stemming from the Woman revealing another reality to Daughter, thus inspiring the girl to begin questioning authority. Like the best sci-fi there are universal metaphors all around. As Mother grows more menacing her sweet, maternal voice takes on an authoritarian vibe and we fear whenever she comes walking down a corridor or commanding Daughter to take a test. Because Hilary Swank’s Woman remains cryptic, without her origin being completely given away, we’re firmly in Daughter’s shoes, wondering what’s real and what’s not.

The human-machine relationship of “I Am Mother” is somewhat reminiscent of films like “Ex Machina,” where the machines become more than mere objects. Rose Byrne’s voice performance gives Mother a true, caring personality. Daughter represents anyone raised in a confined world, denied access to certain knowledge and then confounded when they discover it. Clara Rugaard is impressive in slowly becoming impatient and angry with the growing realization she’s living a lie. Even when the plot kicks into thriller mode, we sense the bond between girl and robot beginning to strain, with even a bit of heartbreak. A final showdown between Daughter and Mother has more pathos than you’d expect. Hilary Swank also demonstrates her skill in making us care for her plight, even when she’s given minimal dialogue. She uses the fact that her character can’t reveal too much or risk Mother’s wrath to build desperation, she just needs to escape and hopefully save Daughter.

Fans of old-fashioned sci-fi opuses still get more than just a drama inside a lab. Once the Woman and Daughter flee into a post-apocalyptic landscape the skies become cloudy and nightmarish, endless crops are overseen by some monstrous fortress and threatening drones search for intruders. It looks like “Arrival” but the scheme is out of “The Matrix,” we as a species have become chattel to metallic overlords. Sputore doesn’t overdo the dystopia however, preferring to linger on simple yet haunting imagery like storage vessels laying like corpses in the sea, Daughter feeling the ocean touch her feet while staring at an empty horizon. Sputore does deliver some scenes of expert action, like Mother chasing after Daughter or the Woman facing off with the robotic parent, but this is a director uninterested in flashy explosions. Even Mother’s actual intentions are slowly rolled out within the narrative, so the terrifying implications have more impact than if they were just shouted around amid crashing debris.

“I Am Mother” is a strong, compact tale with images that announce Sputore as a director to keep an eye on in this genre. He never lets the machines take over the story, as they do with so many other films boasting higher budgets. Instead he’s keenly aware that what’s more interesting about an apocalypse are the people and machines living through it.

I Am Mother” begins streaming June 7 on Netflix.