Netflix was born as the sun was setting on the DVD market and quickly adapted to the virtual reality of streaming content. Original movies (dubbed Netflix Originals) should have been a great opportunity for Netflix to challenge traditional film studios, but the streaming giant became stuck in the straight-to-video undertow of the past.
Back in the day, that appellation hung like a stormcloud over titles with cheaper B-grade movie aesthetics and formerly bankable stars now on the decline (projects from Jean-Claude Van Damme or Steven Seagal after their mid-80s/early 90s peaks), or low-rent sequels to unglamorous hits when the headlining stars refused a return engagement. Netflix Originals are still largely movies that most Hollywood studios didn't want or wouldn't fund.
As an elderly curmudgeon, I have to point a wrinkled, accusatory finger at the kids today. People no longer seem to have overwhelming gratitude for refined things. Movies are "on demand", and as such, people rarely take the time to relish one piece of work before they are demanding and watching another.
It used to be that you had a few years in between films. Modern technology has sped this process up. What got lost? The lengthy period where scriptwriters and creative minds thought up fresh new ideas, on top of other epic musings. The time required to help nurture the films into greater stories with deeper and more extravagant ideas. The cultivation of details and storyline. Now, you don't even have to wait a year before someone is trying to pump out another sequel or entry in a series.
Netflix is built on that kind of "content over quality" ethos, which is why Netflix Original science fiction offerings are mostly trash like 'The Cloverfield Paradox', 'Spectral', 'The Titan', 'Mute', 'IO', and 'TAO'; or interesting Tarkovsky-lite messes, like 'Annihilation'.
However, things appear to be changing. Netflix has started to outbid the traditional studios for movies with a lot of buzz - 'Roma' and 'Okja' are good examples of this. It seems like Netflix's A.I. has realised that you can't simply release a deluge of movies and expect the majority of them to be high-quality. Sometimes, being selective and nurturing one film at a time can have the best results for the future of your brand.
This brings us to Australian director Grant Sputore's cheesily titled debut film, 'I Am Mother'. On the surface, there's not much that separates this film from any number of other resourceful science fiction flicks with similar themes, from Caradog W. James's 'The Machine', The Duffer Brothers' 'The Hidden', Andrew Martin's 'Capsule' and Steven Gomez's 'Kill Command' to Luke Scott's 'Morgan' and Leigh Whannell's recent 'Upgrade'.
On-screen text informs the audience that a mysterious extinction event has left the world decimated. A Boston Dynamics-style robot (chillingly voiced by Rose Bryne, 'X-Men: Apocalypse', bodied by Luke Hawker) activates in the UNU-HWK Repopulation Facility, a high-tech laboratory. The robot is tasked with replenishing the Earth's population using 63,000 stored human embryos and we watch as the robot picks one and ages it into childhood.
13,867 days later, the child, simply named Daughter (newcomer Clara Rugaard) by the robot, develops into a highly intelligent and gifted teenager. The robot, which she calls Mother, tells her that it will awaken the other embryos when Daughter is ready to help raise them. According to Mother, mankind destroyed itself while turning the outside world into an uninhabitable wasteland.
An idyllic existence of study (Daughter is skilled in everything from ballet to mechanical engineering), morality tests and binge-watching episodes of TV from the 1980s is interrupted when a wounded survivalist hard nut (credited as Woman and played by Hilary Swank, 'Logan Lucky') hammers her fists on the vault door. Through subsequent interactions between Daughter and Woman, the girl learns that the outside world is not what Mother made it out to be.
The sterile facility where 'I Am Mother' is set never really becomes anything more than a coldly clinical location, but Mother herself hits higher marks for impactful design. Portrayed by a practical suit, Mother's physicality appears exactly as intended: vaguely human-like, with uncanny grace, yet retaining a piston-powered stiffness reflective of its robotic origins.
There is a brutal economy not only to the robot's design but to the design of the film itself. Most of 'I Am Mother' takes place in a vast but increasingly snug bunker underground, in a few rooms, with just three characters. The script is tidy and efficient, with almost every tidbit of information serving either as foreshadowing or payoff. When the camera lingers meaningfully on a row of locked drawers or Mother's damaged hand or a fire axe later on, it's to establish the tools that are going to become significant as the story progresses. For the first hour at least, 'I Am Mother' is an escape-puzzle game of a movie (not unlike M. Night Shyamalan's 'Split'), where every object and every casual hint may become important later, especially when assembled in unlikely combinations.
The technical craft on display is all in service of the film's mission to hammer home its ideas about female agency and servitude, creating a hauntingly oppressive world for its trio of female characters. Writer Michael Lloyd Green has woven a fully realised world designed for discomfort, one that makes the characters' twitchy anxiety feel earned and authentic. Like '10 Cloverfield Lane', this is a film riddled with hidden prisons lurking around every corner, threatening to trap its already claustrophobic women into even tighter spaces.
This is an escape-puzzle game of a movie, where every object and every casual hint may become important later, especially when assembled in unlikely combinations.
'I Am Mother' apparently draws its ideas from such sci-fi touchstones as James Cameron's 'The Terminator', Duncan Jones' 'Moon' and Alex Garland's 'Ex Machina'. Of course, Ridley Scott's 'Alien' most famously named its artificial intelligence Mother. There is a little of Stanley Donen's 'Saturn 3' sprinkled in there, too. The film uses these inspirations in thought-provoking and sometimes surprising ways - you can't help but think that Hilary Swank would make an amazing Sarah Connor. Swank at once varies and complicates the dynamic between the two human leads, even if Woman's role is the least developed of the three. Still, the psychological grounding that Sputore achieves here provides more than sufficient ballast for the harrowing final moments, which send the movie in an appreciably wilder, more unhinged direction; rarely has "out of the frying pan and into the fire" felt simultaneously more and less apt as a description.
There is no arguing with personal taste, or with viewers who walked into the film expecting something specific, and were frustrated when they didn't get it. But any claim that the ending of 'I Am Mother' doesn't fit the movie doesn't hold water. It takes the story in a radically different direction, and parts of it strain credulity. But ultimately, it only expands on the themes developed in the first two acts. As outsized and strange as the ending is, it still fits precisely with what's gone before.
There are some points in 'I Am Mother' where the lack of budget does start to show, particularly in the CGI-heavy post-apocalyptic outdoor scenes, but these aren't the main reasons for you to see this film in any case. Despite a few minor flaws, 'I Am Mother' manages to build a believable, claustrophobic computer-controlled world, and through its gentle, innocent lead character, poses some thought-provoking questions. If science could create artificial beings indistinguishable from humans, could A.I. be programmed to raise them to be better than us? Second, and more disquietingly: if these beings were more intelligent than us and raised on coolly ethical robot logic, wouldn't these new humans also be more humane and compassionate than we are?
As technology edges closer to our bodies, and the notion of genetic engineering and artificially intelligent drones begin to feel less outlandish, these age-old questions on the ethics and impact of science take on a more urgent dimension. 'I Am Mother' explores them with intelligence and style. Not only is it by far the best science fiction film to emerge from among the multitude of Netflix Originals, but cult gem status surely beckons.
Note: I have a genuine gripe about the release model of 'I Am Mother'. The film opened at Sydney Film Festival on the same day that Netflix made it available for streaming, sneaking it onto its main menu. A promised limited cinema release has been withdrawn. While I enjoyed this film, I can't help but think that another low-budget movie might have used that festival slot as a springboard for a larger cinema release instead of just a quick revenue cash-grab for Netflix. Hit me up on Twitter @JakeChatty if you disagree.