Feature Article

How Netflix's I Am Mother Takes A Unique Approach to A Classic Sci-Fi Conflict

Maybe Skynet just wants a hug?

For as long as there have been computers, people have made stories about them destroying all of mankind. This usually happens either because the machines see humans as a threat to their existence, or because they see us as obsolete and want to take over by killing us (and honestly, who can blame them?). Netflix's newest sci-fi movie, I Am Mother, tries to go a different route.

I Am Mother follow a girl referred to as Daughter (Clara Rugaard) who is being raised in an abandoned post-apocalyptic bunker by an artificial intelligence named Mother (voiced by Rose Byrne). Mother isn't programmed to kill humans, or even to raise them, but we see her learning how to take care of Daughter through trial and error, trying new things every day. The movie dares to ask: What if the machines really did want to help future generations of humans?

GameSpot had the chance to meet with director Grant Sputore and star Hilary Swank, who plays the mysterious Woman, after the film's world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year. Now that I Am Mother is out on Netflix, this feels like the perfect time to discuss it.

As it turns out, Sputore based his take on the post-apocalyptic on something that is very real. "One of the huge turning points in artificial intelligence development these days is that it is not programmed," Sputore told us. "From what I found in my research, the new kind of software creation system called Machine Learning allows the machine to program itself via trial and error and almost natural selection. It tries stuff and sees if it works, and then adapts, essentially. The biggest dilemma is how you get the machine to appreciate a human life, so you don't end up like most dystopian sci-fi movies."

"It sounds like what a mother does," Swank chimed in. "Mother is faster and smarter, but she's grappling with the same sorts of questions mothers do, like defining right and wrong and teaching their children to value life."

Indeed, without going into spoilers, the character of Mother is like few other AI characters in movies. She seemingly cares for the human she's raising, and even doubts her own actions when it comes to raising Daughter, the only living human in a bunker with a large supply of human embryos. Though initially a happy relationship, things start going south when Daughter starts getting curious about the outside world, and Mother tries to steer her away from the subject. That all changes once Woman (Hilary Swank) somehow enters the bunker and starts giving Daughter a different version of history than she was taught. I Am Mother feels like a big-budget movie with a giant scope, despite there being only three characters the entire movie, which was very much intentional.

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"That's the way to make this as a first film," Sputore said. "Sci-fi isn't really the type of film you normally do as a debut feature, but I've always loved sci-fi films, so I had to do it. The film had to be as contained as possible while still sneaking in as much scale and big ideas as possible. We just happened to make the space feel really slick and stylish, and the cool robot helped a lot."

That robot is the titular Mother, which is voiced by Rose Byrne but played physically by Luke Hawker inside a practical suit, which was made by Weta Workshop (Lord of the Rings).

"From the outset, I wanted to do Mother practically," Sputore told us. "The robot is one of the leads in the movie; I didn't want to risk going CG when it can take the audience out of the film. We were lucky enough that we just sent an email to the people at Weta Workshop and they were interested in the script. Having them on board was a huge relief."

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Though we are meant to sympathize with Mother, at least from the outset, Hilary Swank's character, Woman, constantly clashes with Mother in how to raise Daughter and what to tell her about the world. And Swank is in full Terminator 2 Linda Hamilton mode for most of the film. "It is a story of survival," she explained. "Where Daughter and Mother are in a confined sci-fi thriller, my character is in full post-apocalyptical mode. We don't know what she's gone through, but you know she's seen some awful things, and doesn't really trust Mother--or anyone, really."

When we think of great sci-fi movies featuring artificial intelligence, they're usually trying to kill all humans. But what we see in I Am Mother is different. Grant Sputore thinks that's because the relationship between humans and machines has changed from what we imagined in the '80s.

"The machines usually have animosity towards their creators and see them as a threat," Sputore told us. "Today we have a much more symbiotic relationship with technology, where we are interwoven with and rely on technology. When artificial intelligence emerges, we hope that it'll be a collaborative and beneficial experience for both parties. That's what I think is fresh about this movie--that we have an AI that does respect and love humanity, even if it's a complicated relationship that we explore onscreen."

I Am Mother is out now on Netflix.

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Rafael Motamayor

Rafael Motamayor (@RafaelMotamayor) is a recovering cinephile and freelance writer from Venezuela currently freezing his ass off in cold, grey, Norway. He likes writing about horror despite being the most scary-cat person he knows.
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